Representation of Women in François Truffaut's Films: Can We Consider the Man Who Loved Women as a Tribute to Women or a Misogynist Film?

Representation of Women in François Truffaut's Films

Can we Consider The Man Who Loved Women as a Tribute to Women or Merely as a Misogynist Film?

A group of women gathering in front of a cemetery. They are all slim beautiful women wearing skirts and high heels. The non diegetic music is light-hearted while they are entering in to a cemetery. Then the camera takes the place of a dead man and we, the audience, are offered the spectacle of these women' legs passing one by one over the coffin. The funeral of Bertrand Morane in the opening sequence of The Man who loved Women (Truffaut, 1977) could have been Francois Truffaut's own funeral. Indeed throughout his life the director was always surrounded and passionate with beautiful women and the most sensual charismatic actresses of the time: Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant are only a few examples amongst many others. Most of Truffaut's films are nourished on his complex personality and events which occurred in his own life. In 1948 Alexandre Astruc claimed that a director should consider cinema as a language and therefore write with his camera (Douchet, p.40); this statement can hardly apply to anyone better than Truffaut who can definitely be considered as an « author of film. » Indeed, his films were always extremely personal and based on real life stories, from articles he read, or his own or friends’ life. It is important for this research to connect both the fictional world he created in his films, always close to reality, with his life as key biographical elements sometimes highlight and explain some of the cinematic choices he has made.

Throughout my dissertation I will analyse how Truffaut represented women in The Man who loves woman and observe how themes relating to women recur throughout his cinematic work forming a unique representation. Do his films reflect the director's admiration and respect for women? Is he really the man par excellence who loved women? or does he merely give the audience a misogynistic representation of women based on feminine objectification throughout his cinematic work?

Women are Fascinating

The Man who Loved Women follows the adventures of an obsessive seducer, Bertrand Morane, who has spent his life tracking down women. The character's philosophy is that each woman's body represents an unknown area and his objective is to find love through the discovery and uniqueness of each woman – and eventually, himself. His passion for women is primarily physical as he hardly ever talks about their personality but most times about their physical assets. For example in the course of The Man who Loved Women Morane does some soul searching while writing his autobiography and remembers the first time he made out with a girl when he was a teenager: “it's at this time that I realized that women’s company was indispensable to me, their vision more than their company anyway.” This line is followed by a sequence that shows Morane surveying the streets which are occupied only by women. Shots of Morane's contemplative face are intercut with a great number of close ups of women’s legs, walking in the street in a rhythmic montage. Morane's voice over keeps telling how fascinated he is with women' body and leg movements: “the legs of women are compasses which circle the globe, giving it its balance and harmony” this is one of his most famous statements. One can notice that most times in Truffaut's films feminine characters always wear dresses or skirts. When Nicole in “Soft Skin” wears a pair of jeans, Pierre asks her to get changed and she immediately does so in a petrol station. In Domicile conjugal when Antoine sees Kyoko for the first time she wears a pair of trousers but for their second encounter she reveals her legs as she wears a skirt. Legs clearly suggest desire and sexuality as Kyoko uses them to seduce Antoine who quickly gives in. Male characters whom are artist are the most sensible and the first to pay attention to this part of the body. For instance in Soft Skin when Pierre and her lover Nicole go to the countryside away from everyone, Pierre takes some pictures of Nicole asking her to pose for him. At some point he tells her that he does not like it when she crosses her legs, so he adjusts her position to take the picture. The artists which are an extension of Truffaut's sight, pay special attention to the position of their subject and their legs. In The bride wore black, Jeanne Moreau poses for her last victim, Fergus who is a painter and is fascinated with women and their bodies. During the painting session he asks her to put her legs in a certain way, as did Pierre with Nicole in Soft Skin. He describes himself as a “womanizer” but “when you've seen one you've seen them all” he says in a very male-centrist claim. This character, also played by Charles Denner, already gave the audience a first glimpse of Morane's character as they are pretty much the same. The search of love for both men is physical as Morane ends up calling and categorizing women by their shapes and curves and Fergus claims that he is able to guess a woman's measurements at first sight.
Morane/Truffaut's discourse is often extremely chauvinist. Stam confirms that this character has “an aesthetic attitude toward women” and that “he sees them as aesthetic products, simultaneously sex objects and “objects d'art.”” (Stam, p. 198)Truffaut's obsession for women’s bodies and especially their legs emerged very early on in his work; from the time he started writing reviews for Cahiers du Cinéma. His references to the actresses' body in films are recurrent and often very sexist (Dixon, p.5). For instance his review of Niagara's Underpinning is more a glorification of Marylin Monroe's body than a thoughtful review of the actual film. Truffaut claims that “Marilyn is definitely the girl she is said to be: plastically irreproachable, and more, from her toes to the very dip of her golden hair displayed prominently enough to make you die.” (Dixon, p.6) Eventually “his insistence on viewing the female body as an object, a locus of male desire”, was developed throughout his cinematic work too. Both throughout his critic and director's career he has fetishised and objectified women. Dixon argues that Truffaut's pre-feminist attitude and “insistence on viewing the female body as an object can become quite disconcerting.” However Truffaut is extremely aware of that and he reverses the situation in an amusing dream sequence in The Man who loved women when the shopkeeper – the only woman who stands up to him- replaces the feminine mannequin behind the lingerie shop window with a masculine dummy clearly representing Bertrand. The mannequin suddenly attracts lots of women who gather in front of the window to contemplate Bertrand making him feel very uncomfortable. This reversal is ironic as his body is suddenly becoming objectified too, displayed behind a window “the voyeur is vu”. Also at the very end of the film Bertrand is punished for his male chauvinism as while walking on the street he sees two women walking on the opposite pavement. His attention being distracted he is knocked down by a car. Then when he wakes up at hospital, connected to a machine, the first thing sees are the nurse's legs, he tries to sit up but falls down and dies. Meanwhile despite a discourse and representation which could sometimes appear as offensive towards women the conclusion of the film is touching as it gives voice to one of Bertrand's lovers, Genevieve, his editor who says that she is convinced that Bertrand loved all the women he met for their uniqueness, he loved them all despite their defaults. Truffaut's finale message in the film is extremely humanist and echoes to many other of his character's discourses: women are human above all.

