Double Bill: Marnie (1964 – Alfred Hitchcock) & The Soft Skin (1964 – François Truffaut)

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In a few weeks time, Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut will be released.  It’s based on the cineaste bible that I have dipped into rather than read from cover to cover.  So I’m pleased, because now there’s a movie and I never have to bother!  Now I can appropriate David Fincher’s opinions and pass them off as my own.

Though on reflection of Fincher’s deep hatred of humanity…

In 1964, Truffaut and Hitchcock had completed their series of interviews.  If any direct filmic correspondence was to be made, it is to be found in the films made after 1962. Truffaut is a little dismissive of Marnie in the epilogue to his book, and this was the consensus for many years.  It is a relentlessly difficult film, one where Hitchcock’s pervy eye and regressive politics come to the fore.  So easy to condemn.  Marnie (both the film and character) is riddled with sexism; this is a woman who is unable to make a free choice without being watched, pressured or forced to betray her very nature.

From the opening moments she is defined by her looks – no wonder she changes them so freely.  Identity is a challenge for Marnie; unable to be herself, she adopts numerous masks to make her own choices.  Glorious at the start of the picture: strong, assured, colourful (who can forget that handbag?), all these will be dimmed by patriarchy.  The colour wheel will define Marnie; the red of her fear, the blue of her oceanic oppression.

As much as there is little that is easy about Marnie the film, there is little that is easy about Marnie the woman.  ‘Difficult’ is a pejorative used to reduce women (and celebrate the endless succession of deeply depressing male American television characters), but there is a sense that she is better than the simple reductiveness of Mark’s cod-psychology and boring monied existence.   What is exactly interesting about Mark?  Even the dead wife (cinematic shorthand for male motivation) cannot add shade to his nice, safe answers to a complex individual.  Marnie is messy, in a world, and a deeply controlled film, and we are all the better for it.

‘Bite me’ – her only desire for touch is animalistic.  Perhaps even our cultured queer readings of her character aren’t enough.  Perhaps the only existence she actively craves is feral.  She will not be bound by humanity and the norms it has created over the millennia to impose a sense of peace through fear.  Hitchcock deliberately films her experiences of wildness (riding a horse) with a heightened sense of reality; consciously drawing attention to the rear-projection behind her beaming face. Her joy is impossible – it can only ever be a fantasy.  It remains, as her trauma defines her, a fantasy of childhood; of imagining she is an animal at play.  She later identifies herself as an animal captured in a cage – maybe even this is wishful thinking on her behalf.

For a consummate stylist, Hitchcock is capable of great moments of humanism.  My favourite moment in the film is when Marnie hides in the toilets at work.  I had a job once where I spent fifteen minutes each morning hiding in the toilets to avoid the monotony of my desk.  Marnie – whose life is so wrapped in meaning and symbolism (oppressive red flashes) – cowers in a cubicle to become ordinary.  Hitchcock had a grasp on reality…he just chose to reject it.  It was, after all, on this film that Hitchcock discovered Sean Connery’s perfect hairpiece.  He could have had a full head of hair, he just chose to be bald.

Marnie has been forced to live a life where she is unable to be herself.  She shifts identities, fantasises about animalistic urges, and sublimates herself into a frigid marriage to find some comfort amongst the inability to truly be/know herself.  No lovers.  “I’m not like other people” – quite.  Despite her fumbling (through lack of available language she can grasp at) attempts to identify as queer, Mark remains dominant.  He cannot perceive the world in anything other than his possessive sexual gaze.  He misremembers their first kiss as romantic rather than intrusive.  He makes promises of compassion that cannot keep once he desires her.  The threat of sexual violence hangs in the air whenever he is on screen (as indeed does whenever he played that other sexual psychopath, James Bond).  Hitchcock films him looming – an unstoppable force.

Her lips don’t part when they kiss.  She never gives herself to him; he takes (from) her.  “Will you be mine?” is his brutish proposal.  Marnie is not even a trophy, she is a fetish object, appropriated and possessed by the rich white man.  Mark will seek to “heal” her by returning her to the point of her initial masculine violation; but for her the catharsis is in the agony of putting down her horse.  It is the understanding that there is no possible fantasy in a life that forces her to accept and reject the inherent violence of men towards women.  It is impossible for Mark to be anything other than Mark.

It is difficult to do anything other than compare the two filmmakers; and it is somewhat inevitable that Truffaut will come up short.  Despite his desire to impose upon Hitchcock a kind of Catholic artistry, Truffaut was most taken with the tightly plotted thriller aspects of the master’s work.  Strange, that despite the long list of admirers of Hitchock’s work that exist amongst filmmakers (many of whom feature in Jones’ documentary) few would explore his artistry.  De Palma, Hitchcock’s most transparent disciple, was able to indulge in his use of the camera as storyteller, but few directors have followed in his exploration of the depth of frame.  Forced perspective, impossible sets, all ignored, in favour of tightly-plotted thrillers that have a slight sense of the perverse.  This is what the church of Hitchcock gives us year after year.

Truffaut was as limited by his masculinity as Hitchcock was.  The Soft Skin indulges in the male gaze from the very outset, and whilst the protagonist (Lachenay) in this film is not as malicious as Mark, he is still superior and possessive.  Ultimately they are always talking about what interests him rather than her.  He is a more contemporary man though, he will not force her to love him through violence and money; he will guilt her.  “I cannot live without you.”  Five words that whenever they are spoken in this world should be met with a shrug.

The same indifference towards the female perspective intoxicates the remaining film.  Lachenay’s wife is abandoned, and turns to murder.  She is unable to understand a romance that she is never able to observe.  Truffaut confers to the audience a position of power; we have seen it, and we are forced to recognise her as irrational.  Not for a moment are we allowed to acknowledge the deceit and betrayal she has experienced.  She is neglected by the narrative, a tool for the next and the next until we reach the closing credits.

Truffaut is content to explore modernity in a way that Hitchcock never quite came to grips with.  The Soft Skin is a film of television, pop music and planes that stands in stark contrast to Marnie’s ships and books.  For Hitchcock, the intrigue was beginning to be found in his characters minds; Truffaut was still concerned with plot.

The film’s finest moment is in the oppressive tension that occurs when our lovers attempt a romantic break during Lachenay’s speaking tour.  It has always struck me that the young man who greets (and obstructs) Lachenay looks like Truffaut.  He is a younger man in awe of a celebrated master.  Is Lachenay Hitchcock?  Did he seek in The Soft Skin to offer Hitchcock the sex he so desperately craved, and turned so maliciously upon Tippi Hedren?  Did he see that desire, that hunger, during the interviews?  The Catholic aesthete always desires more than they admit.  You can see it their eyes, and Hitchcock’s camera was always his clearest vision.

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