The Soft Skin
Francois Truffaut's The Soft Skin 1964 is a film about an adulterous husband whose affair with a beautiful young air hostess costs him his marriage and, at the end of the film, his life, but one could almost as readily suggest that the tragedy isn't so much diegetically present, as non-diegetically predicted. Just as we might claim that Godard's Contempt utilises Georges Delerue's music in such a way that the diegetic events merely seem to illustrate the tragedy that the music anticipates, so it is as if Truffaut does something similar here with the aid of black and white images that indicate a chronicle of a tragedy foretold.
Several things need to be said here. First of all Truffaut's film was of course scored (beautifully and significantly) by Delerue, and photographed by Contempt cameraman Raoul Coutard, a film made the year previously. But any hint that Truffaut has merely taken from Godard a tragic style is absurd. For, secondly, Truffaut's two previous feature films, Shoot the Pianist and Jules et Jim, also had a hint of this fatalistic sense of narrative foretelling, as if sadness permeates the image from the opening frame. If Godard possesses a strong sense of mock tragedy that links him to Brecht; Truffaut's tragic dimension would make him closer to someone like Thomas Hardy, no matter if Godard considered adapting Tess of the D'Urbevilles in the early sixties. This is central to the difference between the two filmmakers: Godard is undeniably a modern director, who if he harks back does so to move forward: he wants to take from Brecht that which he can use to create a new representative distance. His tragic dimension, whilst deeply moving, is still intensely self-conscious. Indeed maybe Godard's achievement is to move the viewer modernisticallyrather than classically. Truffaut remains a classicist, and a classicist of the 19th century, for are there not so many books of the period one feels Truffaut could have adapted? Could he not have directed Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Jude the Obscure - and was he not drawn to 20th century novelists who seemed to have, or did have, a foot in the 19th - like Henri-Pierre Roche and Henry James? These are books and writers Godard would be unable or unwilling to film 'straight'.
What we're proposing then is that Godard's sensibility is in essence agitative - how should we live, he seems to be musing, and how are we to read the many signs that clutter up our perspective on the world? Thus, he is constantly wondering, what is important and what insignificant - evident of course in the very aesthetic when his voice-over in Two or Three Things I Know About Her asks what image to show. Truffaut's problem has rarely been an impasse into the future, but much more the pull of the past: films like Anne and Muriel and The Green Room are meditative pieces where the central character's existence resides much more in a nostalgia, a yearning for the past more than the living present.
Now there is a key comment that ties into the apparently un-nostalgic but yearning The Soft Skin, where Truffaut says, in a Pauline Kael review of Anne and Muriel in the New Yorker, "once a picture is finished, I realize it is sadder than I meant it to be." This sadness we might propose resides in the 'tragically foretold', a cinematic form that ostensibly resembles what in theatre would be called the obligatory scene, where the nature of the narrative leads to an inevitable dramatic moment, and yet Truffaut works this expectation through less narratively than stylistically. For if Truffaut claims his films once finished turn out to be much sadder than anticipated, then this is obviously not a narrative - script based - sadness, but resides much more in the mise-en-scene and framing.
Kael, in a passing comment on The Soft Skin while reviewing Anne and Muriel, said there was a strong element of masochism in Truffaut's work: "in the portrait of himself as an older man...he saw only his own weaknesses." (Reeling) Godard begged to differ, suggesting in a film Truffaut made a couple of years later, Day for Night, that Truffaut was, in fact, flattering himself on screen. For Godard sent Truffaut a letter that "began with a ferocious attack on Truffaut's most recent film La Nuit amricaine - a film starring Jacqueline Bisset which took filmmaking for its subject." "Godard claimed it was a deeply dishonest film and called Truffaut a liar: 'Liar, because the shot of you and Jacqueline Bisset the other night [at the restaurant] is not in your film and one asks why the director [whom Truffaut plays in the film] is the only one who doesn't screw in La Nuit amricaine.'" The letter is mentioned in Colin McCabe's Godard.
