Jules et Jim
France (1962) Dir. Francois Truffaut
Paris 1912 and two friends, shy Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and extroverted Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) meet the enigmatic Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who reminds them of a statue thery both were smitten with. A bond gradually forms between this threesome but, as Jim already has a girlfriend, Gilberte (Vanna Urbino), it is Jules who wins Catherine over. After being separated due to The First World War, the trio are reunited in Germany where Jules and Catherine are now married with a daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin). But it is not a happy marriage and Catherine wants to start something with Jim while Jules doesn’t want to lose his wife.
Truffaut was one of the founders of the French New Wave of the 1950’s and 60’s and this, his third film, is considered his magnum opus. This is my first taste of Truffaut and well, it was an interesting ride to say the least.
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché’s, we are thrust into the carefree and bohemian world of pre-war Europe in which Catherine is clearly a free spirit but a directionless one, for whom love is a tangible fantasy, if only she knew how to recognise it. At first her capricious and reckless ways excite the two friends but as their feelings grow for her, their desire to harness that energy for themselves is where the trouble begins. Later when Jules and Catherine’s marriage starts to crumble, she does what she always does and runs away entering into a string of affairs.
Afraid of losing her, Jules accepts his wife’s infidelity on the proviso she returns to the martial fold. With Jim now on the scene Catherine decides she wants to marry him instead, which Jules again capitulates to as long as they can still be friends. When Catherine falls pregnant to Jim as he returns home and sadly miscarries, Catherine shuts Jim out and once again goes off the rails while staying with Jules. From then on we are witnesses to one of the oddest love triangle/on again-off again relationships ever seen on film.
The story is a fairly straightforward one – it is the execution which clouds it a little. Anyone not familiar or too fond with World Cinema will surely find the narrative often confusing and the reliance on a heavily artistic style too esoteric and distracting for the uninitiated. The backstory prior to the arrival of Catherine is raced through in the first few minutes with the aid of the film long narrator before eventually settling down. However, as much as the presentation style might be off putting, Catherine’s borderline schizophrenic behaviour is equally disarming.
There is rarely a moment where she is likeable and even during her lowest ebbs there is little room for sympathy for her. There doesn’t even appear to be any real rationale for her behaviour and even though she is the one to bring things to its conclusion it doesn’t feel completely like the gesture of someone trying to make amends for their actions. Others may read other things into this but Catherine, for me, comes across as an unapologetic cipher to highlight the way men can be easily manipulated.
Jules and Jim therefore are painted as romantic mugs who allow themselves to be dictated by the weakness of their emotions and not their heads, with Jim being the strongest of the two as he has Gilberte to fall back on, while Jules is just waiting for Catherine to get back with him. Of course being French and bohemian, the disputes are discussed in a poetic and verbose manner instead of the requisite screaming and outpouring of emotions. Whether this works is purely subjective matter although there is a keen sense of uniqueness about the former approach. Dare I be so bold as to suggest that all of the “pretentious” misgivings non-cineastes have against French cinema are found in these very scenes?
What can’t be argued against this film is the production, with some sumptuous and groundbreaking cinematography to behold, and the performances of the three leads. Each one inhabits their character with assurance and conviction but it is the legendary Jeanne Moreau who has the more arduous job, charged with the task of making a character who encapsulates all of the qualities in a woman to appeal to and excite the various men in her life. The Chaka Khan song “I’m Every Woman” could have been written about Catherine.
To conclude, I think I may have gone into Jules et Jim with extraordinarily high expectations, having enjoyed many other French films – both old and modern – and because of its revered status. I didn’t dislike it but it didn’t connect with me on the same level I expected it to. Perhaps a repeated viewing somewhere down the line might yield a different response, but for now I’m glad I have seen it, even if it didn’t hit the target for me.