Indeed the finale comment of Genevieve in The Man who Loved Women echoes with Mme Tabard's discourse in Stolen Kiss. Fabienne Tabard is the wife of the owner of a shoe store Antoine is working for. He is completely captivated with her from the first time he sees her. Their first encounter takes place in the store an evening when Antoine works late. She reveals her legs as she tries new high heels. For Antoine this woman is too beautiful to belong to reality. “Madame Tabard is not a woman, she is an apparition” and “she has an enchanting voice” he says.This is confirmed by Mulvey when she claims that “for a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no man’s land outside its own time and space”(Mulvey, p.20) Later in the film Mme Tabard comes to visit Antoine in his bedroom and explains to him that all human beings are exceptional and that therefore they are both unique and irreplaceable. She also accepts to sleep with him on condition that they never see each other again afterwards. For Truffaut anything that is beautiful cannot last and becomes all the more beautiful and unique for its temporary aspect. But a constant dichotomy inhabits Truffaut's piece as some of his characters accept the temporary aspect of life – Madame Tabard, Bertrand Morane – but others are in search of eternity (absolute). This is the case for Kyoko who wants to love Antoine forever as she says: “If I had to kill myself it would be with you” Truffaut himself once said “the child wants his mother for life, lovers want to love forever, all in ourselves is looking for absolute while life teaches us temporality.” (Ingram, p.73) This line is perfectly illustrated at the end of “The Woman next door” (Truffaut 1981) as Mathilde kills Bernard, her neighbor and old lover, and herself while they are making love. Some women like Mathilde want to keep the man they love entirely for themselves and forever. They are always on the verge of madness or completely driven into it such as Adele in Adele H (Truffaut, 1975). The film shows the obstinacy of Hugo's young daughter who tracks up and harasses a soldier, Pinson, who does not love her. “I'm your wife forever. We'll stay together until we die” she tells him in the course of the film through a line which strongly reminds of what Kyoko says to Antoine in the restaurant. Most of Truffaut's female characters are excessive and each time the director seems to push them to their limits. But these extreme cases are not the ultimate solution for Truffaut as he proposes an alternative for love and relationships, which are not as dramatic as his temporary/absolute panel of characters. In a few of his films his argument is that a woman does not have to choose between two lovers but on the contrary love more than one man at the same time. Even though the solution did not work for Catherine in Jules and Jim as Catherine who lives a passionate relationship with three men throughout the film ends up killing herself and Jim, Marianne in “The last metro” (Truffaut 1980) decides not to choose between Bernard and Lucas. Bernard is an actor who plays in the theater company she is in charge of since her Jewish husband had to stay hidden in the basement of the theater during the war. At the end of the film, the war ends and Lucas can attend the theatrical he has set up in which Bernard plays. At the end of the representation Lucas meets the actors on stage and greet the audience next to Bernard. Marianne comes to stand between them and holds both men hands. The film ends with a close up of the hands she has held. This is a rare example, if ever the only one, of a love triangle which is successful in Truffaut's cinema.