So with two completely opposing perspectives on Truffaut's alter-ego, let us square this circle with the idea that actually there is a consistency between the two characters that resides not in ego aggrandisement or deprecation, but in a certain tentativeness, a tentativeness central to Truffaut's very image-making. While Godard is a great reflexive director, Truffaut is a fine reflective one, and his purpose has never been to show up a character's bad faith, but much more their capacity to live inside a moment that nevertheless contains the outside of that moment also. If Godard is the sort of filmmaker who would often put his images in the inverted commas of the form; Truffaut's containment of the diegeis comes much more through time: through time working on the characters, as we are aware of other moments outside of those that the characters are actually living. It might make sense in a Truffaut film for the director to be on the outside of the emotional entanglements since Truffaut often wants to show characters aloof to the centre of an experience. The filmmaker can reflect this; no matter if Godard claims Truffaut was himself seeing his leading lady.
Now, what makes Truffaut's image-making tentative lies in something of a paradox. Truffaut creates what critics have called 'privileged moments', and yet we can see that Truffaut doesn't quite let a character live in the moment: the privilege lies in the sense that an instance is lived and recollected simultaneously. We might think of an example in Shoot the Pianist where the central character, played by Charles Aznavour, walks along the street with Marie Dubois's Lena and it is that key moment where the couple moves towards intimacy. Truffaut emphasises this through what could ostensibly be pleonasm and overstatement. Moving from a head shot of the two of them walking, the camera tilts towards their midriff to show that Lena's put her arm round his, then cuts to Charlie looking besottedly at Lena, before cutting again to a midriff shot and back to a face shot. At the same time in voice-over we're told that she's taking his arm. Wouldn't a subtler filmmaker shoot the whole scene in one shot, and eschew the voice-over? Perhaps, if the filmmaker wanted the scene to exist in the one tense, but Truffaut's genius for the privileged moment, and what allows for the sadness his work contains, lies in a sort of temporal layering of that moment. It is as if the moment isn't so much seen from multiple angles, la an action sequence in a Sam Peckinpah film like The Wild Bunch, where it is intensified in its multiplicity, where the point is to register its momentousness - its intensification of the moment as present. No, in Truffaut's work the present is usually constantly bifurcating, as if there is as much a sense of the past as the present in the given image, even a pastness from the perspective of the future: from knowing that the present moment will create in the future a moment that will demand one look back with regret from that future into the past.
We can see this if we turn to the lengthy mid-section of The Soft Skin, where the central character, Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), takes his mistress, Nicole (Franoise Dorleac) with him to Reims. Though he is a well-known writer there to offer a few comments before the screening of a film, it is really just a premise to have a weekend away with his lover. However, it turns out that all sorts of obligations are in place when he arrives: a hotel room has been booked, the local worthies have been drummed up for a meal before the film, and there will also be a reception after it. How can the writer avoid all these obligations, and have a wonderfully romantic weekend with his lover? The answer is of course that he can't. There is a fine scene in the film where Pierre goes for a drink with an old friend who lives in the town while the film is playing, and while Pierre believes his lover is also watching it. Now just as they're leaving the theatre, Nicole stands in the foyer - it turns out that she couldn't get a ticket: the show had sold out. So Pierre, who can't acknowledge her, goes for a drink with the friend, while constantly looking out for his lover's presence. It turns out Nicole's being hassled by some would-be-seducer.
