I recognize that this title alone sounds trite and unappealing, but it is a deceptive one and must be taken in the context of the entire piece. This film, if it were adapted for an American audience today, would likely be cast as a typically lowest common denominator popcorn comedy. The womanizing main character would be more caricature than character, selected for good looks and the ability to easily make a fool of himself in front of the lens. His sexual conquests would run the gamut from A to B, showcasing the very best in insulting female stereotypes played by moderately talented Hollywood actresses. Shown to be little more than a crass, immature vulgarian, living in a state of suspended adolescence, Bertrand Morane, the would-be Lothario, would be reduced to a punch line for the sake of cheap laughs. The women unfortunate enough to be pursued by him would display a predictable amount of loathing, disgust, and self-righteous indignation. By its conclusion, all would agree that The Man Who Loved Women was a real creep.
Fortunately, this is not the direction famed French director François Truffaut pursues. Not even a little. Yes, Bertrand Morane does hold some undeniable, unforgivable misogynist and even creepy character traits. However, much screen time is given towards explaining in large part the reasons why he developed this persona. Moreover, most, if not all of his female conquests have severe unresolved emotional issues themselves. That would appear to be most of the appeal of this sometimes disturbing game for both parties involved. The interaction between Morane and whomever he is seducing at the moment rarely seems purely predatory. Instead, one can’t help but observe logically why and how two people with as many personal problems and as much psychological damage between them would feel an attraction to each other. Our skirt chasing protagonist may believe he is always the one in charge of this game of aggressive pursuit, but woman after woman feigns complicity and submission at first while eventually asserting her own dominance in his presence.
Director Truffaut regularly included autobiographical aspects of his own life into each of his films. The noted auteur was himself raised by two squabbling parents, both of whom viewed him as little more than an trifling inconvenience. Throughout the whole of a largely miserable childhood, he was ignored and denied much in the way of affection. The experience left such a profound impact that Truffaut returned over and over again to the same theme. Similarly, in The Man Who Loved Woman, the main character of Morane lived a similarly unhappy, isolated childhood.
Morane grew up without a father figure but did grow up with an emotionally distant and detached mother, who was too busy pursuing her numerous beaus to raise him properly. She acts as though her son is an annoyance and pretends that he does not exist, even going so far as to walk around their tiny shared apartment with nothing on more than the bare minimum of clothes, as if to say that she would rather he be invisible. That the adult Morane has mother fixations if not an Oedipal Complex altogether should come as not much of a surprise to anyone. These learned behaviors influence the women to whom he is attracted and his tactics to win their attention.
A profoundly lonely man, Betrand pursues one short-term, largely unsatisfying sexual relationship after another to compensate for a difficult divorce which transpired five years prior to the current day. While we are not told of this crucial detail until three-fourths of the way through the film, this revelation does have a humanizing aspect when we are made aware of it. A tragic figure like his needs to be shown in three-dimensions, else he is not especially interesting to contemplate, being really little more than a stock character. His behavior is sometimes inexcusably reprehensible, but neither is he a totally unsympathetic person, either.
You wouldn’t want to be the next in line, but you do at least pity his condition. We the audience strain to understand him at times, but to his credit, he does not hide his beliefs or his opinions. In situations where he is paired with his complete equal in both the bedroom and in major emotional trauma, it seems not to matter who causes pain and punishment in what proportion to whom. Both suffer, but both also receive something desired, if not yearned for altogether. Each stumbles towards love, affection, and romance for often mysterious reasons denied somehow for some past reason.
Many of these women are also heavily consumed with their own pathological fears and personality flaws. One lover insists upon making love in public places, the fear of being caught increasing the pleasure of the act. Another expresses strong interest for a time, until dismissing him as too old for her tastes. At forty-one, she now dates men no younger than twenty-nine. Bertrand is accused of emotional neglect by another lover who has fallen in love with him. He has not opened up in a way that would allow him to be capable of being loved, nor is he willing to reciprocate in loving her. Though her disappointment and anguish shows plainly upon her face, she notes that she’s not entirely crestfallen, nor surprised at this turn of events, either. In any case, Bertrand’s problems with intimacy and trust again point directly back to his childhood.
Released in 1977, towards the tail-end of what was then still called Women’s Liberation, I get the feeling that Bertrand’s obsessive, slightly ridiculous pickup lines and seduction strategies might have failed even then. They may have produced nothing more than a well-deserved slap across the face or, failing that, a swiftly filed police report. What makes them sinister more than comical is that they are offered to us, the audience, with a straight face, not with a toothy grin.
