The Soft Skin (1964)

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Pierre is a famous, married writer who falls in love with a stewardess in Lisbon, and everything gets worse after that in Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin.

Pierre does that thing a lot of men do in older films when they lust after someone.  He stares at Nicole, making me uncomfortable but apparently not Nicole.  You can get away with a lot of sexual harassment when it’s written in the script that the woman will respond agreeably.  It’s something seen in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, and it’s also in a lot of Woody Allen’s films.  It’s really just melodrama.

Pierre falls for Nicole, and they get along well enough, but their behavior is very off.  At first it seems like she has no interest in him, but then suddenly she does.  Like Truffaut’s other films, the story accelerates, and it’s easy to be fooled by the story because it moves so quickly.

One moment you’re questioning how one character feels about another, and in the next they’re discussing moving in together.

So in this film, Pierre’s affair has drastic and sudden consequences.  His relationship with his wife, Franca, isn’t going so well, but she wants it to work so she suggests spending some time, just the two of them, in the country.

Pierre turns this down and instead invites Nicole with him as he gives a speech in the countryside.  Things become more complicated when Pierre must avoid Nicole while in the presence of friends and fans, careful not to expose his affair.  Nicole, understandably, doesn’t respond well to this, but Pierre puts her at ease and they continue to fall in (alleged) love.

At the same time, Franca discovers that Pierre lied about where he was, and it’s clear she knows something’s up.  Upon returning home they have a fight, and they decide to get a divorce.  Franca pleads for him to tell her the truth, that he was with another woman, but Pierre insists he was alone.  It’s the one opportunity he gets to make things right, as she says she might be willing to overlook it, as long as he doesn’t walk out on her (which he does).

Pierre moves out, but then Nicole breaks up with him, realizing things are moving too fast, and that married life might not be what she’s looking for at the moment.  Pierre decides it might be worth making things work with his wife, but she comes to meet him at a cafe with a shotgun and shoots him dead.  She then sits against the wall with a Mona Lisa smile spreading across her face.

When I was in driver’s ed, they showed us this film called Red Pavement or something like that.  I had been told by friends about this film and how gory it’s supposed to be.  It’s meant to show us the dangers of driving and scare us straight, I suppose.  So going in I was nervous with excitement about how crazy this movie would be.  It turned out to be nothing at all, but The Soft Skin is a warning about affairs the way Red Pavement was a warning (or supposed to be) about the dangers of driving.

In both cases, some things are heightened, not for the sake of drama, but in order to send a message to the audience.  The most heightened scene of The Soft Skin is the final one, in which Pierre is shot dead.  It doesn’t seem to increase the drama throughout the film, particularly since we never realized Franca had a gun or was capable of murder.  Instead, it’s just a little tag at the end to give the audience something to talk about.

That’s what melodrama is, though.  It’s people acting in exaggerated ways, spurred on by events that don’t necessitate such drastic reactions.  For example, people do have affairs and more often than not, they’re not shot as a result.

Apparently Truffaut read about something in the news that made him decide to write this ending.  But events like that in the news are more sensationalist than anything else.  It has the same effect in this film as it would on the news.  The film should be about everything that leads up to the murder, and yet people leaving the theatre are probably left talking only about the murder.

It’s another, somewhat predictable, tragic ending.  Each of Truffaut’s films up until this point have ended on a downbeat, yet this film has the most concrete ending.  In The 400 Blows, we were left wondering what would happen to Antoine after his escape.  It was safe to assume he’d have been caught eventually and punished.  In Shoot the Piano Player, Charlie loses his love interest, Lena, but he still exists, and the events of that film have driven him deeper into his shell, making us wonder if he’ll ever come out to see the light again.  Finally, in Jules and Jim, Jules is left feeling hollow after the death of his two best friends.  In each of those endings, the protagonist lives on through the tragedy.  Here, Pierre dies, and the tragedy is what could have been.  I didn’t find myself caring what happened to his wife, probably because her eerie smile at the end made it seem like she had accomplished what she wanted to do.  Really, the person to worry about is their daughter.

Like most films about an affair gone wrong, the problems are entirely created by Pierre.  The film has a tragic feeling from the beginning.  As Pierre is rushed to the airport by a friend, they speed through traffic, and Pierre doesn’t know if he’ll make his flight.  The music is fast-paced, like they’re in the middle of a film-ending car chase.

The music suggests there’s a lot more at stake there then Pierre simply missing his flight, and judging by everything that followed Pierre meeting Nicole, it’s safe to say there was a lot at stake.  The only thing is the music reflected some sort of omniscient perspective, rooting for Pierre not to make his flight.

Similarly, when Pierre lusts after Nicole, the music becomes very ominous and a bit chilling.  If you watch the film’s trailer, the narrator says Pierre is “a prisoner of his love and affections.”  This adds to the sense that he was never in control, so on the drive to the airport and in laying his eyes on Nicole, he’s playing with fire, and it won’t end well.

This film and Jules and Jim both show a man lose his life at the hands of a woman he once loved, and each film never makes it seem like there was a way out.  It’s a death spiral that started the moment Pierre boarded the plane to Lisbon and first saw Nicole.

The above trailer feels like a soap opera as well.  In soap operas, at least as I know them, it feels like there are a bunch of very passionate characters who will do anything to make sure they come out on top, and that means someone will have to pay.  There’s never a scene when all the characters get together, have a drink and voice their concerns.

It’s a world in which there are different life philosophies and perspectives, and one of them must come out on top.  I never got the sense that this film is making a bigger statement about life and what’s right and wrong.  It’s just kind of campy, and you’re waiting for the noose to tighten.

This film also has a lot of similarities with Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005).  It’s another film about an affair that leads to tragedy.  In Match Point, the main character Chris has an affair with his sister-in-law, Nola.  The affair becomes too heated, and Nola become a problem, so Chris stages a robbery and shoots her with a shotgun.  Chris conceals the shotgun with a jacket similar to Franca, and Nola’s apartment building in Match Point has an old-fashioned elevator that looks just like the one in the building in which Pierre and Franca lived.

So final notes… music seemed to play more of a role here than in other Truffaut films, at least as a device to foreshadow future events, and this film is more dramatic than any of his previous work.

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