Originally published in Film Digest no. 28, December 1967, pp. 11-22. Republished with the permission of the author.

“All art is life; some life is art”

My first response to Truffaut’s La Peau douce is to declare the greatest personal admiration – and leave it at that. The film all but defies critical judgement (I say this despite the numerous critiques which have been published – few of them unreservedly favourable – and the one I am attempting now).

Critical judgements are made on schematic representations of life; they judge art, not life. La Peau douce to a great extent is able to immerse us in the flux of experience without the mediation of aesthetic conventions.

The things we respond to in the film – the people (just because they are people), their feelings, their relationships – are encountered and evaluated along lines of inference operative in life rather than art. Their emotional rapport, whether or not it goes deep, is that of persons rather than of characters, of “times together” rather than scenes.

The first step in the critical process (since it is a criticism that is being attempted) is to substantiate – or, at least, justify – the personal enthusiasm by appeal to some general condition. The beauty of La Peau douce? It has no form, no conditioning structure of aesthetic receptivity. Its beauty is the beauty of life being lived, for what that may be worth to each of us. The art of François Truffaut? It is rarely to be sensed in the film, though it can be deduced – by examination at the moviola clinic. It is not an aesthetic factor mediating between the work and the viewer.

The cinema of fiction, the eye turned storyteller, has ever been disengaging itself from the literary mode of infusing the imagination, though more by stealth than manifesto. (I do not regard the work of Eisenstein – magnificent and epochal though it is – as liberating in this regard. His editing style gave pronounced attention to the principle of each shot as a conceptual unit and emphasised the transitive and emanent qualities of its images. The result was the evolution of the syntactical system amenable to the sensibility of the typographical culture.)

Peau Douce

With La Peau douce, the cinema of fiction has crept ever closer to the point of no definition, where the division between responses to life and responses to the artistic representation of life no longer exists.

Such a division still does exist, but it can no longer be detected by the aesthetic devices and categories of evaluation which are necessary and sufficient for the appreciation of the traditional arts. Most tyrannous is the concept of the story (not the narrative in abstraction, but a conceptual approach to the whole which conditions receptivity to the parts). Traditionally, this has become a formal entity, well nigh indispensable – 20th century innovations notwithstanding – with a formally prescriptive existence of its own. A need is seen for the components of the work to conform to it.

Whilst they permit of many varieties and much experimentation, their conventions have become so familiar, have so long, so widely, gone unquestioned (how many critics still think it meaningful, even proper, to ask what a film is about rather than what it is!) that they reside in the sensibility of most of us as an underpinning sense of “rightness”. (We can all catch ourselves judging in terms of “too this”, “not enough that”, unacceptable, inappropriate, unestablished, incongruous, incoherent, obvious, etc., etc., when the appeal is to some superstitiously observed story value.)

Thus, characters and their development, events and their outcomes, issues and their siting, are validated by reference to an overall structure. They are encountered as parts, not wholes. That is to say, their depiction may present them as complete on their own terms, but their claim on attention is justified only in relation to design, a “story” of which they are parts. Even where the structure is not wholly perceptible except in retrospect – as in most realistic works, and in “suspense” entertainments – its culminating sense of rightness is anticipated. The issues raised may go unresolved, but the action of psychological interest will find some schematic closure. Our sense of propriety, of assurance even, will be anchored in art rather than in life.

This is true of the austere documentation of the best neo-realism and the imperturbable humanism of Ozu, even of the insolent, utter mastery of Godard. There is a sense of resolution expected and found, in the most disconcerting, arbitrarily motivated behaviour of those unclassifiable individuals in À bout de souffle and Bande a part, the most doggedly authentic vicissitudes of Bicycle Thieves, the final section of Paisa and the most serenely uneventful lives of Tokyo Story and [An] Autumn Afternoon.