Throughout this sequence, we're not so much worrying about her safety, but much more about Pierre's emotional turmoil as he realises that this idyllic weekend is turning into its very opposite. It is as though Truffaut wants to take aspects of Hitchcock's suspense cinema, but not for the purposes of immediate tension, but for a reflective tension, the sort of tension that resides in knowing that the moment one is living is going to prove problematic in the near future. That is, the man who hassles Nicole isn't an immediate threat to her, it seems, but he is, if you like, a posthumous threat - we know it is a scene like this that will greatly exacerbate any tension between Pierre and Nicole when they're together once again. At one moment Pierre and his friend have a drink in one of the only cafes still open after nine at night in the town, and across in the square Pierre notices Nicole once again being pestered by the same man. What we see is Pierre held back here by nothing more than politeness and social decorum, just as Nicole is being troubled by nothing more than a pest. In each case, in Pierre's and in Nicole's, there is nothing immediately dangerous that they have to react to - Nicole needn't scream and Pierre needn't come to the rescue - but that makes the scene no less suspenseful for that. The tension resides in Truffaut's capacity to generate a tenderness within suspense that means the suspense can be without danger, and, if you like, re-temporalized. The problem resides much more in its after-effect; in how the lovers will deal with the situation where Pierre wasn't available when Nicole expected an idyllic weekend with him.
Another example of this 'tenderful' suspense takes place a little earlier; after Pierre first meets the town's delegation at the hotel, and he realises he's got to catch the shops and buy Nicole a pair of stockings. As he runs out of the hotel, we hear in Pierre's head "Don't forget my stockings..." just as we heard it earlier as he went into the hotel. This isn't so much an insistent refrain (he recalls the request more tenderly than Nicole offered it), but much more a reminder of the yearning intimacy he has that runs so contrary to the public self he's forced to present to the various Reims locals; locals who are generally presented in wide-angle caricature as they're introduced to Pierre.
But just as we suggested there is a re-temporalization in the situations, so it is as though Truffaut wants to re-temporalize the entire film. It is as if he wants to place it in an atmosphere that seems not just to contain the pestering moments within the context of Pierre's guilt and Nicole's irritation, so that we feel while the pestering is taking place our response should be much more with the argument likely to stem from Nicole's resentment afterwards, but also somehow that the relationship itself be contained by a wider problematic: the problem of affairs, per se. This could lead us to suggest there is a conservative argument at work in Truffaut's film, and maybe there is. But though The Soft Skin would seem narratively to show the tragic results of an affair, as the wife shoots her husband dead at the end, is there not a broader problematic at work: one that concerns the limitations of bourgeois life, yet a problematic complexly explored? For example, the film is very good on the need for tenderness and surprise in our lives, with much of the mise-en-scene and dialogue given over to showing its limited presence in bourgeois existence. Though Truffaut could be accused of showing provincial French life in an appalling light, as Coutard photographs the locals in cruel wide-angle close-up, and as the aforementioned friend constantly chastises the locals for small-mindedness and insensitivity whilst showing much the same, Paris life seems often no less parochial. Truffaut appears to have made his writer relatively famous and fted partly to emphasise the gold-fish bowl aspect of his life. Pierre needs not so much an affair with another; so much as an escape from himself. And yet what does he do but keep going to places where his very public presence is acknowledged: to Lisbon and to Reims? It is as if the affair isn't so much morally wrong; more a false diagnosis, so that what he does by embarking on an affair is to increase the pressure in his life, not dilute it.
It is this notion of pressure, or what today we would call stress, or perhaps hassle, that helps makes Truffaut's films simultaneously modern and melancholic. We feel Truffaut captures well a lifestyle that isn't quite jet-set but is undeniably successfully bourgeois. It is the sort of life that is full of obligation, expectation and low-key travel, and Truffaut, as Tom Milne astutely noted in Time Out, has "an astonishingly acute eye for the disruptions of modern urban living (the film is punctuated by gears changing in cars, lights being switched on and off)". At the beginning of the film, we see Pierre returning home to his Parisian flat, explaining to his wife that the metro wasn't working and how it was impossible to get a cab - and his flight to Lisbon is in forty minutes. Truffaut pinpoints this sense of hassle well in an early eighty-second scene in the apartment. Here in two very mobile shots, Truffaut shows Pierre busily getting ready to leave, while at the same time saying hi and goodbye to his daughter, hello and goodbye to his wife's friend, and hi to the wife's husband who will drive him to the airport. It is this constant sense of character movement, and movement frequently reliant not on oneself but technology, that gives Truffaut's film its air of modern immediacy.