To conclude, even though women are strongly objectified in Truffaut's work, in his reviews as well as in his films, he always reminds the audience of their humanity. He cannot be considered as a misogynist as he really loved and respected women, on the contrary, he has crystallized their beauty in art through very powerful and complex characters. Even though he has captured feminine beauty, his representation of women has evolved throughout his films. I shall eventually analyze the evolution of the feminine representation in his cinematic pieces.

Documents related to Francois Truffaut and his films are numerous and easily accessible. Many English writers such as Allen and Petrie for instance have published some interesting (but sometimes divergent) analysis of Truffaut's films. All of these books take a close look at most of his films and often complete each other by analyzing recurrent themes. Those analysis have supported my understanding of the films as they are constantly strengthened with biographical elements of Truffaut's life. These biographical elements are interesting as they sometimes help to understand some of the director's recurring ideas and choices. For example the difficult relationship Truffaut had with his parents and especially with his mother, is reminded in all the books of this fact, helps to understand the harsh representation of the mother figure in films like The man who loved women and The 400 Blows. The representation of the maternal figure which is constantly mentioned but never fully developed will be essential for my dissertation as the uneasy and frustrating relationship Francois Truffaut had with his mother has partly determined his passionate relationship and images/ideas about women that he keeps promoting in his films.

The reading of Dixon's book was really interesting as it compiles and analyses some of Truffaut's early reviews for the Cahiers. It was surprising for me to find out that his obsession for women was already strongly present in his reviews.

French books on Truffaut are equally important. “Le cinema selon François Truffaut” is an essential chronological collection of the director's interviews throughout his career which allows us to know more about his life and the choices he made for each of his films. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana's book is a complete biography which gives a detailed account of Truffaut's life.

Throughout my research I have realized how essential it is to understand who was Truffaut and his complex personality to comprehend his films and characters and were often reflections of himself. The most obvious example of the young Antoine Doinel was always on the run and unable to manage and maintain a stable relationship (400 Blows, Baisers volés, domicile conjuguale...) but Truffaut is also Ferrand the passionate film director in La Nuit Americaine, the colonist who loved the deaths more than the living in The Green room and more importantly Bertrand Morane the seducer in The man who loved Woman

The reading of these books has been accompanied by the viewing and personal analysis of all Truffaut's films. I have come to the conclusion that each of his films gains its full signification when connected with the others. Truffaut's films are not just individual films but they all thematically and logically merge with each other. Constant references to women through images, dialogues and characters is one of the unifying line of Truffaut's pieces, which has interested me to write this dissertation.

Films by directed François Truffaut (French titles)

Les Miston, 1958
Les 400 Coups, 1959
Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960
Jules et Jim, 1962
Antoine et Colette, 1962
La Peau Douce, 1964
La mariée était en noir, 1967
Baisers volés, 1968
La Sirène du Mississipi, 1969
L'enfant sauvage, 1970
Domicile Conjugal, 1970
Les Deux Anglaises et le continent, 1971
Une belle fille comme moi, 1972
La Nuit Américaine, 1973
L'Histoire d'Adèle H, 1975
L'Argent de Poche, 1976
L'Homme qui aimait les femmes, 1977
La Chambre Verte, 1978
L'Amour en Fuite, 1979
Le dernier Métro, 1980
La Femme d'à côté, 1981
Vivement Dimanche, 1983

Books

English

Don Allen, Finally Truffaut, Martin Secker and Warburg Limited, 1985
Graham Petrie, The cinema of François Truffaut, The International Film Guide, 1970
James Monaco, The New Wave, Harbor Electronic Publishing, 2004
Laura Mulvey, Visual and other pleasures, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Richard Neupert, A History of The French New Wave Cinema, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002
Robert Stam, François Truffaut and Friends, Modernism, Sexuality and Film Adaptation,Rutgers University Press, 2006
Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut, Indiana University Press, 1993

French

Anne Gillain, Le Cinéma selon François Truffaut
Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, François Truffaut, Folio, 2001
Carole Le Berre, François Truffaut au travail, Cahiers du Cinéma, 2004
C.G Crisp, François Truffaut, November Books Limited, 1972
Jean Douchet, Nouvelle Vague, Cinemathèque Française, Edition Hazon, 1998
Robert Ingram, François Truffaut, Taschen, 2008