It has been traditionally held that all art is to some degree symbolic. (Language, of course, is necessarily symbolic in its relation to its referents; pictorial representation, whilst not essentially so, has been in practice – even in trompe l’oeil). The motion picture, with its capacity for imitation – for the naturalistic extreme in its fictional semblances to reality – had not entirely eliminated the formal element. Certain conventions of action and milieu and even conventions of technique are useful short cuts to immediate apperception of what is happening, as anticipators of what is about to follow, as reinforcers of what has happened. Think of all the cues of familiar gesture and expression, not only gross theatricals but quite slight details, whose emotional import can be “read”, just because they are conventions. (The same behaviour in life would be less certain of interpretation, their conventionality rendering them suspect.)

There are objects, places, sounds, which by the very fact of their introduction announce their significance. They have no significance in themselves, only in relation to an intellectualised scheme. Lighting set-ups and set decoration (even the distribution of furniture), camera moves, framing and cutting on dialogue cue (sometimes even cutting against dialogue), once they have become entrenched in familiarity, can assign roles to otherwise “neutral” items of behaviour and milieu.

All such effects, by breaking up the perceptible locus of the action and regulating the attention to the contributory detail of the moment, by dislocating the detail from its experiential field and encoding it in a formality of perception, actually caricature reality. They increase the viewer’s passivity, heighten his expectation of being presented with the material in formal arrangement, and decrease both his opportunity and incentive to react to the material as he would in life, by making his own inferences and selecting his own emphases without the aid of conventional signals (1).

While Godard and the naturalists scorn the use of the conventional object-as-symbol triggers of apperception, they are not free of abstractions. There is still a “psychical distance” between the viewer and the material of the film. From the naturalistic films it is possible to generalize about contemporary or even abiding aspects of the human condition, as exemplified in the particulars of the films. Many of Godard’s achievements are such that they are not amenable to generalisation, but there still applies a sense of apt conclusion, a literary – or otherwise intellectualised – standard of the formal rightness of things. It may take some effort, but it can be resolved. Even though the actual conclusion can’t be assumed, perhaps not even guessed at, the anticipation of it – the assurance that there is an artistic programme shaping the end – still acts as a binding force (2). Truffaut, in the main, offers no such solace.

La Peau douce is not free from abstractions. But the abstractions have to be made about the film. They are not in the film.

The concept of overall scheme, and the corollary abstraction of character, interfere with a full and open response to La Peau douce, and certainly skew judgements. This seems to be the explanation for Dom Costa’s complaint that more information is needed about the preceding history of the marriage of Pierre and Franca Lachenay, in what is otherwise an extraordinarily stimulating critique. Similarly, Vivien Curzon-Siggers makes a number of brilliant remarks, which operate partially as judgements of the persons (especially perceptive on Nicole), but also carry the implication of unfavourable judgement upon the film (3). The failings of the persons in the film are transmitted as undesirable limitations to the film itself. And then there are the conceits of Gilles Jacob’s review (4), where he schematises the ironies of the passionate wife in black underwear (sin) and the cool mistress in white underwear (purity). This irony, like most abstractions, applies only if you acknowledge the work as one of a class of stories (triangular – this one equilateral).

Analysis is not the keynote of La Peau douce (and more than it is in Les 400 coups or Jules et Jim). We may evaluate what we see only in terms of personal impact, not clinical relevance. The author who “knows it all” before he begins will organise the elements relevant to understanding (thought of as synonymous with “explaining”) character. Artist and viewer could then be in tacit agreement that a systematic understanding is to be attained.

To the author whose concern is not with the abstraction we know as “character”, but with the occasions of personal acquaintance, everything is relevant. Aesthetic conventions do not mediate his consciousness. Many things may not be informative, not grist for the mill of character analysis, but they are equally valid to the process of “knowing” – as distinct from “understanding” – the person. Oh yes, I realise that the most vividly and intimately presented role never becomes a person. He remains a fiction, compounded of a number of talents. But the designation “character” – a literary creation – seems inadequate for the fictional individual whom we respond to through a range of sensitivity similar to that which we bring to our everyday contacts with people. (True, the contact can only be one-way, but intense sensitive observation is still possible.)

