Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Soft Skin

“I don't think you can be dealing
With the situation very well
You take a lover for a dirty weekend, that's ok
But when it's over
You are looking at the working week through the eyes of a gigolo”

Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian sang these lyrics on their 1996 album “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, and I thought of them as I watched Francois Truffaut’s 1964 film “The Soft Skin”, which is also about someone, married, who takes up a lover, and even attempts a dirty weekend with said lover, although only the most forgiving of people wouldn’t call it an unmitigated disaster.

But while these lyrics describe the film, they are also a tip-off to its problems, because whilst Murdoch lyrically describes the guilt and shame that can often follow a sordid tryst, when we try and zero in on protagonist Pierre Lechenay (Jean Desailly)’s emotions, we find ourselves drawing a blank. The same, too, can be said for the object of his desires Nicole (Francoise Dorléac), an air hostess whom he spots on a flight to Lisbon to deliver a talk on Balzac. And the less said about his wife Franca (Nelly Belledetti) the better; if Pierre and Nicole can at generously be described as wilfully enigmatic, Franca is a blank slate you can’t even draw anything on.

The central issue is that we cannot genuinely conceive of a single concrete reason why Nicole and Pierre go together. Well, I can on Pierre’s part; Nicole is an exceptionally beautiful woman, with a gentle voice that is at once caring and striking, and yes, she does appear to have exceptionally supple skin, or we must gather as much, from the sequence where she is lying supine in a little bed and breakfast, and Pierre undoes her stockings with all the care and precision of a technician rewiring a motherboard. But Pierre, unfortunately, seems like a stuffy bore, scared, imprecise, and not as though he’d make the most exciting lover.

Perhaps this is unfair speculation on my part, but the film gives us regrettably little to go on. A film like this lives and dies on the strength of the conveyance of the mental states of the central characters, and it seems to fail in that regard. It occasionally felt a little bit like certain scenes were missing or dropped; we just accept that Nicole loves Pierre, after a night where he talks about his work almost non-stop (he’s a literature professor), when I was wondering how she managed to stay awake. I was genuinely expecting the film to reveal her to be a femme fatale, but alas (although you could argue that the final scene of the pair in an apartment is an inversion of that trope). And the ending, perhaps startling for its days, is overwrought nonsense.

The film even gives us clues, to no avail; for example, a fair portion of the film concerns Pierre giving a talk on Andre Gides, which is acting as cover for the aforementioned dirty weekend. I believe this was no accident or random author, since Gides famously wrote “The Immoralist”, about a young man slowly doing away with conventional morality and succumbing to his most base desires; it cleverly frames the regression into incumbent ethical murk as the climactic victory for the protagonist.

If this theme is meant to be a counterpoint to the film, then it is ill-defined; if the book is meant to be a thematic bedfellow, then it is unconvincing because we do not know what Pierre is really thinking, whether he is enjoying his descent into immorality.

I realise now that I have spoken negatively throughout this entire review, and yet if pushed, I would recommend the film without question. Why is that, since it fails at everything it tries to do, and what it is trying to do is questionable? Truffaut, even when his canvas is half-baked, is a master of cinematic form. His innate sense of the frame and what to put in it is second to none. Even when we cannot buy into what is going on under the hood, on a scene by scene basis and from a cinematographic level, the film is compelling enough as it is. The film would work well watched alongside Shoot The Pianist, Truffaut’s unequivocal masterpiece, where emotional content and cinematic form coexist harmoniously, and The Man Who Loved Women, where Truffaut’s thematic motives are questionable, but nowhere near as muddled as here. In all three films, Truffaut shows a preternatural ability for what should be on screen and what shouldn’t, and how to edit in rhythm to a music that the audience just feels as the film goes along.

It’s just a shame he couldn’t conceive of an emotional base to match his stunning filmmaking. 

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