The emphasis here may be on a deliberately exaggerated parody of sexual obsession more than an opportunity to criticize certain men behaving very inappropriately. Truffaut may instead intend that we see something cartoonish and unreal about how easy it is for the philandering main character to fall into the beds of multiple women in a short period of time. The emphasis may be on the absurd rather than the real.
Taken literally, concocting elaborate ruses based on deception to secure the phone numbers and addresses of women he fancies strikes me as creepy and criminal. In one such example, he fakes a car accident as a way of finding the phone number of a random woman to whom he is attracted. Obsessive in his desire, he wishes to contact her by phone so that he may speak to her in person. Having already jotted down her license plate, he then claims that her car was responsible for the damage to his car. Tracing the phone number to a car rental dealership, he finds her telephone number at home by way of a sympathetic worker at the dealership who believes his lies. (He will later sleep with her, of course, but this nearly goes without saying).
Multi-step processes like these he works with an uncomfortable degree of success. He manages to often achieve his wishes of a face-to-face sit down with his latest planned conquest. That these schemes routinely succeed may also be over-the-top on purpose. Few people in that time or now would volunteer private information and go to bed with a complete stranger, especially one who had obtained sensitive information by duplicitous ends.
Perhaps for no other reason than boredom, Bertrand next begins to write his autobiography. Most of its content details, no surprise here, his numerous love affairs. Having found a new obsession, he spends hours a day typing the manuscript with two fingers, as he does not know how to properly work a typewriter. Upon a visit to a doctor (one of the few male characters present in the entire movie), he is successfully treated for a mild case of gonorrhea. A voracious reader, Bertrand notices the copious, extensively filled bookshelves present in the doctor’s office.
Through the doctor, he is also granted insight and guidance about how to publish his memoirs. Instructed to send his final manuscript to one of the four major publishing houses in Paris, he follows instructions. The finished product is rejected by all but one. The fourth only accepts the book for publication based on the passionate appeal of one editor, Geneviève. Her colleagues see nothing special in the text, but she does and overrules their objections. Their reservations are not that the content is offensive, but that the manuscript is rambling and unprofessional. One senses that the editor finds something oddly appealing in the author. She has become fascinated with this bizarre life and even his character flaws despite herself.
Truffaut paints Geneviève as the liberated woman of her time. Her feminist perspective is an optimistic one expressing satisfaction with the way gender roles have recently changed for the better. It’s a self-assured Second-Wave perspective in some ways, one that cannot see problems in the future and one that assumes that the reforms already underway will continue indefinitely into the future. In her place of employment, she is every bit the equal of any of her co-workers. That she would have passionately defended a book that would seem to contradict her personal politics strikes one as odd. Another element of mystery preserved, we never know why. In time, yes, they will be lovers also.
A Feminist reading of the film is problematic and complicated. On one hand, the main character is unapologetic for being chauvinistic and at times strongly resembles a stalker. When Geneviève, his publishing editor/lover, introduces the idea of gender equality to him, he dismisses it out of hand. His methodology is exploitative and manipulative, but such acts are not unique only to him. Bertrand ends up being played as much as he plays others. He is not physically violent and never intends to be. Delphine, one of his unstable lovers, however, goes to prison because she shoots and seriously wounds her doctor husband. This is in a rash decision to shed herself of his attachment to her so that she can be with Bertrand herself.
Years later, once she is released home from prison, Bertrand is deliberately warned by the police about threats she made behind bars against his own life. Quite unafraid, he still meets with Delphine after she shows up unannounced at his apartment a few days later. The complete fault cannot be easily laid at his feet, or any character, for that matter. It seems that most relationships, regardless of their length are built on a kind of complimentary dysfunction.
One reviewer, Melissa E. Biggs, describes the work as “an extraordinary film … made at just the right moment in time, when sexual obsession could still be ironic and celebrated and not held up to scorn by political correctness and feminist righteousness”. If we are to believe the opinion of Ms. Biggs, should we take The Man Who Loved Women as feminist critique, or as broad farce? The director Truffaut appears to wish to explore the intersection between the two. Our understanding of what should be taken at face value and what should be seen in an ironic context may depend upon our own interpretation, and indeed our own lived experience. For this reason among many, the film still speaks to us today.