When the people and their interrelation are presented at this level of engagement, discussion of the film becomes predominantly discussion of people – not units of characterisation. Certainly, the events of the film are utilised to deduce the characters of the individuals, but the sorts of inference possible resemble those made about “real” people and their actions. I believe Truffaut would be satisfied to know that discussion about his film centres around the people depicted and nor around the filmmaker and “how he did it”. The artist has effaced himself from the work.

Is then La Peau douce entitled to be called a work of art instead of a work of science, or history? No. The clarity of our impressions of the persons of the film is due to the art of the filmmaker – his selection of events and his close observation of expression, gesture, utterance; his awareness of other people, and his capacity for making us aware. There can be no questions that this is an exquisitely finely judged art; but it is an art without conventions, without shorthand response narrowing devices and schemata between the subject and its representation. “Observation” applies both to the filmic record of the performances by Dessailly, Dorléac, Benedetti, and also to Truffaut’s elicitation of these performances. He has successfully purged those stereotypes which imaginatively shackle most filmmakers who set out to enact observable behaviour (just because they cannot see freshly; their culturally-conditioned preconceptions interfere with their perception of everyday observables).

Numerous films have been able to see truly – in part (5). La Peau douce seems to have effected an almost total incursion into the aesthetic blur between life as it is perceived through living it, and life as it is possible to be perceived through watching film – almost, but not quite total….

Peau Douce

Secure in the humanist centrality of his film, Truffaut exempts himself from total self-effacement in the relish of a few formal touches. There are witty cross-references on the soundtrack – the roar of a plane when Pierre and Nicole commence their first lovemaking; the blare of a police-van which follows Franca’s self-dramatising gesture at the recently tumbled-in bed; the whirr of a camera when she regards Pierre’s photo cards. The laconically inserted close-ups of the faces and organs of mechanisms in manipulation – elevator indicator, aeroplane dashboard meters, petrol-pump gauge, telephone dialling, petrol filling, motor-car driving – may distract us a little. We are conditioned to seek “significances”. To us these automated servants have become invisible by virtue of their familiarity and reliability. But to one of humanist sympathies from a remote age or place, such gadgets would be a remarkable and obtrusive aspect of our culture. Just to “see” them is to help set a perspective. When Pierre is left (stays?) alone in the hotel lift with Nicole, her eyes over the rims of her parcels smoulder and ignite the femme fatale stereotype signal. And when he humiliatingly dampens her chatter in the dim, respectable restaurant, she conceals the sting by turning her reflection in a knife blade – a subtle reminiscence of Dietrich’s superbly insolent exit in Dishonored. When Nicole tells Pierre their relationship has no future and is better ended (for he, poor blundering child of the internationally reputed intellect, does need to be told in such matters), they are standing at the top of a naked building, within walls of air, the city somewhere below. As she intones the dispassionate, unanswerable prospect, her face is the only area in focus, offset against the vaguest impression of the world underfoot, “out there”. It is a fine iconic rendering of a psychological perspective, but it is a perceptibly formal ordering of the data of the situation. A more naturalistic shot would have presented the physical background in greater clarity; the viewer would have had the opportunity to participate sympathetically and adjust the emotional focus for himself.

These few touches aside, the predominantly aformal corpus of La Peau douce is not without organisation. But in the sense of the viewer’s relation to the work, the organisation of the story’s elements is not imposed on them. A serial pattern of causality is seen to emerge from the elements, but only as a feature of our retrospection, as is the way in our lives.

