Film Eye: Marnie/The Soft Skin

Notes on cinema inspired by historical images by Dan Williams

Marriage in film – Hitchcock’s Marnie

This month I am focusing on two films which were shown as a double bill at the Bloomsbury Curzon cinema in London recently: Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) and Truffaut’s The Soft Skin (La Peau Douce) (1964). The double bill was programmed because of a new documentary about the famous interview with Hitchcock conducted by Truffaut.
I want to consider the films in relation to images of marriage from our collection. These images tend to present marriage in a way that suggests endurance and stability through time. In both films, however, the main marriages depicted are driven by crisis and trauma. In Marnie, the Sean Connery character Mark, marries Marnie (played by Tippie Hedren) knowing that she has a troubled history including acts of theft, but goes on to discover on their honeymoon that she is repelled by his physical advance. And yet he is remarkably confident in his ability to diagnose the underlying unconscious cause of Marnie’s resistance to him and her history of crime. Ultimately, their marriage as well as his money and knowledge of psychoanalysis allows him to transform her life because he is able to observe close at hand her psychological distress. Perhaps then, the film ultimately idealises marriage, especially since Marnie’s problems are attributed to traumatic events in the dysfunctional liaisons of her mother, who gave birth to Marnie at fifteen, and was later a prostitute. However, there is enough resistance from Marnie through the film to suggest that marriage itself could mask deep emotional conflicts. In comparison the image from Etruscan times is an idealised picture of harmony.

Marriage in film – Truffaut’s The Soft Skin

The below image, which presents an idealization of marriage, bears comparison with the opening of Truffaut’s film. A close-up of hands uniting is the first image in The Soft Skin, although in this case it is two sets of hands. The start of the film shows love and domestic joy for the main character Pierre, and his wife, Franca. However this is rapidly eroded when he is tempted to have an affair with an air stewardess, Nicole, on his trip to Lisbon, where he is giving a public talk on Balzac. Truffaut’s use of camerawork, editing and real locations dynamically represent the progress of the affair. This is in contrast to the many images through history which idealise the vitality and power of the married couple. Take for instance the image of a chariot, or the knowledge conveyed by the figure’s hands in the statue shown above.
Wedding couple in a chariot, 4th cent. BC. ©Prisma/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Wedding couple in a chariot, 4th cent. BC.
©Prisma/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Psychology in marriage

In contrast to statues, paintings and other still images Truffaut revels in change and movement. On at least two occasions, it feels like the camera is resting on a character’s face as if to freeze it in time, only for a sudden movement of the character to remind us of the energy and instability of the film. Episodic actions accumulate to show how the main character’s life becomes more complicated, juggling mistress and wife. Just as the narrative of Marnie drives towards a terrible hidden trauma, in the The Soft Skin emotions intensify and the self-destructive elements of the situation are shown to inevitably take over. Like Hitchcock, Truffaut injects drama and suspense using everything at his disposal including emotive and suspenseful music; but perhaps the comparison between the directors is strongest in their shared concern with the underlying psychology of characters who are ripped away from the comforts of bourgeois existence.

While the Ancient image below appears to put man and woman on an equal platform in their memorial forms, both Hitchcock and Truffaut use the language of cinema to exacerbate conflicts between their male and female characters.