I should begin with an admission: I haven’t watched as much French cinema as I would have liked to. As far as foreign films go, Japan is my wheelhouse—this was decided at a young age and I have not been able to shake the fixation since—and while I certainly watch European films, particularly Italian and German works, my knowledge of French films and filmmakers is little more than superficial. Yet I have always wanted to watch François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim: it goes highly recommended; phrased another way, it seems to me that film scholars simply won’t stop talking about it. It’s been variously cited as a formative work for French cinema, and elsewhere a formative work for Western cinema. We might say that it has at the very least been pervasive. Martin Scorsese is said to have taken cues from this picture, and one assumes that many others have followed him. I have no qualms about joining the chorus now: this is a terrific picture.
Jules and Jim is set in France prior to the First World War, specifically in Paris, though following the war it moves to the Austrian countryside and then to a remote French village. We are presented with two friends, the titular Jules and Jim, the former a consummate introvert, obsessed with entomology and writing, the latter an intellectual playboy, and also a writer. The two happen to meet Catherine, a knockout blonde (played by Jeanne Moreau), and are immediately enthralled by her (and she by them). She is, in a word, vivacious—today we might describe her as ‘liberated’—and we are surprised when she picks the quiet Jules as her beau, eventually marrying him. We are markedly less surprised when her attraction to him fizzles out and she, with his agreement, begins seeing other men, one of them Jim.
While Jules and Jim’s names are on the title card, Catherine is the real star of this picture. The film orbits her and is focused on her relationships with the two leading men rather than their relationships with her. And it is just as well, for she is a very attractive type, both physically and personably. For me, it is her personality that is most alluring. She is an interesting case; we can say, for instance, that her behavior is often explicitly masculine, which is unusual as far as leading females go. She is a sexpot, unhealthily promiscuous, and that in itself is not all too novel, but the sheer degree of Catherine’s lust is unusual, and isn’t something we typically see in movies. She is, for instance, very clear about what she wants sexually—she openly tells Jules that he is not enough for her, and he knows that she will leave him if he tries to prevent her from seeing other men. It is as if she has co-opted the crude male notion of “spreading one’s seed.” In fact, Truffaut actually goes as far as to have Catherine dress up as Charlie Chaplin, literally having her become a man for a short period of time. We might be tempted to think she is denying her femininity, but in the same breath she is as stereotypically female as one can be, writing saccharine love letters and demanding an emotional connection with her lovers.
Traffaut doesn’t really allow us to think about the consequences of Catherine’s behavior. She is so set on what she wants that her acts almost come off as benign. We take it for granted that this is who she is, that it is to be expected of her, and that this is always the way it has been. Catherine is all emotion but no substance, and she tricks us into paying attention only to that emotional, carnal side. Accordingly, we tend to forget (or outright ignore) that her actions do in fact have consequences. But I think there is merit in taking a more psychological approach to the film, or at least a more psychological approach to her character. Fifty years ago we would have laughingly described Catherine as a nymphomaniac, but there’s actually no such thing; that ‘diagnosis’ no longer exists. She actually has a dysfunction, and it’s probably sexual addiction. Sex defines her; her desire for it also dominates her life. She risks ruining relationships, and on multiple occasions she abandons her child so she can take off on extended trysts with strange lovers. To say that her lifestyle is destructive is putting it mildly—that much is patently obvious—but interestingly, that’s as far down this avenue as Truffaut is willing to let us go. The film’s approach to sex and to Catherine’s promiscuity is so plain and munificent (one could even say lighthearted) that it’s actually difficult to criticize her. For Truffaut, her behavior is simply who she is, and the film throws her at us without any real scrutiny.
But there is a certain tragic element beneath it all. This must not have been a matter that Truffaut wanted us to dwell upon for any extended period, but he definitely included some darker beats in the narrative that end up distorting the film’s sweet equilibrium. Take, for instance, the fact that none of the three major characters have managed to escape their childhood. Until the film’s end, all three of them continue to act child-like—impulsively, and without fear of what the corollary of their actions might be. They are juveniles trapped within an adult shell. One of the film’s final scenes has Catherine brandishing a gun at Jim simply because he tells her he is interested in another woman. (The film’s conclusion is even more extreme, but I will not detail it here.)
A two-year-old will kick you in the shins because he has not yet realized that his actions cause pain. An adolescent will tease and pick at others simply because he wants to draw out a reaction. Jules, Jim and Catherine have not moved beyond such lower phases. They act on a whim; they are primal. There is something tragic about the fact that they are not in control of themselves. We could romanticize it and say that they are free, uninhibited, liberated—whatever the popular phrasing of the day may be—but it remains that they have not developed the emotional depth required to live a constructive and healthy life. Surely we are not surprised when the whole charade ends in ruin.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine director’s touch Truffaut exhibits here. The narrative is rapid and his camera is suitable light. Some takes are fairly long (typical of the French New Wave style) but Truffaut’s camera swims throughout the environment and immerses itself in unlikely places, giving the film a certain flow that one doesn’t see all too often. The camera’s solubility actually reflects the overall tenor of the film—ephemeral and raw. We drift quickly between days and months and years. Truffaut doesn’t hesitate to skip ahead in the story, leaving behind vast, undescribed periods of time. World War I, which lasted four years (and which essentially marks the midpoint of the film), is passed over in a seconds-long montage of archival footage. I noted earlier that Catherine is all emotion and no substance. That description suitably captures the essence of Jules and Jim. We typically consider a lack of substance to be something negative, but here it is hardly a bad thing. This is not a film that wants to dwell on the drama of human relationships. This is a one-and-a-half-hour examination of human emotion and spirit. It does so as well as any film we are ever likely to see. Jules and Jim is, in a word, excellent.
Next week, it’s thirty years on from the Sylvester Stallone classic First Blood!