Our sympathetic “participation” in the events depicted can become so complete that there is no sense of story. The what-happens-next tension of narrative can become entirely subsumed into the dynamics of the moment. There is no development, only envelopment. (It is possible to speak of development as relevant to the film’s people and their relationships, but not to “story” and “character”). There is no story. Stories are in the historic mode; it is part of the explanation of our detachment that they are always in the past tense. Even a story that is being enacted before us in the present is heading to an ending pre-ordained by the form of the story itself (6).

The film has no external propriety by appeal to which what happens next “ought” to happen. La Peau douce is not a tragedy. It may have the emotional content of tragedy (the sense in which the press saturate the term), but it does not have the form of tragedy.

Later events are not more revealing than earlier; there is no introduction, no climax, only sequence. The breadth of response can scarcely be broadened, it is the response we bring to our own affairs. (Can is be deepened? Ah, there we must needs look to the tragic form.)

Consider: in what would way would our knowledge of, our reaction to, our judgement of, Pierre Lachenay be transformed if the film ended with him looking down on Nicole’s departure? In what way is our impression of his relationship with Franca modified by the concluding sequence? Of course, our information about Franca would be reduced, but to what extent would our impression of her be realigned? If any part of the film were removed, could it be said that the validity of any other parts of the film would be weakened? No, it seems to me.

There is no ontological balance to be reset, no “dramatic logic” to be invalidated. There would be an impairment of comprehension to some degree, but this would not be crucial. We don’t evaluate other people’s interest to us in terms of how well we understand them.

Literary man addresses his art to a standard: “What, ultimately, do men live by?”, and then plunges in. Movie man sues for the opportunity to be involved in humanity, regardless. When the opportunity comes (none too frequently, it must be lamented) he does not need to send to know for whom the bell tolls. He may come to understand as well as witness empathetically the experience of others; he may come to question the root of his own beliefs; but such revelations are nowhere contained in the film. To have them, he must work at the immanent meanings of his art as reverently as he works at living.

Consequently, much of what he encounters will not be entertaining, but it will be the raw stuff upon which the intellectual disciplines must draw. People need not be bad or otherwise blameworthy in order to be unpleasant. (“It’s all relative, man!”) An individual may be truncated of personality, preserved in a cocoon of intellectualism, self-absorbed and unself-critical, timid and superficially gracious yet basically arrogant. I can judge the person, may not choose his company. Yet the artist in film can absorb me in him. I can judge the art by how well it allows me to discover that person.

Literature deals in characters; the reader must supplement with unverbalised particulars from his own store of sympathy, imagination and sensuous experience to give the author’s creation the semblance of a person. Cinema presents persons; the viewer must deduce character.

The existence of the people of La Peau douce seems to extend beyond the bounds of the film, it is only our acquaintance of them which stops there. Even in the sense in which the people of Godard’s films are “over and done with” in the films, our concern for Truffaut’s people is ready to go further. Other films could be made about Pierre and Nicole and Franca. They have been observed by this film; they have not been defined by it.

Michael Campi (7) finds it hard to sympathise with Lachenay because he relinquishes his daughter much of the time and fails to understand her position. Many others may respond similarly, though it seems to me a severe judgement. Few will identify with him, though some of us may squirm at the spectacle of part of ourselves in Lachenay’s complacent timidity and unwitting arrogance. Women, I suppose, will alternate between mothering and scorning the weak bastard.

Discussing silent film in his Theory of the Film (8), Béla Bálazs remarked that the introduction of the printed word caused a decline in the skills and nuances of conversation. He described the process as the human face becoming illegible. It was his hope that the cinema would revive the art of physiognomic interpretation. Instead, the silent film predominantly formalised the network of facial and bodily expression. The sound film, though not entirely free from redundant discursive exposition, has the potential to re-sensitise a typographical culture’s scanning of the human countenance with collaborative stance and gesture.

