Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Francois! THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN

"She's got legs,
she knows how to use them." (ZZ Top: "Legs")

Sometimes a womanizer can be an obsessive compulsive at the same time.  Maybe that's what is at the heart of The Man Who Loved Women, Francois Truffaut's 1977 film which is not based on a book (could've fooled me, but besides the point).  Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner) has a fixation on women, all women, any one really who isn't under 15 or over 65 and has a pulse.  And while he may love them, or have some affection for them, or not after a while, he can't stop himself, even after (presumably) after he gets gonnorea from one of half a dozen women he slept with in the past week before being diagnosed!  He's something of a Ladies Man, yet he keeps each one in check with mementos, pictures, receipts, whatever, in a drawer in his apartment.  Some of them he might not even be genuinely attracted to, but there's always something that he might spot- a leg, a heel, a friendly face- that draws him in.  How he stops, or tries to stop, from being so compulsive with most women is to write a book.

And what material he can have!  Right at the start Truffaut shows us how cunning Bertrand is: he sees a woman with a particular set of legs walk by, and he must pursue.  He gets down the license plate but the secretary won't give her information.  He wrecks his own car just to find out her information from the insurance company.  This leads him to a rent-a-car company who also won't give her information.  Then another woman there offers him her contact info, and he gets in touch with her... her cousin, that is, and they meet, but despite finding her somewhat attractive he goes on his way without her.  And then that secretary from the rental-car place gets in his mind as he drives (literally, Truffaut makes a super-imposition of her on the sky as he drives).  Just another day in the life for Bertrand, until he sees that next pair of legs, that wavy hair, or those eyes that seem kind or alluring or neglectful - until she sees him.  So it goes.

French Black Dynamite conquers again.
Bertrand isn't a malicious guy or sleazy either.  He's handsome in the way professors and (as he is) scientists are, not as a super-Don Juan but as an everyman.  He's just, as most would like to be and sometimes are, a man with a hankering for the women and with all of their complexity and wisdom and insecurities.  Sometimes the script gets flipped on him, so to speak, as one woman in particular, whom she is cheating on her husband with Bertrand, becomes obsessed with him, and makes it as if he is the controller when she is having sex with him in public, in cars, everywhere but his apartment.

There's a really touching moment, perhaps expected, when she does come to his place and makes remarks about his couch.  "My friends sit on this couch," he says.  She retorts, "You don't have friends!  Just mistresses."  Touche.  Bertrand resolves to write a book about his many, many female conquests, going back to his youth (shot, as memory sometimes seems to be with art-films, black and white like in the French Nouvelle Vague) , and yet leaving out one crucial woman... the one who started all of this introspection and contemplation.

Truffaut's film is a serious-light-hearted look at obsessive romance, if that makes sense.  He's not one to make it too dark or too sardonic- this isn't Deconstructing Harry about a hopeless horndog- but it's also not too despondent about its character's situation.  We like him and want him to do well almost in spite of himself at times.  And we're told this quite a lot, mostly by Bertrand in narration but sometimes by other women (mostly one, his book editor at the end, which is most illuminating).  It may be a surfeit of narration; it's not badly written and often gives a good indication of what the character is going through and thinking, but it's just too much.  Some of it could've been trimmed.  I feel like an ass even suggesting this for Truffaut, being one of those towering filmmakers of his era, but there are times when as a director 'show, don't tell' could be used for better effect, despite (or because really) it's a guy writing his memoir of sexual conquests.

Thankfully Bertrand, though sometimes sullen-faced or with that disposition of 'well, I love you, you're everything, thanks, will call again', is more complex than I would've given credit for.  At first I thought, by starting at the end with his funeral and a slightly Bunuel-esque touch of sexy-surrealism as all of the guests at the funeral are his former flings and loves, that the character wouldn't grow all that much and that by the end we would have a simple study of a man compulsive in love and lust.  But it isn't that simple.  Bertrand does change by the end of the story, though not without the temptation to go back to his old ways.  He grows and understands what he went through to get to this point; one of the finest scenes of the film (thinking more about it after the fact, one of Truffaut's finest scenes as a director period) is when Bertrand talks with Vera, a woman he once loved, but now that love is no more.

It's a long conversation, and it may seem to drag on first watch, but it gets to the heart of what this character is about, and what other women around him are about (that is, the ones that do genuinely care for him, not just the one-night flings or cuties or prostitutes).  Truffaut handles this so well it almost might seem the rest of the picture is better in hindsight.  This is not entirely the case.  The film has its virtues, like pleasantly fetishistic shots of women's legs (nothing too hot, just enough to get one born in 1902's blood racing), and a story that moves along episodically but every episode has something of fun or drama to it, from the women who turns out to be a murderer (the cuckolder I mentioned before) and his secretary at work, who he found at a restaurant take a man physically flirting with her to task (that is to say she flips him over kung-fu style!)

The Man Who Loved Women could have been dull, with its look at a man who should be without redeeming character as a flagrant womanizer.  But its the character's drive to find what it is inside of him- ultimately that he's something of a grown-up child if that makes sense- and Truffaut's as well that elevates it from being like a paperback book made cinematic.  It's got romance, wonderfully full-human characters even if they're only on screen for a few minutes, and an ending that has resonance and heart.  It should be a ridiculous ending, and it is, but it's nevertheless tragic at the same time.  Ah, Romance!  It is French...


  1. good post jack ! i love yout labels

  2. i meant "your labels" truffaut all the way