Perhaps Francois Truffaut’s most memorable film was Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim, 1962). It was the third feature film for the 29-year-old former film critic, coming directly after his outstanding Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste, 1960), and for many people it ranks as the seminal film of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) in cinematic expression.
The story is based on the mostly autobiographical first novel of the same name by Henri-Pierre Roché, which he published in 1953 at the age of 74 and which described his experiences many decades earlier. Truffaut is said to have run across this novel in 1955 at a used book stall in Paris and had been so enthralled by it that he vowed to make a film out of the story . Truffaut and Roché gradually worked out the script of the film, although the author’s death in 1959 prevented his seeing the finished project. Nevertheless, Roché did know about and approved the idea of Jeanne Moreau playing the pivotal role of Catherine in the story .
Actually, Jeanne Moreau’s performance is so electric that many viewers, particularly women, in my experience, feel that the film is really about her character. Ms. Moreau’s lengthy career was full of acclaimed showings, often as a femme fatale, but most people regard her role here in Jules and Jim as her signature performance. It may well have been vitalized by the fact that she and Truffaut were apparently having an affair at the time of production . The entire cast, though, is excellent and features:
- Jeanne Moreau as Catherine
- Oskar Werner as Jules
- Henri Serre as Jim
- Vanna Urbino as Gilberte, Jim's fiancee
- Serge Rezvani as Albert, a friend of Jules's
- Marie Dubois, who was wonderful in Shoot the Piano Player, has a memorable cameo role as Thérèse, a woman who has a brief affair with Jules.
This inventive mise-en-scene of Truffaut and Coutard is one of the principal virtues of Jules and Jim, because it imbues the film with a pervasive sense of melancholy, even including those early scenes representing care-free enjoyment. We know from the narrative voiceover that this story is one of recollection, remembrance of things past, but the cinematography accentuates this psychological experience by highlighting (using, for example, freeze frames) those special moments that persist in one’s memories of long ago experiences. This contemplative, melancholy flavouring is one of the things that makes the film special.
The narrative covers the long-standing friendship of two men, Jules and Jim, and how they attempted to accommodate themselves to the love they both felt for the same woman. The two men have distinct personalities, which makes their friendship rather interesting. Jules is sensitive, giving, and vulnerable. Jim is gentlemanly, but also more self-sufficient – he plays by his own rules and doesn’t give in so easily to others’ demands. Nevertheless, they formed a firm partnership, such that they were likened by others to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. One might first think that the confidant Jim was the Quixote character, and the less dominant Jules was the Sancho Panza. But recall in that ancient tale that Don Quixote was the idealistic dreamer, while Sancho Panza was the worldly and pragmatic operator. In addition it appears that Jules is wealthier than Jim. So I would say that Jules is the Quixote character, and Jim is the Sancho Panza of the twosome. And yet one could also say that in a certain sense the truly “quixotic” one is Catherine. Anyway, the focalization of this tale is on Jim, whose perspective mirrors the experiences of Henri-Pierre Roché. Just about everything that we see in the film is from Jim’s viewpoint or what Jim would probably have been told about. Note that since this is all reminiscence, what Jim remembers could also be scenes that he devised in his mind from what he was told.
As the story of their friendship evolves, it passes through a series of stages.
1. Jules and Jim Form a Friendship
2. Jules, Jim, and Catherine
Jules takes an immediate interest in Catherine, and pleadingly whispers privately to his friend, “Not with her, Jim, OK?”. It is clear that Jules feels hopelessly inferior to Jim on the romantic plane. But anyway, Jim already has a girlfriend, Gilberte, who loves him without reservation and hopes that he will ask her to marry him.
On one occasion Catherine dresses as a man, and the three of them take to the streets fooling people into believing that they are three men together. At another point when Jim is helping Catherine with her suitcase to make a short trip, Jim notices that she packs a bottle of sulfuric acid to use against any man who might abuse her.
Later while they are walking in the evening after seeing a theatrical play together, Catherine becomes bored and frustrated with her companions’ intellectual reactions to the play. Catherine says she liked the girl in the play, because “she wants to be free and live each moment of her life”; while Jules and Jim dismiss her psychological analysis and prefer to discuss the “metaphysics” behind the play. After hearing them go on about this, Catherine impulsively jumps off a bridge into the Seine river. The voiceover narration at this point tells how favourably impressed Jim was with Catherine by this act.
Finally, Jules telephones Jim to tell him that he and Catherine are going back to Austria to get married. But shortly thereafter World War I breaks out, and the two men are conscripted to serve in the armies of their mutually opposed countries. During the war, Jules writes passionate love letters to Catherine, while Jim manages to see Gilberte on one of his infrequent furloughs.
3 Jim’s Postwar Visit to Austria
After the war, Jim, who is now working for a newspaper, is invited to visit Jules and Catherine in Austria for a month. Although at first Jim seems to be visiting a happily married couple, now with a young daughter named Sabine, he soon learns that their marriage is failing. Jules privately tells Jim that Catherine is unhappy with him and has already had several affairs, “one as revenge for something I did, but I don’t know what.” He confesses glumly to his friend, “I am not the man for her.”
