The Soft Skin
The film will be indecent, completely shameless and rather sad, but very simple.
– François Truffaut, letter to Helen Scott, July 1963
It has fallen to certain movies to reveal to us the heartbreaking tenderness of an intimate affair – where what is at stake is not simply a lustful itch, but a bid to save a soul or two, an attempt to renew the old élan vital. François Truffaut's The Soft Skin is one of the most remarkable films of this kind – not least because it also plumbs the dry moments and dead ends, the incommunication and melancholia, the out-of-phase disalignments of love’s eternal campaign. Carole Le Berre refers, in her François Truffaut at Work, to the film’s “quasi-mathematical precision in the representation of desire and its impossibility”.
At the same time, The Soft Skin marked a definite rupture in Truffaut’s career, and his evolution as an artist. As Jean-André Fieschi noted at the time (Cahiers du cinéma, no. 157, July 1964), it is a work that refuses the overflowing charm of his earlier successes (especially Jules and Jim, 1962) – there is no longer a widescreen dazzle to Raoul Coutard’s cinematography here, rather a less sparkling, if no less superbly worked, monochromatic scale – plunging, instead, into the icier waters of a “self-critical redefinition”. Fieschi even detects a return to the “salutary viciousness” of Truffaut’s 1950s writing for Arts (recently assembled by Bernard Bastide in the eye-opening volume Chroniques d’Arts-Spectacles 1954-1958); for him, The Soft Skin sits with a group of contemporaneous, more evidently “modern” films that explore, in various ways, the virtues of negativity: Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), Alain Resnais’ Muriel (1963) and Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960).
The director himself insisted on this critical aspect: although clearly modelled on some aspects of his own life and behaviour (as later biographies have underlined), The Soft Skin takes a strict distance from the male “hero”. (Fieschi notes that, where Truffaut’s often harsh writing addressed itself directly to filmmakers rather than general readers, now as a filmmaker his critique flows to the central fictional characters.) The device of ellipsis plays a major role: the main character’s public speeches are either “diverted” from (by cutting to other, simultaneous action) or skipped altogether. It is also a film of immense restraint, especially on the level of the direction of actors, which at moments approaches a “Bressonian” blankness and functionality – mixed, as always, with the Hitchcockian syntax of the POV shot.
The story poses the character of Pierre (Jean Desailly) – an extremely weak, cowardly and evasive celebrity literary scholar (!) in his mid-age – between a passionate, fiery wife, Franca (Nelly Benedetti), and a younger mistress, Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), who he meets in her work as an airline hostess (although – recurring and possibly psychoanalytic Truffauldian obsession – she tells him they almost met once before; there are no pure “first times” in his cinema of encounter).
Much of the slow build-up of this triangular situation reveals Truffaut, for the first (but far from last) time in his career, in a Jacques Becker mode – a model-director he revered. The texture of the low-key incidents is woven from mundane, even banal, routine gestures and rituals; turning lights on and off, riding elevators, placing keys in doors, dialling phone numbers, filling a car with petrol and watching the numbers on the pump roll over.
All such actions are carefully stylised in space and (especially) telescoped in time – observe the treatment of the many driving trips, whether out of town, or to and from the airport – but none are symbolic in a heavy-handed way. Expressive, yes, but the mood and meaning always inhere in the physical action, à la Becker at his best – backed up by George Delerue’s magnificently lyrical but equally restrained musical score. And the (in this context) exotic locations of Lisbon or Reims have never been rendered so minimally – or drably.
As Jean-Louis Comolli would write four years later (Cahiers du cinéma, no. 205, October 1968, p. 57) on the release of Stolen Kisses (1968), grasping the nettle of this style while misrecognising it (in my opinion) as a “radical change in Truffaut’s approach and his conception of cinema”: “The concern for realism is liquidated in favour of a credibility owing only to the singular force of the film’s own total coherence”.
Eventually, The Soft Skin spares us none of the pain or confusion inherent in this triangular situation: Nicole’s embarrassment and awkwardness as she is shuffled around secretly and kept waiting, alone in dingy hotel rooms or being rudely propositioned out on the street; Franca’s rising hysteria level as she makes passionate love to her husband in a last-ditch attempt to hold their marriage together. The tipping-point comes when Franca discovers (in a clever plot contrivance) the photos that Pierre has taken of Nicole and himself. At that juncture, Soft Skin unexpectedly but satisfyingly shifts to a plateau of melodrama (Truffaut ended up suppressing all obvious “foreshadowing” of the all-important hunting rifle – now it just appears in the family closet); reviewers of the time evoked, in the light of this surprising finale, the already then semi-forgotten “boulevard” plays of Paul Bourget (1852-1935) and especially Henri Bernstein (1876-1953), who Resnais would later revisit (with extraordinary results) in his extremely faithful adaptation of the 1929 Mélo in 1986.
Much of The Soft Skin’s plangent poignancy comes from the fact that so little of what really goes on in the hearts of its protagonists is ever really avowed or discussed openly by them. Indirection, misdirection (through lying), evasion, clamming up are always the preferred modes of contact. From the reticent, withdrawn and secretive figure of the director’s semi alter ego Antoine Doinel (in instalments from 1959 to 1979), to the full-blown repression and explosion of passions in The Woman Next Door (1981), this pervasive unspokenness provides a profound key to the subterranean tensions that draw Truffaut’s œuvre into a tight, overall unity.
