Francois Truffaut's "The Man Who Loved Women" is framed by the burial service of the protagonist, a woman-chasing engineer named Bertrand. Since all the mourners are women -- former mistresses of the deceased -- one tends to expect a story on the sardonic, or somehow humorous, side. Moreover, it turns out that Bertrand, recalling the fate of many a car-chasing dog, was fatally injured while pursuing an old flame across an intersection.
But Truffaut fails to take his hero's case history lightly or seriously. It becomes a pretext for the articulation of self-defensive platitudes about the current state of affairs between men and women. As embodied by Charles Denner, Bertrand is never a very gay dog. It appears that Truffaut's overwhelming impulse to generalize prevented the character from developing sufficient dramatic life and personality of its own.
So "The Man Who Loved Women," which opens today at the Outer Circle I, is a curious minor doodle from a major filmmaker. Truffaut's 17th feature, it seems destined to share double-bills with equally wayward banalities like "Bed and Board" and "Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me." When Truffaut aspires to conventional sex comedy, he can't keep his mind on the conventions, and it doesn't wander in perceptive new directions either.
Bertrand's love affairs would be more convincing as figments of his imagination, because the intent, hawk-faced Denner seems too solitary and morose to put his yearnings into constant, attractive action.
Denner once played a literal lady-killer, Landru, for Claude Chabrol. That impersonation didn't take either. The suitor's or seducer's role doesn't appear to suit Denner, a little detail that could amuse spectators willing to confuse miscasting with irony. Denner looks so harmlessly preoccupied that some women may be flattered or amused by the sheer impotence of his presumption. He certainly doesn't complicate things by appearing to be a sexual threat or necessity to any of the women he pursues.
Bertrand is depicted writing a book of memories eventually published under the same title as the movie. Truffaut ends up patronizing both the author and his work, which by all rights should remain targets for ridicule. Brigitte Fossey, cast as the editor who goes to bat for Bertrand's unsolicited manuscript, is given lines that could be interpreted as advance raves for the movie by Truffaut himself. Even worse, she reassures and praises her literary discovery in terms that make one suspect. Truffaut is about to launch a syndicated advice column.
Fossey's character, Genevieve, emerges as a mouthpiece for the filmmaker's most complacent musings. She advises Bertrand to "learn to love yourself more so you can love others more" and delivers an equally profound benediction over his coffin --"He loved all these women in his own way, and he was right, for each was unique . . . " -- or words to that uninspiring effect.
It's dismaying to hear Truffaut parroting the Be-Your-Own-Best-Friend line, especially in a context which cries out for a satirical view of the battle of the sexes.
Truffaut has allowed certain pet profundities and his own sense of self-esteem to smother the comic potential in his story, which might have been pretty hilarious if he'd seen fit to kid characters as deluded as Bertrand and Genevieve. In a knowing scenario her enthusiasm for his pathetic confessions would have been the cream of the jest. Having flopped as a compulsive seducer, he might have succeeded as a soft-core pornographer with both his editor and the reading public she presumably represents.
What possessed Truffaut to transform such potentially exquisite romantic imbeciles into dear hearts whose behavior and sentiments are supposed to leave a tender glow? Maybe the intervals between takes on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" were a little too long for the health of his scenario-in-progress. Could the beneficent atmosphere surrounding "Close Encounters" have influenced his own project in an unforeseen, not to mention unfortunate, way?
Whatever the cause, "The Man Who Loved Women" is suffering from an acute case of the insipids.