After hearing this, Jim recalls Jules’s past “errors” with other women. This reflects more on the character of Jim than on that of Jules. To the manipulative Jim, a successful relationship depends one’s abilities to perform the “correct” actions towards the other.
After a week, Jim and Catherine become more familiar, and they go for a walk alone in the evening. Jim is now wrestling with the fact that he has always been attracted to Catherine, and he wonders what he should do. While they walk, Catherine is amazingly frank in describing her failed marriage.
“I hoped to heal him [Jules] of his crises with cheerfulness, but I realized that his crises were part of him.”She tells him that they now live in separate rooms and that she has only been back for 3 months, after being apart during a 6-month affair. At the moment, she is having an affair with Jules’s old friend Albert. In response to all this, Jim tells her that he always knew that Jules would be unable to hold on to her and that he has understood her; but Catherine defiantly answers by saying, “I don’t want to be understood.”
. . .
“Our last argument and true breakup was on his first leave [from the army]”. I felt like I was in a stranger’s arms . . . He left. 9 months later Sabine was born.”
. . .
“As a husband to me, Jules is finished.”
However, Jules still loves Catherine and desperately wants to be a part of her life, no matter how diminished his role might be. He tells Jim to go ahead and romance Catherine and marry her, just so he will have the chance to see her sometimes.
4. Jim and Catherine Get Together
The next morning Catherine tells Jules that Jim should live with them. They become a menage a trois, or perhaps un amour a trois. It is truly three-way, since Jules and Jim love each other, platonically, too.
However, not long later, boredom for Catherine sets in again. One Sunday afternoon, she decides to seduce Jules, much to the consternation of the now-infatuated Jim. The “amour-a-trois” relationship has its limits. Eventually Jim’s newspaper recalls him to Paris. On departing, Jim tells Catherine that he wants to marry her and have children.
5. Jim and Catherine Struggle
Back in Paris and now sick with the flu, Jim receives a letter from Catherine that sets off a message exchange that highlights their mutual mistrust and unwillingness to surrender to love (only Jules and Gilberte in this story could do that).
- Catherine’s letter tells Jim that she is pregnant, and for him to come immediately..
- Jim writes back jealously saying he is sick and not coming back.
- Jules writes to Jim saying they doubt that Jim is really sick and that he should come back anyway.
- Jim writes back saying, given Catherine’s promiscuity, he doubts that he is the father.
- But at the same time (their letters crossed in the mail), he gets a letter from Catherine saying that she really loves him.
- So Jim writes a second letter to Catherine saying that he loves her and is coming.
- Catherine, meanwhile, has received Jim’s earlier letter, and angrily writes back telling him to get lost.
- Then Catherine gets Jim’s subsequent letter, and writes to him that she loves him and for him to come.
- Finally, Jim gets a letter from Jules informing him that Catherine had a miscarriage and that Catherine wants to terminate their relationship.
There are increasingly dramatic encounters between Catherine and Jim, but things are not headed in an optimistic direction, and I will leave it to you to see what happens in the end. In the final scene, Jules reflects that the relationship he had with Jim had no equal in love.
There are fascinating and attractive aspects of Jules and Jim, but there are weaknesses, too. The story covers a considerable duration, some twenty years, and yet the passing of time is not well presented in the film. The film begins in 1912, and by the end of the story we are aware of Nazi book-burnings, which must make it around 1933. And yet the characters show no signs of aging or acknowledgements that considerable amounts of time have passed since their earlier encounters. One could perhaps argue that this is the nature of memory – we situate our memories in the past, but we don’t emphasize the passing of time. Our memories represent snap-shots of experiences that we have simply had in the past, which is “back there in time”, but may have little temporality to them. We don’t think of ourselves as having changed very much, at least psychologically, it is only the external world of circumstances that has changed.
In this respect we have three distinct, but realistic, personalities.
- Catherine is willful and spontaneous. She lives for the moment. She can be likened to the Anny character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, who was always searching for the perfect moment. This is not an exclusively feminine trait, as attested to by Goethe’s Faust. But Catherine is also selfish and lacking in compassion. She wants to be possessed by an “alpha male”, but only for a moment. Then she wants to break free and look for something else.
- Jim is inspired to be the “alpha male”, but he is concerned about his own dignity and his faithfulness to higher principals. In this connection, he is conscious of avoiding “mistakes” when dealing with women he wishes to possess.
- Jules is compassionate and giving, but he evinces neither the commanding nature or the mystery that Catherine desires.
To a certain extent, I see both Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard as frustrated romantics. Though they had different styles of cinematic expression, they both showed worlds depicting romantic possibilities that were thwarted not by bad luck, but because they were intrinsically doomed to be thwarted. This is the nature of tragedy. It is to Francois Truffaut’s credit that he could depict this kind of tragedy in a cinematic fashion that, by combining music, temporal sequences, and psychologically-inspired images, showed how far one could go beyond the written word to express these feelings.
- Truffaut would later make another excellent film based on Roché’s only other novel, the also semi-autobiographical Two English Girls (Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, 1971).
- Chale Nafus, “Jules and Jim”, Austin Film Society, (2014).