The nature of the film medium permits contemplation as well as (not in-place-of) involvement. Jean Desailly’s Pierre Lachenay is an article of wonder. We have seen Lachenay’s counterparts. Their fragments are to be found in combinations throughout our urban civilisation – some more, some less, congenial than Pierre. He is without malice, intellectually sensitive and yet socially insensitive, courteous and yet grossly self-absorbed. He is smooth, plump and well-groomed; to one accustomed to the denizens of metropolis, he conforms to the tribal insignia of the white collar slug – a man tied to material comforts, complacently swaddled in routine.

Pierre Lachenay “at home” has an equally well-groomed wife, though feral of eye and stringy of limb; he has a well-groomed pre-pubescent daughter and a well-groomed, expressionless dilettante’s apartment. He edits a literary publication, and enjoys a modest international reputation in that field. The office enjoys a street nameplate and occupies incongruously modest chambers. (To me, the one shot embracing both features is merely informative. Audiences saw the incongruity as humorous.) Very little warmth vibrates at the margins of this life-bound decorum.

However, the plump unharrowed face can undergo transfiguration on significant occasions: a childish light of pleasures suffuses face and carriage when expatiating on his beloved Balzac to a new listener, when he is motoring with an air of liberation to Rheims with Nicole beside him, when he is skipping into place for their photograph together. (Why did audiences laugh at this? It was a rare unselfconscious moment when he shed the dignities of adulthood, masculinity, professionalism. He was happy. Who should laugh at him?) And when he is first seen at his office desk he is alert, attuned to his milieu.

Peau Douce

By contrast, he nowhere else looks so tripe-blown and doltishly prosperous as when Nicole breaks with him. Left amongst the desolation of his wishful needs, he pushes on his glasses for the support of familiarity, and they chime in with the homburg and the cushioned anonymity of countenance.

Pierre Lachenay inhabits a world insulated from the stress of strong emotion; his intellect ordains a vision of the world, liberal, tolerant, but geared to his own taste. Scratch that soft skin of amiability and you will find an oozing ego centre. He is a literary man – how typical of his species, I leave others to decide. Like some, he is vulnerable to the illusion that propositional containment of some aspect of reality is somehow to control reality, or at least to keep it at bay. Redemption by aphorism is the literary man’s vice.

He is absorbed in Balzac’s life in a way he can never be in the life of the beautiful and partly comprehending women sitting alongside him. To quote Sacha Guitry is to give an explanation. To have been asked a question by Gide is to be confirmed in the importance of his own reply. The seemingly innocuous self-deprecation, “I am not a cinema expert”, before his talk on the film of Gide is not without its snide aspect, but it also speaks truer than he knows – because he never could be. The path of the cinema is departing in parabolic curve from the intellectual package-makers.

He cannot say to his woman, “I love you”, but when she is not present he can compose a balanced literary passage to telegram to her. He can say “I love you” via the attenuated medium of the written word, but when she materialises unexpectedly he (characteristically) disposes of the message into a tidy-bin.

His caution, his affectional parsimony, are regressive factors, part of a sort of “withdrawal syndrome”, a condition which the film allows us to see, but does not tell us to see.

Even in his Lisbon hotel room, free from the inhibiting particulars, he cannot make his bold telephone call without turning off the light and fortifying himself in a claustral sort of darkness. When his boldness is rewarded, he rejoices with a light-switching tour of the apartment. (Perhaps his only moment of mastery – as distinct from ruling by default – is when his hand switches off the light her hand – the hand that had drawn him into the room – had just switched on.)

When they must resume their roles, their faces for the world to see, it is not callousness in him that fails to acknowledge and carry-over from the night before. With his inherent cognitive rigidity, ordering experience in packages, he is unable to “read” the possibility of anything personal in her pushing the match cover onto him. Last night she was lover, a person; this morning she is plane hostess, a functionary. Excited though he is by the realisation that this beautiful young thing is “interested” in him, he still must have the written number there before his eyes when he telephones her. (It is not only first-time jitters – he repeats the business of fussing it out into view.)

