For François Truffaut, the fundamental problem with humanity is maturity, the process of letting go of the sense of wonder and awe that fills childhood in favor of the stark rationality of adulthood. Though it is in some ways a lesser known Truffaut work, The Man Who Loved Women is the perfect representation of Truffaut’s argument against maturity, a comedy that has far more insight into human interaction than most dramas.
Frequent Truffaut collaborator Charles Denner (The Bride Wore Black) returns here as Bertrand Morane, an unapologetic womanizer who begins the film as a corpse. Lowered into the ground by the women he has scorned, lusted after, ogled and even occasionally loved, Morane is introduced by Geneviève (Brigitte Fossey), Morane’s editor and later lover. Observing from the sidelines, Geneviève is quick to indicate that Morane’s funeral is exactly how he would have wanted it to be, a celebration not of his life but of the beauties he sampled through the years.
The film’s beginning is in some ways a false set-up, a framing device that leads the viewer to assume a ribald sex comedy is on the way, when in fact we’re about to be treated to a morose, complicated picture that has far more in common with Annie Hall than one might imagine. Shifting from the perspective of Geneviève to Bertrand in his prime, the immediate realization is that Bertrand is not your normal ladies’ man. Nowhere near as neurotic as Alvy Singer, Bertrand is nevertheless filled with a kind of sadness. Namely, the despair of knowing that there is no way he will ever possibly be able to experience all the beautiful women the world or even France alone has to offer.
Where Alvy’s central issue is his difficulty in taking pleasure from life, Bertrand has the problem of taking too much pleasure from life. Both the characters doom themselves through their hang-ups, but Alvy’s is far likelier to be seen as an “adult” issue while Bertrand’s is the epitome of childishness. Even Bertrand’s physical fascinations, specifically women’s legs, are derived from Freudian issues with his mother, who Truffaut hints was likely a prostitute. Bertrand’s two most important memories of his childhood involve his mother walking; the first is the recollection of his mother walking past him in a pleated skirt, ignoring him, which instills Bertrand’s obsession with legs while the second, which involves his mother pacing around him half-naked, still ignoring him, while he’s forced to sit in a chair reading, instills in Bertrand his obsession with reading.
The physicality of the memories and Bertrand’s focus on the salacious details of his mother’s legs, skirt and state of undress is important in a symbolic sense, but what’s even more notable is Bertrand’s fixation on the way his mother neglected him, an action he views not as a deficit but as a hardening tool that ensured his success in life. For Bertrand, success comes in the form of casual dalliances with an unending parade of women, most of whom he similarly neglects – an early sight gag in the film even finds him placing a letter begging him to contact a lover he has been ignoring into a drawer filled with similar correspondences. Bertrand’s disinterest doesn’t come from disappointment, as his mother’s did with him, but from his child-like need to have what he doesn’t already possess.
Unsurprisingly, Bertrand is far more interested in the hunt than the game, pursuing some of his lovers to an extent that is far beyond reasonable. Early in the film he smashes into a car just to get the information on a girl it turns out isn’t even on the continent anymore. Later he stalks a married woman who is revealed to be even more unhinged than Bertrand himself. Weirdly, she seems to be the woman Bertrand thinks of most and even has a rare second fling with.
Perhaps realizing himself that it’s not the sexual act that truly excites him but the build up to and recollection of it, Bertrand eventually decides to collect his experiences in a memoir, first so that he himself can remember his past activities and then so that they can be printed by a Parisian publishing house. Bertrand doesn’t need the money as he has a job that is oddly similar to Antoine Doinel’s work with toy boats in Bed and Board, and he doesn’t really even seem to seek fame. The memoir, as Geneviève herself explains to her dubious publishing colleagues, makes a point of not trying to make a point; it just is. Bertrand is open to people’s interpretations of his life and to an extent enjoys the self-voyeurism of the work, but there isn’t an explicit goal in its publication.
When Bertrand meets his end, it’s similarly pointless, a moment that is completely true to the film’s intentions and Bertrand’s character. After getting hit by a car while girl watching, Bertrand lands in the hospital, forbidden to move or even read. All that he has left is the ability to see the objects of his lust. Whether it’s a desire to end his run or proof incarnate that man can’t control his own nature, Bertrand dies because he reaches for his desire, in this case the shapely legs of his nurse, and breaks the connection to his drip. It’s the ultimate act against rationality, a single minded pursuit so ridiculous that it permanently ends any chance for adulthood.
Bertrand’s final moments could be seen as a sign of futility but it’s likelier that Truffaut intended them to be morbidly joyous, the humor coming not from the irony of Bertrand’s death but from the truth in his devotion to his desires. Bertrand died as he lived, reaching out for what he wanted and seeking pleasure in the hunt even as it kills him. That Bertrand didn’t quite acquire his final object of lust is perhaps the biggest reward, allowing him to go out not with the disappointment of catching his game but in eternally hunting it, maturity be damned.
by Nick Hanover