Friday, October 5, 2012

The Man Who Loved Women

François Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women is a retrospective look at the life and many affairs of an unrepetant womanizer, a man who can't resist chasing after one woman after another, never settling for any one woman for very long. But Truffaut's film, unfortunately, is nearly as shallow as its protagonist, Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner), who flits around after all these women, waxing poetic about their charms, the beauty of their bodies, and making his pursuit of them seem like an art, an expression of his philosophy about the world. Bertrand pours that philosophy out into the pages of the book he's writing, and it's around that book that Truffaut structures the film, relating anecdotes from Bertrand's past through the stories he writes in his lightly fictionalized novel.

This is, despite its potentially lurid subject matter, a curiously flat and dry affair, simply relating one interchangeable affair after another, as Bertrand serially seduces women he meets at random and women who he goes through elaborate machinations to encounter. As a comedy, it's not especially humorous, and as a character portrait it skates along the surface except for a few moments when the script (by Truffaut, Michel Fermaud and Suzanne Schiffman) delves into Bertrand's psychology only to come up with some trite rationalizations for his behavior. It's hard to know what's more disappointing, the fact that the film spends most of its time observing this man's surface presentation of himself, or the fact that when it does dig deeper, it comes up with only clichéd mommy issues and a failed romance that seemingly set him upon his current path.

Truffaut spends much of the film on the surface of Bertrand's life, but these glimpses into his formative experiences suggest a very simplistic psychology at the core of the film. Bertrand is copying the behaviors of his mother (Marie-Jeanne Montfajon), who was a promiscuous lover who didn't want a child to change her life, so she simply ignored her son as much as she possibly could. So Bertrand's desire to "collect" women is both an imitation of his mother and a kneejerk response to her neglect, causing him to be desperate for women's affection and attention. Or else Bertrand was deeply wounded by Véra (Leslie Caron), who appears late in the film, when it had seemed like Bertrand was incapable of a truly substantial relationship with a woman, to describe a time when he did have what could have been a real, significant love if he hadn't screwed it up. Both of these possibilities are floated as possible psychological explanations for Bertrand's attitude towards women, which reduces this character to little more than a collection of well-worn clichés.

At one point, Truffaut seems to anticipate the potential criticisms of his film and tries to duck around them with a scene where Bertrand sends his manuscript to some publishers. At a meeting regarding the manuscript at one of these publishing houses, none of the readers like the book except for Geneviève (Brigitte Fossey), who defends Bertrand's book against the criticisms of the others. Most of the critics' complaints about the book could just as easily apply to Truffaut's film — that its protagonist is too self-aggrandizing, that the psychology of it is uninteresting — but Geneviève deftly overturns their objections, thus defending the film as well, making these seem like both a preemptive defense and a self-congratulatory assertion of the film's success. She claims that Bertrand's story is simply full of "the contradictions of life," that the writer is actually self-aware about his own womanizing, which he is to some extent, but the implication that Truffaut's film is so dramatically unsatisfying because it's about reality is hard to take. This isn't reality but a flat, overly literary bundle of character types and shallow characterization.

There are, nevertheless, some nice moments here, scenes and performances that hint at a potentially more satisfying movie that Truffaut could have made. Denner's performance as the titular womanizer is mostly fine, projecting some of the charm and elegance that make this otherwise unremarkable-looking man so irresistible to so many women. But it's the women who really shine, and it's to Truffaut's credit that he populates the film with so many lively, winning performances from women, so that Bertrand's conquests become as much a tribute to the loveliness and appeal of all these actresses as they are a more general poem to the lure of women. Especially compelling is Nathalie Baye as a woman who Bertrand goes to great lengths to meet, only to find out that she's not the woman he thought she was. Baye's appearance, towards the beginning of the film, provides a tantalizing glimpse of a path not taken for Bertrand. Once he finds out that she's not actually the woman he'd glimpsed on the street one day and tracked down so relentlessly, he leaves, but Baye's shy smiles and straightforward manner make her a compelling presence, lingering past Bertrand's loss of interest, implicitly condemning his shallow fixations.

Many of the film's other women are equally compelling — Nelly Borgeaud as an unhappy housewife who gets off on danger, Valérie Bonnier as a girlfriend who eventually decides she needs more from a relationship than the cool Bertrand can offer — but by necessity none of these characters stick around very long or are developed beyond a few scenes. Truffaut's film ultimately just provides a mirror for Bertrand's life: shallow, self-absorbed, displaying a stereotypical masculinity and flitting from one moment to the next without ever spending too long with any one person or thinking too hard about the meaning of it all.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, I can't agree with you more here Ed. This is flat and dry and one of the least impressive Truffauts, even with some redeeming qualities, connected to the women showcased. It is a rather simplistic look at a life, and the cliches are there for perusal. I saw this years ago and never went back. Ah well, I do love Truffaut, but he's entitled to a few misfires. Excellent work here as always.