And yet as we've stated above, Truffaut is a great melancholic, nostalgic filmmaker. The Soft Skin's greatness as a film resides in the way it plays the two apparently contradictory modes of stress and nostalgia off each other, and allows the pressure to build and, paradoxically, to release the melancholic. Truffaut wants the stress of contemporary living to provide the suspense of the film - as we've proposed in the scene where Nicole is pestered - but also wants to explore within this very low-key suspense the melancholic theme of forestalled intimacy. Pierre's false diagnosis lies in assuming that an affair will create a certain type of privacy in his life, when of course what it does is create still more hassle. Thus Truffaut generally doesn't film the adrenaline rush of the affair; so much as frame Pierre in relation to his desire for intimacy, his slight removal from the world. We notice this for example in the two scenes where Pierre presents himself to the public.
In the first, Truffaut shoots from behind the stage, where Pierre and a few others have just eaten dinner. The table is cleared, the other dinner guests leave, and Pierre is left, with the lights switched off, waiting to be introduced. The film then cuts to Pierre, after the speech, driving around Lisbon: Truffaut chooses not to show the speech at all. In the second scene, Pierre talks to the crowd in Reims, but Truffaut shoots it with a greater emphasis on trepidation than on egoistic pleasure. Before going on stage there are a couple of shots of Pierre peering out of the curtain, and one where he seems to survey the crowd. During the speech, he is shot like the proverbial creature caught in the headlights. As he quotes Pascal, saying that man's unhappiness stems from his inability to stay in his room, he also adds that he is frankly quite nervous, chiefly because he is talking in this instance not first and foremost of literature, but a film about Andr Gide. He confesses to knowing nothing about cinema but had the privilege of meeting Gide on a couple of occasions. However, this doesn't seem to be conventional nervousness. It is not so much stage fright as another example of false diagnosis; he seems like a man who is constantly losing private time to public expectation, to a sort of excavation of self that leaves him with no space - geographical, psychic, emotional - that he can call his own. When he quotes Pascal it appears the important part lies in the quotation itself and not in what he claims it illustrates. Is it not less about his nervousness, but more desire for a certain reclusiveness?
Pierre's feelings in some ways resemble those of Doris Lessing's central character in her great, early sixties short story of marital crisis, and bourgeois entrapment, To Room Nineteen, which came out around the same time as Truffaut's film. Here the central character, who is sensibly and happily married to a fellow professional, lives in a lovely large house and has four kids. Yet one day she finds herself filled with anxiety. "There she sat on a bench and tried to calm herself...But she was filled with tension, like a panic...All this is quite natural. First, I spent twelve years of my adult life working, living my own life. Then I married, and from the moment I became pregnant for the first time I signed myself over, so to speak, to other people. Not for one moment in twelve years have I been alone...So now I have to learn to be myself again."
Lessing says her character has to learn to be herself again, but we might add that she has to learn to be by herself also. However Susan ends up filling this void with voidness, demanding more and more time alone, and more and more she fills it with anxiety. She tries to find some Pascalian purity in the room of the title that she rents, but, by the end of the story, incapable of finding intimacy in it but only the void, kills herself. What Pierre and Susan have in common - though the story ends in suicide and the film in Pierre's murder - is the sense of accumulating public being to the detriment of a private self. Pierre's false diagnosis lies in the belief that he can find this private self in the arms of another; for Susan in a space that nobody else knows about.
Truffaut films Pierre's false diagnosis with a stronger sense of its falsity than the excitement that no doubt accompanies the affair. Thus in Lisbon, on being invited, after his speech, to lunch the next day with various worthies, he insists he can't make it because he's returning to Paris. Yet later that night, after he impetuously phones the air stewardess (Nicole) who happens to be staying in the same hotel (they bump into each other in the lift), and she phones him back, he agrees to meet her the next evening - thus apparently choosing to miss his flight. While they undeniably spend an engaging evening together - as they talk till dawn - what we may notice is that Pierre chiefly talks about his own preoccupations. This is not in a self-absorbed way, but nevertheless he speaks with a sense that what he needs in his life is to make what fascinates him intimate - over necessarily intimacy with another.