He is not beyond a little deception of his beloved; perhaps he even succeeds in deceiving himself when he says on the way to Rheims that he accepted the invitation to lecture in order to have two days with her. Or perhaps the deception was earlier: when they cannot find a place for a night of love, he comes up with the suggestion “Look, I have to go to Rheims….” Lachenay would belong to that type of man which needs the disguise for personal affairs as seemingly incidental on public affairs.

Lachenay’s self-esteem would suffocate in the absence of public favour. At the same time, he is pathetically uncritical of his subjection to “respectability”. The blind spot in his moral view extends over his relations with Nicole in a way that it probably never could with Franca.

He does not even pause to consider that his treatment of Nicole at Rheims, her relegation to camp-follower, is anything but unavoidable. Even alone in the company of his disciple he is ashamed to declare his situation, and dies the coward’s many deaths. Finally he sneaks back to find her weeping in undeserved misery and humiliation; there is genuine anguish in his “What could I do? I was trapped.”

The courtesy which operates so readily in public matters can elsewhere desert him: in small items such as the shot when Nicole alights from her side of the stopped car and must walk round to his, where he awaits her; and when they are frustrated in their search for a night’s kip, her hand reaches out to his in simple commiseration – he can only sit glumly, his hand still at the wheel. At the petrol station, her absence registers only after he has attended to the business of petrol-filling and mooning at the traffic, and then he looks around uncomprehendingly. When she reappears, having changed out of the trousers he so priggishly disapproved of, his acknowledgement of her submission is shallow, even patronising. (It is she who cuddles to him.)

He cannot reciprocate her encouragement of him in his own circle of interests; he has no equivalent for her gift (“useful at lectures”), or her attentiveness when he talks at length on his enthusiasms. She enjoys dancing; but he doesn’t – so that’s that. Of course, he doesn’t object to watching, rather enjoys it for a short time – though his attention turns to other things.

Truffaut, with fine judgement, sprinkles his observation of Pierre Lachenay with moments of sympathetic correlation: On his return from Lisbon, when he is secure again in the bosom of the wrap-around family car, there is encountered a chance view of Nicole with the pilot. It can have any meaning; whatever value we do give it will be in terms of Pierre’s reaction at that moment.

As well as little simmering glimpses of amusement at human frailty, La Peau douce has two moments of the most spontaneous laughter I have heard in movie audiences – most of whose merriment is influenced by a psychological “set”, a preparedness to be entertained. When Pierre escapes from his loquacious disciple and flees Rheims with Nicole, there is a glimpse of the earnest blundering dupe waiting at his hotel steps. The audience’s laughter has seemed expressive of an embarrassed but unusually strong sort of identification with Pierre’s mixture of relief triumphing over shame.

And when the respectable little luncheon for the visitor is interrupted by the announcement of a young lady (“you’re sure it’s a young lady?”) asking for Pierre, we seem to be breathlessly trapped with his “bad conscience”. The sudden cut to the frozen, uncomfortably close close-up of the nearest provincial lady’s naked stare, with the relief of its switch to objectivity (despite the subjective camera placement), releases an unconditioned shout of laughter.

Some may be inclined to see Pierre as having a moment of truth when Franca says à propos of their lovemaking, “You must loathe me”, and he replies, “I loathe only myself”, with a complete absence of rhetorical flourish. Although he is not one who needs must apportion blame for his own misery, I hesitate to take his statement literally – just because he is a literary man. I suspect the dominant factor in making his reply was an almost automatic sense of literary aptness, independent of psychological accuracy. It is not that words are cheap, but for him words have an existence and an appeal which sometimes overrides their usefulness as expressions of fact.

Franca takes her place in La Peau douce in her own right, not merely as a means of approach to Pierre. Because she is not encountered in the film in as much detail or variety, and because similar personalities as hers are not encountered as frequently in society, audience reactions to her may diverge considerably. There are those who will see her as a victim. Yet it seems to me that though she may be in neglect by Pierre, she is not in submission.

