Truffaut explores a romantic triad in Jules and Jim
Jules and Jim
Directed by François Truffaut.
Written by François Truffaut and Jean Gruault; based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche.
Starring Oskar Werner, Jeanne Moreau, and Henri Serre.
LSC Classics Friday.
By Stephen Brophy
Ive watched Jules and Jim somewhere between 20 and 30 times over the last couple of decades. For much of that time it was my all-time favorite film. In the past few years it's been bumped from that favored position by Renoir's Rules of the Game and Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, but it still holds a lot of fascination for me. I still find myself trying to understand Catherine, the central character, magnificently portrayed by Jeanne Moreau, who is still my all-time favorite actor.
Catherine is a woman trying to create herself. She does not do this by trying to find her own essence and building around that, but instead tries to define herself in relation to the men in her life. This means she will try on one beguiling mask after another, from mother to femme fatale, from confidant to harpy, but that she will ultimately be empty at her center, and her identity will not hold.
Catherine comes into the movie only after we have met the title characters and learned the details of their shared lives and friendship. Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are both artists, writers living in the effervescence of pre-World War I Paris who translate each other's works (Jules is Austrian). Their connection with Catherine is pre-figured by a mutual fascination with an enigmatic statue on an Adriatic island, which signals that they will also be trying to mold Catherine to fit an aesthetic ideal.
The first part of the story, leading up to World War I, sparkles with the exuberance of their youthful enthusiasm and the sunlight that graces their excursions into the French countryside. This joyous feeling floats on a wonderful score by Georges Delerue and the sweeping camera work of Raoul Coutard. With the war's arrival, the friends are separated. Jules marries Catherine and returns to Austria, and both men live in a soldier's fear that they might unknowingly kill each other. At war's end Jim travels to Austria for a reunion, but the spirit of the gathering is not quite as happy, and as the world moves towards another total war, the film takes on a somber tone.
There is so much to marvel at in this movie, I hardly know where to begin. Truffaut mixes some archaic film techniques into his palate, giving him an ability to recreate la belle epoque with a simultaneous feeling of antiquity and freshness. The motif of circles is used in plot, narration, song, and camera work, at first to give a feeling of freedom and expansiveness, but then with war circling around again, a feeling of entrapment. The ménage a trois, which could be dealt with exploitatively is handled with great delicacy and reveals the rueful truth that, while one lover is not enough, more than one is too many. But finally the most marvelous creation in this film is Catherine.
I spent about an hour talking about Catherine last night with my friend (and fellow reviewer) Raul Gonzalez. Many of the ideas I've recorded here were sparked by him. He's been thinking about Catherine since he first saw Jules and Jim in high school several years ago. Together we thought about her as an embodiment of the spirit of her time, sinking into fascism, or perhaps of the existentialist philosophy which grew out of the despair caused by too many wars. How does her last desperate act, like an artist slashing her canvas, relate to the book burning she has seen in a newsreel?
These ideas might well change as we watch Jules and Jim again. Trying to understand the fascination of Catherine is like trying to explain the enigma of the Mona Lisa's smile, and ultimately, we are probably reading ourselves in our interpretations. But I have never encountered any other character in any other movie who makes me want to understand her so intensely.
Jules and Jim screens at 7:30 tonight in 10-250. The main LSC screen in 26-100 will be showing a serendipitously apropos feature at 7 and 10 PM - Kieslowski's White.