That Pierre is perhaps a little aware of this comes when he writes Nicole a note declaring his unequivocal love, and intends to leave it at the airport for her, only to scrunch it up when he sees her there and has a brief opportunity to talk to her. It seems that his need for tenderness is such that it is not especially about Nicole at all, but about his own emotional needs. Again this isn't especially self-absorbed; just part of his false diagnosis. Now shortly before writing this note, he has argued with his wife about her throwing out a newspaper with an article that he needed. He rushes to the airport, and Truffaut captures this movement between the space of the public world of his wife and his obligations, and the private world of Nicole and his freedom, with a clear sense of stress. In five shots from the time he slams his front door shut to the moment when he looks up into the sky at the airport and sees what he assumes is Nicole's plane taking off, we see Pierre restlessly, irritably determined to make it to the airport on time. For a man who looks like he wants less stress and commitment, what with a busy home life, a magazine he's editing and a high public profile, Pierre hardly seems to be moving in the right direction. The crumpled note seems to signify that sense of indecision.
The whole film appears to be about a misguided sense of intimacy, a point perhaps exemplified by the opening shot, which offers the tactile as we see two hands caressing each other, and in Pierre's constant switching on and off of lights, as though he's never quite sure whether to live in public light or private darkness. In one scene where he returns to his hotel room after seeing Nicole in the lift at the Lisbon hotel, he indecisively tries to find the right level of lighting for his feelings. As Pierre enters the apartment he turns the hall light on and then back off again. Then he puts it on again and goes into the bedroom area, and, with the lights in the room off, phones Nicole. After she suggests there is no point in them going for a drink he switches on the small lamp beside the bed. She then phones him back and agrees to a drink the next day, and we see Pierre going round the room as Pierre switches on all the lights. But at the end of the scene, with Pierre lying happily on the bed with all the lights on, Truffaut allows the image to fade slowly to black in a fade-out that seems to rob Pierre of his sense of happy anticipation.
Part of the brilliance of the film resides in its capacity to register simultaneously Pierre's emotional needs, the undeniable social hassles, and that overarching melancholy that makes us aware of the tragic impossibility of these mutual incompatibles. It is in this sense rather similar to Godard's Contempt. Both are impossible films, impossible in the sense that both Truffaut and Godard catch their characters in a world in which they cannot possibly exist on the terms by which the characters would like to live in them. They are possible worlds only in their imaginations: in time they prove mutually incompatible in reality. In Contempt central character Paul Javel wants both to be an artist of integrity and a man who can afford to keep his wife. In The Soft Skin, Pierre wants the domestic life of wife and daughter but also what he perceives is the intimacy of an affair. Thus, what both films want to capture is the foretold tragedy through not just the characters' incompatible goals, but also through an aesthetic that will reflect the distance between the characters' desires and the reality of their achievements, to create a style that sympathises with their yearnings but at the same time comments on the impossibility of their desires. Godard does so by making his film self-reflexive, by opening on the image of the camera, and making us aware that we're watching a film and the various permutations involved both in the character's impossible existence, and Godard's in making a big-budget film where compromises are expected on his part. Truffaut, as we have noted, opens with the image of a couple's hands caressing each other, a very different suggestion of impossibility but not at all inconsistent with Godard's. Godard's looking for the non-diegetic incorporation that is consistent with modernist film; Truffaut looks for a diegetic incorporation consistent with his more classical approach. Both, however, share this need to show the mutual incompatibilities of modern living.
In their book, Forms of Being, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit suggest that central to the tragedy of Contempt is not emotional or ethical, strictly speaking, but spatial. They feel both Paul and his wife disconnect from the space they occupy, and that their tragedy is that they do not see, feel and hear the beautiful surrounding spaces Godard films so eloquently. The tragedy foretold here is the characters' "claustrophobic self-absorption". In Truffaut's film the tragedy lies not in the limitations of space, but almost the misuse of light. Just as we commented on Pierre's insistent need to play with the lighting, as if trying to find the right mood for his feelings, so we feel Truffaut wants to dictate the light levels the way Godard dictates the spatial. Truffaut contains Pierre in a melancholic monochrome that always lends itself to feeling Pierre's need for intimacy but fretting over whether he's choosing the right mode to find it.