Franca is a passionate lady who has contributed to her own emotional marooning. The immediate external signs are in the coiled intensity of movement and carriage, the glittering eye, the mouth with the promise of a snap like a pike’s.

Since we may trust the filmmaker’s selection to be without grievous distortion, we may regard the absence of intellectual dedication or extra-familial interests as significant. Her deferring to Pierre’s matters is early revealed for the fair-weather facade it is when he is hunting for a paper he needs quickly; she has been reading it (at least, she had taken it to read; and one suspects only to avoid being one-upped); she joins his rushed search, and turns up the paper – but, of course, it’s the wrong one; he frets around clucking “Merde!” and she quickly drops the show of wifely concern, blasting “Find your paper yourself!” The irony of his hurrying to see Nicole does not absolve Franca. Behind her facade of helpfulness there is an indifference to her life partner’s deep interests which she refuses to admit, preferring clashes of annoyance and recrimination rather than a declaration of non-alignment. The public pretence has become a private pretence.

Unlike Pierre’s and Nicole’s, Franca’s personality is such that when hurt, she lashes out at the world. Someone else must be made to suffer equally. Allied to this “blame” complex she has a capacity for self-deception and distortion of facts which induce a sense of persecution. She conceives of personal relationships in terms of property rights (this extends to her child), and she is prone to dramatise her position. Prognosis: an explosive combination.

When she magnanimously insists that Pierre take the painting which had been his gift to her, he demurs out of understandable delicacy. Her self-depriving gesture volatilises into abuse with disconcerting rapidity. After he has left, her friend asks what he wanted, and Franca gesticulates melodramatically towards the bed. Her self-deception seems quite complete; she would probably be indignant at the suggestion that it was she who had initiated sexual advances and accused herself of being despicable (which, of course, he had to deny), that it was he who had remained inert while she could be seen making preparations like rolling up the partition.

When their arguing becomes heated, she reproaches him for fear he (not they) will wake the child – Sabine is not easily woken – then he’ll wake the nurse. She probably deludes herself with pronouncements like “I won’t be alone for long” and “I don’t like ambiguous situations”. Characteristically, she relishes the telephone where she can dramatically break contact as soon as she has fired her broadside.

The keynote of her life is denial – of herself, or of others.

Some people may wish to say that the diverse impressions of Franca are because of her complexity, compared to Pierre – it is the shallow pool that is the most transparent. But in which case, Nicole, that marvellous object of skin-deep contemplation, should be the most limpid of pools. Is she, however?

We can only surmise her motive in originally yielding to Pierre. She is presented only in reference to her times with Pierre. Apparently pliable but not passionate in her sexual style, of slight intellect but respectful of learning (or perhaps merely tolerant of its display?), it seems feasible that she was flattered by the attention of a minor celebrity. Nevertheless, she is the more confident partner in the relationship: in the elevator ride after the late drinks, she lets her eyes play over him bemusedly; it is she who slightly precedes him along the corridor and draws him into her room when his courage might have failed him; and it is she who gives a phone number. (Later, when he tells of his separation from Franca, he regards her steadily while she continues to look away.)

Her sweetness in seeking to please him is no doubt genuine: she overlooks his boorishness or administers deserved rebukes so softly that he may disregard them; she affects to listen with interest to his intellectual expatiations; she discloses her sex life when he quizzes her – though perhaps not entirely truthfully – that peck on the throat the pilot gives her is off-handed to the point of intimacy, and not a disconnected intimacy); she is uncannily understanding in giving him a loophole when she asks why he has never declared his love – “Is it because you don’t want to spell it out?” (this – to a literary man!!); she knows him well enough to sense his wish to telephone his wife; when reduced to tears by her upsetting, miserable evening in Rheims, she expresses no reproach, although the direct cause is his unwillingness to acknowledge her before a mob of dilettante —-s; she is prepared to risk the wrath of concierge and parents (which can be fearfully lacerating for a “nice girl”).

