It’s a bit of a movie cliché by now, but the plot of François Truffaut’s 1977 movie L’homme qui aimait les femmes, (The Man Who Loved Women) begins at the end (you know what’s going to happen, but not how or why) before the story unfolds as a series of flashbacks.
As soon as you see a procession of mostly glamorous, leggy women attending the funeral of Bertrand Morane (he was a leg man), you realise that while realism will be in short supply in this movie, sexism will be abundant. But why expect anything else, after-all it’s 1976 (the action of the movie is contemporaneous) and this is a typically frivolous French romp, and mostly harmless despite Bertrand’s often cringe-worthy behaviour.
“I don’t mind thick ankles. There’s the promise of greater harmony at the top of the leg.”
To earn a living, 41 year old Betrand (Charles Denner) works in a laboratory as an aerodynamics engineer (we can surmise this from the model airplanes and boats he’s seen testing in wind tunnels and wave machines), but in his spare time Bertrand enjoys stalking beautiful women – even going to the extent of faking car accidents and luring baby-sitters back to his bachelor pad in order to meet them.
‘Where’s the baby?’‘The baby? It’s me.’
Oddly, these women aren’t in the least perturbed by Betrand’s predatory behaviour (in the game of love, it’s the chase that’s all important) and fall for his Gallic charm.
In Betrand’s favour is the fact that he’s unapologetic about what he sees as his healthy appreciation of the female form. What’s more, he intends to contribute to people’s understanding of him by writing a book about his sexual exploits.
Bertrand sets the literary wheels in motion on an old Underwood typewriter.
By his own admission, Betrand is a poor two-fingered typist who makes a lot of mistakes, so he takes the first 5 chapters of his autobiography to a professional typist to re-type on her Remington.
There’s a lot for Bertrand to write about. For a start, there’s Bernadette, the girl he meets at a car hire company while pursuing another woman (and a fake insurance claim):
Bernadette (Sabine Glaser) and Olympia SM9
And then there’s the owner of the lingerie store, Hélène, who Betrand has had more than a passing interest in (not just her, but also the lingerie) for quite some time – an older woman (about his age) who rejects him as a lover because she prefers young boys.
But that’s okay because Bertrand loves being around beautiful women, even if they only end up being friends. In fact, he prefers it that way.
Hélène (Geneviève Fontanel)
That’s the whole problem with Bertrand: his fear of commitment. Of the many women he’s slept with, ultimately he’s just happy to be friends with them if they’ll let him, which is why he has a drawer full of unanswered love letters from his besotted exes – including the latest attempt by his ex-wife (or the former love of his life, Véra, it’s not made clear) to reach out to him by letter, and who pops up later in person.
There’s a psychological angle that might explain, if not excuse, Bertrand’s behaviour. Through flashbacks of his childhood, we see Bertrand lacks a father figure and is neglected by his emotionally aloof mother (who is also sexually promiscuous and who also keeps a collection of her lovers’ letters squirrelled away).
At one point Bertrand’s doctor confirms that his patient has contacted a sexually transmitted disease (a rare note of realism here) and advises Bertrand to contact all of his recent sexual partners (six in twelve days!) in case they’ve also been infected.
If there is a period of abstinence from sexual intercourse, as advised by Bertrand’s doctor, it’s quickly skipped over in the film and Bertrand continues exactly as before. The police call to warn him that one of his exes has been released from prison and has been making unspecified threats.
Cue flashback to Bertrand eyeing up a married woman in a restaurant, Delphine (Nelly Borgeaud), who is clearly bored by her husband’s company.
Bertrand follows the couple home (more stalking), lures Delphine away from her husband, and the two of them make out in a car in the basement car park of her apartment block.
From then on, Delphine enjoys putting Bertrand in increasingly precarious love-making situations, and Bertrand wishes she’d just agree to go back to his place like all the other women he’s slept with. When she eventually does, it’s a classic case of being careful what you wish for, as Delphine shows signs of wanting to refurnish, redecorate, and make herself a permanent fixture.
