Review of "Jules et Jim" (1962)
A film review inspired by "Film: A Guide for Teens" by Ronald Chase
©Lucy Johns November 7, 2003
The vicissitudes of life and love swirl and roil and confound in "Jules et Jim," a paean to a rather French view of the human condition personified in the artistic intelligentsia of early 20th century Paris. The film is reminiscent of "La Bohème," with an enchanting musical motif but a complete reversal of the classical story of who suffers for love.
Jim, a French writer, and Jules, a German (Austrian?) poet and free spirit, become soulmates whose friendship is the only certainty in this tale of two men and the woman whose beauty and mystery become the center of their lives. Jeanne Moreau, in the role that defined her career, is magnetic and maddening as the unpredictable Catherine. She resembles a prehistoric sculpture "on an Adriatic isle" that Jules and Jim fly to visit after seeing a photograph in a friend's atelier. Supported in this "folie" by invisible financial resources, they wear the same clothes and vow that if a woman with the features of the stone head is ever met, they will follow her forever. Soon after, Moreau appears. Jules claims her instantly. He makes no protest when she asks to include Jim in a cross-dressing lark through working class Paris. All he asks of his friend is a quick "Not this one, Jim." Even after saving Catherine's life when her dress catches fire from burning a batch of "lies" on the floor of her studio, Jim is fascinated but respectful. The bouncing, hand-held camera captures the elfin mischief of Catherine's transgressions of clothes and behavior: she wears pants, smokes, races, and beats her copains because she sprints early off the starting line. That her whims can veer suddenly to the dangerous is apparent in a remarkable scene along the Seine one night after theater. The threesome has been to see an unnamed new Swedish play that each interprets differently. (Surely Ibsen's "The Dollhouse.") The men disparage the heroin for different reasons; Catherine "gets" the play's theme, which her friend and lover completely miss. When they ignore her analysis and fall into their comfortable disputations, she recaptures their attention by jumping into the river in her tight long dress and hat. No harm done but the point is made: she is an uncontrollable force. The three of them then whirl through an idyllic holiday in the south - again the means are invisible but adequate for the pretty villa and days frolicking on meadows and beach. Finally, Catherine consents to marry Jules, shortly after which they are all separated by W.W.I. Jules and Jim don opposing uniforms. Both write their beloveds - Jim has his archtypically devoted Gilberte – and their fear of hurting the other in the chaos.
Here "Jules et Jim" dips below the surface tumult of bohemian affairs and creativity for a long sequence of original footage of real tumult, that hideous, incomprehensible war. Truffaut spends more time in this era than the viewer might expect, since a mere visual hint would evoke in the audience of his own time memories of W.W.II and its horrors. Scene after scene of violence and noise unfold, with the occasional glimpse of Jules or Jim in their wartime roles. In a way unrealized until the end of the film, Truffaut is preparing for the sadness and violence that will visit the trio when they reunite after the war.
Reunite they do, now in Jule's villa on the Rhine where the couple and their daughter lead superficially tranquil but emotionally raw lives. Jim comes to visit. He intuits and is then told by both Jules and Catherine of their estrangement and of Catherine's periodic disappearances for respite from wife and motherhood. These conversations almost shock with their intimacy and honesty, surely unprecedented in film. Inevitably, Catherine determines to seduce Jim at last. With Jules' full acquiescence, she installs Jim in their house. Jules' motives are conveyed with a delicacy and understanding also surely unprecedented in a film script: at least he knows where she is, even though his lifelong chum is now in his beloved's bed. Her mere presence, he tells Jim with a candor rare for men but, the audience now knows, not for this pair, is both sufficient for him and essential for life. Oscar Werner masterfully conveys Jules' pain and devotion. His unconditional acceptance of his wife's increasingly profound transgressions signals a patient integrity associated more with the Mimi's of the world than with men of means and experience. Catherine knows this. She relies on Jules' fidelity as the anchor in the storms she creates to sustain her own vision of life. A scene where the camera never leaves their tearful faces as they voice the terms of their indissoluble union is both merciless and incomparably tender. She will always leave him but she will always come back because he will never leave her.
The highlight of this new permutation in these three lives is Catherine's performance of a song written for her by yet another lover. Its poignant theme of perpetual rondelet and its indelible tune, as familiar as "Frere Jacques" to those who first heard it in their own Bohemian youth, encapsulates this masterpiece and, perhaps, Truffaut's own philosophy of life.
An entire essay could be written about the character of Catherine. She appears as a woman liberated from the stifling female roles of her era. Was she abused once and takes her revenge by being both irresistible and uncatchable? She has strong feelings on the subject of male perfidy: she burns letters of "lies" and empties a bottle of lye that she keeps handy for "lying eyes." Yet her willfulness and independence reek of childish impetuosity, as though the freedom she claims is authentic as an expression of human need but is also reckless. Unlike the two men, whose unconventional lives seem to grow through love, work, making war, and getting older, Catherine lacks the maturity throughout the movie - and perhaps the intelligence, Jules hints once - to use freedom wisely. She also trails a longing for motherhood that seems a little desperate on the part of the male filmmakers: yes she is ungovernable but she craves the irreducible essence of womanhood. Her disregard of conventional "morality" and escape from its punishments are not as unsettling as her arrested trajectory from seducer to recognizably modern autonomy. The director and his script writer would surely have read Simon de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex," published in 1949 and probably debated for years before that. But they do not present the woman that de Beauvoir envisioned. Were they ready for her?
That is why this movie seems so "rather French." The character of Catherine - perceived by her creators and companions as quixotic, intriguing, mystifying - does not go so far that French men could be frightened or angered by her. Her embrace of freedom occurs only within a realm they well understand: the arena of "free love" they have taken for granted for themselves for centuries. Until the end of the film, when her life choices destroy as unpredictably as any war. Maybe liberated women are, ultimately, not a good thing – for men.