Her ingenuousness is utterly practical: when he seeks to excuse himself – “I’ve had a tough week”, she replies: “But I thought you wanted to separate” – he explains, “It’s hard to break the ties and habits of 15 years, etc…”, she says matter-of-factly, “If that’s how it is, you’ve really goofed”. (More than once, Nicole’s easy slanging comes incongruously from a statuesquely pure countenance.)

For all her sweetness and indulgence of Pierre’s concerns, her tenderness can seem a little off-hand. There is a remoteness – not so much frigidity, as an insufficient capacity for warmth. Her assertion that she can do without it for months strikes one as a well intentioned while lie.

Silken Skin (La Peau douce)

Most curious, and possibly a clue, is her response to Pierre’s preliminary love play: she lies passive, her own hand at her breast; her lips remain closed even when the pulse in her throat is perceptible throbbing (no accidental camera set-up, this – the line of the throat is nicely drawn against a dark field). For both practical and metaphorical reasons, the parting of the lips would have been expected at this stage; instead, they remain set in a faint, self-absorbed smile…

And if Pierre plays the callow voyeur with his camera, what are we to make of her dancing display? There are hints of narcissism, and the suspicion that for all her willingness to be imposed upon, Nicole will never make a life’s companion to anyone but her own self.

Nevertheless, she is responsible for the most marvellous moment in La Peau douce, and one of the most memorable I shall ever see. At the country-inn breakfast table, she directs Pierre’s attention to the two women in leopard skin blouses. Does he know what they say of women who wear leopard skin? He, complacent pampered booby, waits patronisingly to be told. She leans forward, that mysterious, exquisite countenance in an epiphanic moment of humour – mischievous, luxuriant, incalculable, and confides, “They like to make love”. Maddening!!!

Endnotes

1. I am not seeking to argue that dominant formalism or stereotypic compression is an inferior kind of cinematic art. After all, there is a case for seeing Josef von Sternberg and Raoul Walsh as the best directors in the American cinema of the thirties. I am inclined to see von Sternberg as perhaps the greatest “man of the cinema”, at least until the advent of Godard.

2. This is not the case with the Antonioni trilogy. Despite their formal conclusions, they have no interior compulsion to be resolved, to find completion. However, Antonioni maintains a distinct psychical distance because of the formalism of his apperceptive techniques. His characters never become persons; we experience them differently (that is not to say more deeply or less deeply) from the individuals of our acquaintance.

3. Dom Costa, University Film Group Bulletin [Melbourne], no. 2, 1967; Vivien-Curzon-Siggers, University Film Group Bulletin [Melbourne], no. 2, 1967. [These details are taken from the original article that includes incomplete citation information.]

4. Gilles Jacob, “La Peau douce”, Sight and Sound vol. 33, no. 4, Autumn 1964.

5. I mean “truly” in relation to what might be comparable in our own experience: such a method of validation operates for the people of Les 400 coups and La Peau douce – they have their counterparts. But in Jules et Jim we meet a problem: Catherine certainly, and her men perhaps, are incomparables.

6. It is true that a legion of repetitions of the same ending is locked up in the rolls of celluloid entitled La Peau douce – but this is a fact of technology. It is not a formal prescription inherent in Truffaut’s work of art entitled La Peau douce.

7. Michael Campi, University Film Group Bulletin [Melbourne], no. 2, 1967.

8. See Béla Bálazs, Theory of the Film (Character and Growth of a New Art), trans. Edith Bone, Dennis Dobson, London, 1952.

About The Author

John Flaus began writing film criticism in 1954, and was sacked the following year when he wrote that On the Waterfront was right-wing propaganda. He has been writing film reviews intermittently ever since. These days he makes a living as an actor, script editor and occasional lecturer.