“It doesn’t worry me if it is said that I’m not making any progress. I agree, whatever progress one makes is always very small indeed.”—François Truffaut, in an interview with Don Allen, 1979
When François Truffaut was young he disagreed with a teacher over Robert Bresson’s film, Women of the Bois du Bologne. The teacher couldn’t understand why a man would drive 80-miles-an-hour to solve romantic problems; Truffaut couldn’t understand why the teacher couldn’t understand. Bravura mockeries of common sense peppered the films the French New Wave kick-starter made in the 1960s, his first full decade of work as a director, lyrical speedboats like The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player. Whether it’s a woman trying to kill a man on an idle whim or a man giving his bank accounts to a woman he’s just met, one sees the spectacle over and over again of love reducing adults to kids.
This is clearest in 1977’s The Man Who Loved Women, one of a series of ’70s films Truffaut made that turned inward, looking back on earlier work; other examples include 1970’s The Wild Child, a film about a young Mowgli domesticated and taught language by a kindly doctor (a relationship perhaps based on Truffaut’s with the great critic André Bazin), shot in black-and-white with silent film techniques like the iris shot, and 1971’s Two English Girls, which based its male-female-female love triangle on a book by the author of the source novel for perhaps Truffaut’s most celebrated film, 1961’s Jules and Jim, and starred Jean-Pierre Léaud, who’d played Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel as a schoolboy in 400 Blows. The Man Who Loved Women isn’t anywhere as good as either The Wild Child or Two English Girls (itself far superior to the overrated Jules and Jim), but Man’s smugness, its desperation, and the sheer seemingly unintentional discomfort that one feels watching it are all quite revealing of Truffaut’s work as a whole.
The film opens at a funeral, notable (so the voiceover tells us) for its all-female population. The beautiful corpse was Bertrand Moran (Charles Denner), prone to fall for nearly every woman he met, be they streetwalker or hat check girl, single or married. In flashbacks we see him pursuing these women. Bertrand’s not a lothario so much as he is stir-crazy—whatever smiles he cracks are forced. We realize that he chases women to fill a deep interior hole; as one paramour belatedly tells him, “When you don’t love yourself, you are incapable of loving others.” The man finally tries to find self-love by writing a book about his experiences, a book that happens to have the title of the film.
This last bit feels awfully self-congratulatory (especially if you know about Truffaut’s real-life reputation as both a bibliophile and a skirt-chaser), yet it’s also the movie’s way of retreating into fantasy—the book, in a way, is Moran’s ideal woman. Several scenes prior to it have shown us the depths he’ll dive to find her. In one scene Moran runs into an old flame at a hotel, a coat check desk between them, and lamely tries to make conversation as if the affair weren’t dead. But an even more painful scene (in an awkward, poorly executed, so-bad-it-becomes-good instance of X-ray filmmaking) occurs between him and a babysitter. Moran shows the girl around his apartment, finally following her into the “child’s” dark bedroom. She pulls back the covers and lifts up a plastic doll. “Where is the infant?” she asks, confused, to which Moran grimaces and says, “The infant…is me.”
Denner looks simply awful in this scene—his skin pockmarked, bags under his eyes. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of the ending of Two English Girls. A middle-aged Léaud sees a gang of schoolchildren passing, and watches them until he inadvertently catches a glimpse of himself in a car mirror. Leaning in, he touches his beard and wonders, “How did I get so old?” Truffaut seems drawn to moments of self-actualization, when a self confronts itself and either retreats or breaks. This moment that ends 1971’s Girls is similar to the scene in 1968’s Stolen Kisses when Antoine Doinel, brushing his teeth, says his name over and over into the bathroom mirror until he has to slap himself to break out of it. It’s also similar to the process that an actor undergoes when watching himself on film (incidentally, Truffaut acted in several of his own movies, and Léaud grew into a Truffaut double, replete with widow’s peak and hooked nose, as he reached his 20s), or that a writer undergoes when reading his or her memoir. The person has ostensibly recorded himself or herself, but can’t help but be stunned by the differences between his or her self-image and the real François. One could say that Moran, who never apologizes and keeps waiting for other people to tell him the meanings of his actions, avoids confronting himself, unlike some of Truffaut’s other characters. Perhaps. In fact the book seems an attempt to create a more pleasing image of himself, just as a filmgoer looks for fantasy in the dark of a theater.
Throughout his life several of Truffaut’s deepest relationships were with movies; he and his Cahiérs du Cinéma colleagues were called the “Rats of the Cinemathéque” for all the time they spent in the front row of Henri Langlois’s theater. A key influence on The Man Who Loved Women is Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1954 Hollywood film, The Barefoot Contessa, a review of which appears in Truffaut’s book of collected film criticism, The Films in My Life. Mankiewicz’s film tells the story of how a Spanish chiquita (Ava Gardner) becomes a Hollywood star. Both his and Truffaut’s films open at the beloved’s funeral, with the myriad lovers in attendance. Both protagonists have died for love, as Gardner’s Maria was shot by a jealous lover and Moran was hit by a car while chasing a woman. Both then tell their story in flashback, using the person who made the deceased a celebrity as narrator—Mankiewicz employs Humphrey Bogart’s hard-bitten director, Truffaut Genevieve Fontanel’s worldly publisher (the lone advocate at her company for Moran’s book).