Just as we can say Godard contains his characters within a filmic space much greater than that the characters can see (Bersani and Dutoit suggest from the characters' point of view the film could be in close-up), so Truffaut offers a sort of black and white crepuscular that hints at an intimacy far greater than that which Pierre finds in life. This is a level of lighting beyond the stresses and strains of daily living: beyond the sort of hassles that an affair exacerbates rather than counters.
Yet, of course, Truffaut's lighting has nothing to do with expressionist cinematography. This is not least because it wants to contain rather than express: it wants to bathe the story in a shade that proposes a world greater than the characters, just as Bersani and Dutoit propose Godard frames his characters in a wide screen that beautifully contains nature, yet that the characters cannot quite see. As they suggest, "space becomes discontinuous when it is invaded by these foreign bodies whose inner habitat has the false extensibility of a purely psychic space." In both films, then, we can begin to see the tragedy that is foretold beyond the script: that it lies in the very image. Thus we can't just say the yearning is a diegetic issue, but also a formal one as well. As we've suggested, right from the beginning Godard makes the viewing experience in Contempt self-conscious, as Coutard's Mitchell camera moves towards the screen. Thereafter numerous camera movements propose the relative insignificance of the drama, and the significance of the world that contains them: exemplified, for example, in one scene where the various characters talk in a large, luxurious garden and the camera decides not to follow them but tracks behind the trees.
Now to conclude we will show that where Truffaut was never as formally challenging as Godard, nevertheless Truffaut's finest films - including Jules et Jim, Shoot the Pianist, The Soft Skin, Two English Girls etc - seem to contain a melancholy greater than the narrative, and that appears to be more than Truffaut simply filming that narrative well. When Truffaut claims that his films always end more sadly than he intended, it might be useful to try and work out in each film what it is that seems to give it that narratively transcendent air of pessimism. For obviously many Truffaut films end pessimistically: in Jules et Jim Catherine and Jim die, in Shoot the Pianist the character's lover is shot at the end of the film, and in Two English Girls the central character outlives the two loves of his life, neither of whom he ever decisively committed to. No, the melancholy usually lies elsewhere, perhaps in Truffaut's capturing of privileged moments that find a form to suggest that the privileged is contained by more than the moment. He suggests that life cannot easily be lived beyond the privileged moment, that momentous occasion that Truffaut films so lovingly, yet which he reflects upon as readily as films. How will Jules cope after the death of Catherine, how will Charlie survive another tragic loss in Shoot the Pianist, and how will Antoine move on in life after the freeze-frame that concludes 400 Blows? These are all indeed diegetic problems, or rather post diegetic problems - the character questions we're left with after the film's over. But there are also the formal conclusions: the freeze frame in 400 Blows, and the re-framing within the shot at the end of Shoot the Pianist. Here Charlie returns to the solace of his piano and we're shown Charlie's hands playing before the camera curiously reframes within the shot and we see Charlie looking into space with half the frame showing a blank wall that looks for all the world like an absent space - the sort of space proposing the absence of his lover. This isn't a symbol; just a suggestive reframing. Yet we needn't of course notice this, and it would be a stretch to call it an 'unmotivated' camera movement - after all, we move from Charlie's hand to his face. But it is often in Truffaut's 'classic formalism' that the melancholy resides. Interestingly, however, in The Soft Skin it seems to come less from the closing image, la 400 Blows and Shoot the Pianist, than the opening one. It lies in two hands - one hand conspicuously wearing a man's wedding ring on its finger - caressing each other in dim, intimate light, as Delerue's music proposes a tragedy foretold.
© Tony McKibbin