While not a sensualist by any stretch, the great French director François Truffaut had a way with stories about sex. Throughout his career, in films ranging from Jules and Jim (1962) to this picture and beyond, Truffaut examined lust through a uniquely cerebral prism. As a result, his sexually themed movies are among the most intelligent cinematic explorations of carnality ever made. So, while The Man Who Loved Women is partially a dry comedy about a middle-aged Frenchman who accrues an extraordinary number of lovers, it’s also a plaintive character study about a man who substitutes physical love for emotional love. The Man Who Loved Women blends humor, pathos, and romance in surprising ways. The movie’s too long, the tonal mixture isn’t completely satisfying, and some aspects of the lead character remain mysterious to the end. In a lesser film, these issues would be flaws, perhaps fatal ones. But in The Man Who Loved Women, these issues manifest like idiosyncrasies—working through the narrative bumps is the price of admission for discovering the many gifts the picture offers.
The story begins with the funeral of a man named Bertrand Morane, which is attended by dozens of beautiful women. One of them, Geneviève (Brigitte Fossey), marvels at the deceased’s ability to attract women, and this triggers a change in the movie’s point of view. Thereafter, at least until a return to Geneviève’s perspective at the end of the story, the movie is presented through the eyes of Bertrand (Charles Denner), who appears in every scene and also provides a luxuriant voiceover that articulates the particulars of his personality. A middle-aged lab technician living in the small city of Montpelier, Bertrand has been fascinated by beautiful women his whole life. As a devoted “leg man,” he spends his free time walking the streets, his eyes forever drawn this way and that by sets of beautiful stems. Bertrand takes absurd lengths to meet the women who catch his fancy, always behaving as a gentleman and nearly always consummating his flirtations.
Truffaut, who co-wrote the movie in addition to directing, presents Bertrand as simultaneously childlike and sophisticated. His preoccupation with women seems innocent since he places ladies on such a high pedestal, and since he recognizes his inability to maintain serious relationships. He’s all about the chase, but he never uses subterfuge as anything but an icebreaker, after which he comes clean. Truffaut prudently steers clear of any implication that Bertrand’s a remarkable lover, since the point of the story is that Bertrand revels in female companionship; his trysts are idylls that enrich his soul rather than conquests. As the story progresses through various episodes, including brief flashbacks to Bertrand’s childhood, Bertrand writes a book about his love life, which eventually leads to an affair with his editor, Geneviève (the woman from the funeral). The discoveries Bertrand makes about himself by spending time with Geneviève create a rich, tragicomic context for the film’s final movements.
The Man Who Loved Women is brisk at times, but it mostly proceeds at a meditative pace, communicating and dramatizing the unusual life experience of a man who uses sex as socialization (and, to some degree, as therapy). In the end, the film sketches a tantalizing picture of a truly singular individual, while also manifesting—through the presence of dozens of lovely actresses—Bertrand’s magical vision of the world as a place overflowing with feminine beauty and feminine complexity. The Man Who Loved Women is more droll than funny, and it’s frequently serious, so in terms of cinematic texture, it’s as eccentric as its protagonist. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film’s American remake, released in 1983. Starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Blake Edwards—whose approach to bedroom farce compares poorly to Truffaut’s—the American version has little to recommend except a parade of beautiful actresses, including Julie Andrews, Kim Basinger, Marilu Henner, and Sela Ward.
The Man Who Loved Women: GROOVY