Both films make their protagonists artists, but in neither film do we see their art, as Mankiewicz denies us the Gardner character’s screen test and Truffaut doesn’t let us see the pages of Moran’s book (though admittedly, we hear several passages in voiceover). In both cases, the withholding seems deliberate. Whether the art is good or bad isn’t the primary issue (though by placing their narrators as the lone consistent advocates, both directors hint at the second), because it’s actually the protagonist who’s being presented as a work of art. Both Mankiewicz and Truffaut are telling three stories of unsatisfied desire: As The Barefoot Contessa unfolds, film audiences desire the movie star’s image, the male characters desire the live woman, and Contessa’s audience watching the wooing desires Gardner all at once; similarly, Truffaut’s Moran attracts readers with his written stories, the women he meets desire the real thing, and Truffaut shows us several of these encounters, giving us more of a chance to desire Denner. What seems like a key difference between the two films—gender identification—proves not to be. Mankiewicz places a male narrator among other men desiring the same woman, but even though Truffaut places a female narrator among a crowd of women who desired Moran (it may or may not be a coincidence that the name’s an ancient Syriac word for Jesus Christ), his film is about how and why men desire women, too.
In her book on the director, Annette Insdorf pinpoints how enormously volatile many of Truffaut’s female characters are, shifting not only their behaviors and attitudes (Jules and Jim, where Catherine woos Jim, then tries to shoot him) but even oftentimes their legal identities and names (The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me). Several of the director’s films also show male protagonists choosing between multiple women varying in age and temperament (Two English Girls, the Antoine Doinel films). The Man Who Loved Women has both aspects—Moran chases as many women as he can find, one of whom proves a crazy bitch. The sense tying all these toss-ups together is that of men looking to women to fill several different needs, with the women waiting impatiently to profess their own. The moment that touches me most in any Truffaut film comes well into Bed and Board, as Doinel hails a cab for his former beloved, because it’s fairest to both sides. “You’re my mother, you’re my sister, you’re my daughter,” he tells her, to which she responds, “I could have been your wife.”
Truffaut’s films spark whenever kids come onscreen—several of his best films (400 Blows, Wild Child, Small Change) are specifically about children. Even when they appear in cameos, like at the end of Two English Girls, they’re framed centrally and lit warmly to captivating effect. Yet when his adult protagonists act like children, like Doinel and Moran, the films grow more troubled and problematic, uncertain as to whether to keep them dreaming or wake them up. Moran, like Doinel, is an overgrown infant who loves women and books; the line the film treads between exposing his naïvete and indulging in it is incredibly thin.
That said, one of The Man Who Loved Women’s virtues is that, unlike most if not all of Truffaut’s other films, it shows the women clinging to fantasy as tightly as the man does (in this way it differs from The Barefoot Contessa, where Gardner’s Maria walks into affairs fairly open-eyed). A friend recently made the case that Fontanel’s character believes she likes Moran’s book, and that her believing so is more important than actually liking the book. It’s key that she falls in love with Moran after first falling for his literary character, the first creating the myth of the second. But almost every woman Moran meets falls for him, partly because he tries to convince them that they’re perfect. The film’s major exception is a woman Moran’s age, who tells him, “I do not accept the degradation of life, or rather I don’t accept that love accommodate it,” and so she’s only going for younger men.
His films’ uneasy dream lives make me want to rescue Truffaut, a filmmaker who’s had so many accusations of “overrated” hurled his way that he has become underrated again. Viewers who dislike his work (Manny Farber among them—the great American critic discusses Truffaut at length in his seminal 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”) tend to see the films as inflated and static, pinned to a classical style that brings nothing new or innovative to stories of love won and lost; as Farber writes, “his films are bound in and embarrassed by his having made up his mind what the film is to be about.” His characters are generally young, generally male people who lose their innocence as they explore the world, pulled toward marriage and respectable employment and shrieking inside all the way. Phillip Lopate has noted a tendency in essayists and memoirists that he calls “clinging stubbornly to false naïveté”; whether it’s Doinel calling his wife from a restaurant to complain about how poorly his adulterous affair is going in Bed and Board, or the crew’s gaping surprise at the on-set arrival of the leading man’s lover in Day for Night, one could easily accuse the characters, the films, and the filmmaker of this tendency all at once.
Yet at the same time, Truffaut’s struggle over whether to turn his mind off to the world is one reason his films fascinate in general, and The Man Who Loved Women fascinated in particular. It’s impossible to know how closely Truffaut identified with Moran, though it seems important both that Denner looks like a worn and haggard, baggy-eyed Truffaut (as opposed to Léaud’s sprite) and that Truffaut cast himself as the lead in his follow-up film, The Green Room, after deciding that only he and Denner were right for the part. Regardless, his hands are all over the movie—you can’t always tell when you’re watching a Truffaut movie, but you always know when you’re listening to one. Manny Farber writes of Truffaut’s characters, “all women are villains…all heroes are unbelievably innocent, unbelievably persecuted.” The Man Who Loved Women is an amazingly conflicted movie, precisely because of how its characters want fairy-tale judgments like these to come true.
Written in honor of this past winter’s Truffaut series at the Alliance Française.