We often sense a hide-and-seek, this discreet but ever-trembling tension in Truffaut’s cinema: he makes films to approach pain, amour fou, death, grief, fear, anxiety, suffering, depressive melancholia – but also to manage them, contain them. He approaches the sun with sunglasses on. (Just as Pierre often camouflages himself in hat and glasses.) But if there is such classical restraint, such tact in Truffaut – observe the polite prelude to the first sex scene, where Pierre runs his finger along the contours of Nicole’s face in the dark – there is also the reverse effect: a simple insert shot, unremarkable in many other films, can register as a significant eruption of super-charged emotion. Likewise, merely a subtle acceleration of rhythm in the alternation of camera set-ups (as in the extraordinary scene of Pierre fondling Nicole’s legs as she sleeps) wields enormous affect.
Let us look at a rich scene from The Soft Skin – one that deserves Fieschi’s label of “algebraic precision” – in this light. Pierre has rushed to the airport in the hope of catching Nicole; an overhead plane signals to him that he has missed her, and that he may as well drive back home. But he enters the terminal, anyhow, to write a telegram – a passionate declaration of his devotion, and of her overwhelming role in his life (“I’ve become a new man”), which ends with the words: “I love you.” The way that Truffaut treats this simple sequence of actions is very telling.
As Pierre enters the airport, the shots follow The Soft Skin’s standard pattern: three images record the banal actions of his walking, getting a ticket, approaching a counter. But when a lap-dissolve ellipse takes us to the telegram that he handles, and on which he will write, everything quickly becomes more stylised. Delerue’s music languidly builds in layers of chords – a suspension-effect that Ennio Morricone also often uses. The first dissolve inaugurates a series in which, for once, strict narrative economy (despite the evident time-abridgements) seems secondary to the effect of the moment: the leap from him writing the name “Nicole” to the view (closer up) of him inscribing “I love you” has an immense, even unexpected, expressive power. After a shot of Pierre reading, yet another shot of the telegram allows a scansion of the entire text. This insistence, the literalness or spelling-out of such detail – similar to the by-play with mixed-up numbered hotel door keys earlier on – is more than the plot (in any Hitchcockian-Langian sense) strictly requires. Yet another shot of the telegram has an odd narrative pretext: Pierre adds a superfluous dash between the last word of the text (“aime”) and his own name. And it is on this precise shot – in an image-sound overlap technique prevalent in Truffaut – that the scene hinges: Nicole’s voice is heard off-screen. The editing moves faster now: she is walking, talking to a friend; he calls to her, she stops and notices him.
Then comes the real shock of the entire scene: a close-up insert – the fifth time now that we have been shown this page – of the phrase “je vous aime”, which motivates the following close-up of Pierre, but is itself, in a strictly classical sense, unmotivated: the character is not looking, from far or near, at the object/prop which is this telegram. A secret plot action (secret in that it is neither seen nor known by Nicole) instantly follows in the same shot of Pierre: a quick pan shows his folding and pocketing of the note. Nicole and Pierre approach each other slowly, in a dance-like movement – but the music has ended, Raoul Coutard’s camerawork has a deliberate, cinéma-vérité bumpiness to it, and the everyday register is returning: the soundtrack is filled with the dull murmur of flight announcements. The final shot of the scene, under a dialogue exchange of banal pleasantries, shows the terminal point of Pierre’s previous, private gesture: presumably without looking (because he fumbles a little), he swiftly takes the telegram from his pocket, scrunches it up, and bins it. A chapter in this histoire d’amour has been closed, and the emotional force or intensity underpinning it has been both, in the same current, unleashed and contained.
It’s curious to see how The Soft Skin has invited, even from its specialist commentators, a certain condescending scorn. One widely consulted book on the director's career (Don Allen’s Finally Truffaut) informs us with certainty that adultery is a "cinematically hackneyed subject". Fieschi took an oblique view on this thematic subject matter: “Adultery” – to which he gave a capital A – “is not an idea here, but the scrupulous sum of a particular number of definite, localised actions: the precise object, for once, of a film’s mechanics, an essay on the complete representation of a mode of behaviour, from first reflex to possible conclusion”. Fieschi’s own conclusion is bleak: “What remains are not archetypal truths, but small truths, i.e., small lies”. But is Truffaut’s film (and his œuvre in general) so devoid, in the final count, of sublime amorous passion? And why should we be more resistant to this subject of adultery than any other in the annals of fiction? Is it because the Eternal Triangle somehow reduces life to the level of a cheap, trashy soap opera? Ultimately (and here I depart strongly from Fieschi), we have to take that soapie dimension – the “old-fashioned melodrama” – of love quite seriously.
Who wrote the Book of Love? That old doo-wop song expresses both exasperation and admiration that someone, somewhere, foresaw so perfectly all the inevitable steps, stages, phases and levels of the typical love relationship. Truffaut had an especially keen investment in telling the ever-variable stories in that Book of Love.
© Adrian Martin December 1997 / March 2012 / March 2020