Betrand’s bacon (or French equivalent) is saved however, when Delphine finds alternative accommodation in a prison after shooting her husband (almost fatally).
Bertrand’s archive of newspaper clippings of Delphine
Thus liberated, Bertrand embarks on a string of superficial (compared with Delphine) affairs.
No less superficially, Bertrand has fallen in love with the voice of a woman who works for the wake-up call service he subscribes to – a woman he dubs “Aurore”.
Oh Bertrand, you old charmer you!
While Aurore refuses to meet him at first, a game of cat and mouse develops between them. Aurore leaves him tantalising handwritten messages, tells him she knows where he lives, and has even called on him while he was asleep.
Bertrand finally convinces her to meet him on a blind date, but when the date and time arrives a young boy delivers a note saying the rendezvous has been cancelled. Bertrand follows the boy and catches sight of an attractive woman with the boy and an even younger daughter in tow. Game over.
Released from prison, Delphine calls at Bertrand’s apartment while he’s in bed with Miss Olympia (Bernadette the hire car girl). It’s Delphine’s birthday. Rather than leave, she proposes all three of them share the champagne she’s brought with her (a spell in prison will do that to a girl). This generous offer is accepted and a ménage à trois ensues.
This is Bertrand at the height of his powers, bedding two women at once. It’s all too much for his typist-for-hire, however, who says while she’s no prude, Bertrand’s manuscript make her feel sick.
Blacklisted by his first reader, Bertrand loses interest in writing for a while, but eventually gets back on the horse and resolves to finish the book. To do this he takes a week off work and sets-up his typewriter in the bathroom (makes perfect sense to both me and Dalton Trumbo!).
The book is completed and sent out to publishers and, after being initially rejected by several publishers, is accepted by “Editions Betany” a Paris publishing house, thanks mainly to the intervention of Geneviève (Brigitte Fossey), a glamorous lady editor (of course) who champions Bertrand’s exploits as if they’re somehow proof of female emancipation.
Geneviève Bigey (Brigitte Fossey)
Bertrand travels from Montpellier to Paris to meet with Geneviève. He’s surprised that his novel has been accepted for publication so quickly, thinking it wasn’t good enough for publication, and offers to make further revisions. Significantly, he says there’s a woman who isn’t mentioned in the book, but ought to be.
Geneviève tells him she doesn’t want to change a thing except his proposed title (The Skirt Chaser) and suggests instead The Man Who Loved Women.
Returning to his Paris hotel, who should Bertrand bump into but Véra (Leslie Caron), his “significant ex”. There’s a willingness for reconciliation on her part, but more than a suggestion of lingering hard feelings on his. (Maybe she took a leaf out of Bertrand’s book and started sleeping around, it’s not made clear, however the fact that Bertrand still has a strip of her photo booth passport photos pasted to the back of his wardrobe suggests he still holds a candle for her).
Bertrand gives Véra the brush-off and puts the undisclosed hurt behind him (is this what he’s been doing all along?) by embarking on a passionate but brief fling with the lovely Geneviève (like we never saw that coming!).
Bertrand’s worst nightmare is that women might think he’s a bit of a dummy
It’s Christmas, and Bertrand returns to Montpellier and finds himself alone, Scrooge-like in his isolation, sorely lacking female companionship, when he gets hit by a car and is critically injured.
Still having the strength in him to admire the legs of the nurses from his hospital bed, Bertrand’s predilection for a glimpse of stocking proves fatal as he falls out of bed, thus severing the connection to his life-supporting drip.
Back to where it all started and the funeral procession of women, including Genevieve and her closing thoughts on the love and affection that Bertrand provided for the benefit of womankind … Finis.
Great fun and undoubtedly better than the 1983 American remake.
François Truffaut – clearly a man who loved typewriters (and women)
Corrado Tedeschi in “The Man Who Loved Women” (L’UOMO CHE AMAVA LE DONNE) a stage play based on and inspired by the film.