The Soft Skin – Truffaut recommends fidelity in marraige – or else. (film review)
In a rather lovely interview with Francoise Truffaut about The Soft Skin, he speaks of the creation of several of the scenes. The elevator scene, when a bourgeois male and female flirt, he describes as the most important scene in the film. Immediately following the elevator flirt scene, Pierre goes to his room. As he walks the corridor to his door, he sees shoes on the floor, left out to be cleaned, and notices pairs of male and female shoes together. When he arrives at his room, he has decided to make contact with Nicole, the woman he will have an affair with. Crucial to his attraction to Nicole are the fact that she is with a possessive male (macho masculine ideal) while she flirts openly with him, and the fact that he is alone and he will get away with “it”. And this is Truffaut’s point. All the trouble Pierre suffers in the future (and there is as much trouble as you can imagine) is because of this one moment of vanity.
Truffaut also says he wants to break open the stereotype on “affair” films, and make the wife (Nelly Benedetti) a seductive, passionate, beautiful woman and the mistress a quirky, funny woman. By choosing Françoise Dorléac as the mistress Nicole, any hope of her being quirky and funny is gone, but what remains is, as Truffaut calls it, “a Daddy thing.” Pierre’s (played by Jean Desailly) foolishness is that he falls for a woman who is primarily with him because he is semi-famous and has nothing to offer him but flattery and good looks. As soon as he has ‘conquered’ her, he begins to look at other women. Nicole, of course, wants to be the object of his desire – her foolishness is to be flattered by his fame and intelligence. The scenes of the two of them together are flat and sexless, whereas the scenes of Pierre and his wife, a woman of intense passion, great beauty, and his intellectual equal, are exciting and emotional.
The truth is Pierre doesn’t really know why he has an affair. But we do. He has an affair because he is stupid. He is so foolish he can risk everything for showing up a far more masculine male in an elevator and having a pretty woman look twice at him. And we continue to cringe in horror as Pierre ruins everything. He takes Nicole away for a lurid weekend, after making her ridiculous promises about how much he loves her and that he will always be there for her, only to find that he is so busy with his speaking and dinner engagements, he can’t spend any time with her. Nicole, of course, wants to be “seen” with him, so it doesn’t suit her at all to be cast aside so he can protect his reputation. Pierre runs away when colleagues corner him, instead of making a declarative sentence. When his wife confronts him after he has been found out, she tells him she will forgive an affair, she just can’t forgive him walking out, instead of coming clean, he walks out without saying anything. His wife gives him many opportunities to reconcile, but he is so wishy-washy, he just keeps walking away without committing to anything. The end of the film symbolizes the kind of extremity that has to be revealed in order to just get Pierre to act or make a decision about anything.
And this is Truffaut’s point. The auteurs of the French New Wave despised the bourgeoisie with their manners and their suppressed feelings, and Truffaut’s main criticism of Pierre (who he confesses to being quite mean toward) is that he doesn’t have “the balls” to have real feelings, make proper decisions, or show true respect for anyone in his life. Truffaut’s point is also that you can’t sit on the sidelines. Life will deal you a hand, and you are either in the game of a victim of it. It is possible that Pierre made an error with his marriage – something his wife wants him to confront. But he won’t. He wants to keep his wife hanging on a string, just in case this affair doesn’t work out. And why would this affair possibly work out? He chose an entirely wrong woman for him, foolishly thinking he could keep her enthralled with his own delusions of greatness. As soon as they are over the early moments where she sits enchanted while he talks about Balzac (just about the only word she can get in with all his grandstanding is that she has never read any of his books) and she flatters him by wearing the clothes he wants her to wear, as soon as she turns into a real woman with her own needs and demands, he begins to look around him at other women, and she notices – because she has a daddy complex and wants to be a muse to a great man. This is apparent very early on, but Pierre can’t make anything happen, so he can’t get out of the situation, even when Nicole is irritating and annoying him. As she says, what is the point of planning a marriage just when I irritate you the most?
But all Pierre can feel is guilt. So he has to marry Nicole, because of what he has done “to” her. And if he marries her, doesn’t that mean he loves her? Wont everyone, especially himself, be convinced he really loves her?
Truffaut reveals here, and I agree with him whole heartedly, the pathetic luke-warm pleasures of flirting and drinking as bourgeoise pastimes, of little value except to alleviate boredom when an individual has taken no responsibility for her / his right to feel pleasure and the joy of life. Pierre wants things to “happen” to him, so he seeks pleasure in stupid banalities like flattery and flirting, when real human exhilaration is achieved by the struggle to become more than you “are”. Truffaut always seemed a little passe to me before, a little like a victim of his own age, but in this film, he is timeless and completely on the money. We see it today – the use of destructive flattery and flirting to alleviate boredom and banality. It’s this boredom and banality that social media taps into so brilliantly. Our desire to flirt as if there were no consequences, and of course this flirting is all the more fun if there is actually the threat of consequences.
There is nothing more radical than the human creature willing to commit completely and fully to something in the full understanding that it has no meaning outside of what we make for it. If this is not what marriage (I mean true marriage) is, then what else can it be? What a refusal of the death drive? What a negation of narcissism to exist for a project one can build. Truffaut’s message is, the most important thing a human creature can do is choose a thing and then commit to being it. For the consequences of any other sort of “life” is death or the walk of the living dead.