Jules and Jim: Genius locked away in a moment in time.
There are many ways to appreciate a Francoise Truffaut film. In this respect he is the aesthetes greatest friend. There is never the moral simplicity we see in a Bresson film or the obtuse avantgarde we see in Godard. Truffaut is an artist who makes films he thinks are beautiful.
Jules and Jim is an adaptation of a novel written by a man in his seventies, directed by a man in his twenties. The age of Truffaut when he attempted something of this magnitude is astounding considering its scope. This is a film about indecision. Set during the advent of World War I, Jules and Jim is an allegorical film about the turmoil between French nationalism and the German occupation of World War II. As with the characters’ doomed love triangle, the film is a scathing indictment of a country led to ruin by lack of conviction and feigned neutrality. Just as our trio of lovers are doomed to a devastating end, so the backdrop of national affairs reveals a nation destroying itself with fence-sitting.
Traffaut uses incredible cinematic technique not seen before such as original footage news reel of the wars, photographic stills, freeze frames, panning shots, wipes, masking, dolly shots, and voice over narration. Some of the post war scenes were shot on bicycles. The strictly film school review of this film brings to the attention the frequent use of cycles. The hourglass Jules uses to send him to bed, a scene where the camera pans around the bistro beginning and ending with the two friends talking. Catherine changes hats and takes on a new personality with each one. Bicycle trips feature prominently in several scenes particularly those that involve lovers. Finally Catherine’s song which alludes to her pattern of indiscretions, separations, and reconciliations with Jules. Here the cyclical theme represents a love triangle. However, it also represents a vicious cycle. Catherine’s self-destructive “whirlpool” – of extramarital affairs, emotional vacillation, and cruelty to the people who love her.
The plot, if you don’t already know, is about two young Bohemian art lovers. Jules (Oskar Werner), a sensitive and very sweet German man and Jim (Henri Serre), a freedom loving Frenchman – a lothario with no women attached to him. They discuss the matter of finding a woman for Jules, but nothing seems to work. Then one evening, they are at a friend’s house (a very important character in the film who has almost no lines – it is his presence that is important not what he says, which is very interesting) and while they are looking at images of art, they see one of woman with a smile that excites them. They are so taken with this statue they decide to travel to the Aegean to see the statue for themselves. It is when they are standing in front of the statue that they vow to commit themselves to the first woman they meet who has her smile. And this sets up the entry for the beautiful Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). Jules marries Catherine after the trio have been spending much playful happy time together. Both men are then called to war. When Jules returns to Catherine and their daughter (conceived on a brief visit home by Jules – it is definitely his child) he finds Catherine becoming bored with their marriage. They move into a house, and despite Catherine’s pristine wife and mother routine (probably the only genuine act of love she displays in the film) Catherine starts to have affairs.
She flirts with and attempts to seduce Jim, who has never forgotten her. Jules, desperate that Catherine might leave him forever, gives his blessing for Jim to marry Catherine so that he may continue to visit them and see her. For a while, the four of them live happily together in the same chalet in Austria, until tensions between Jim and Catherine arise because of their inability to have a child. Jim leaves Catherine and returns to Paris. After several exchanges of letters between Catherine and Jim, the relationship is broken off when Jules writes to inform Jim that his and Catherine’s unborn baby has miscarried.
After a time, Jim runs into Jules in Paris. He finds that Jules and Catherine have returned to France. Catherine attempts to win Jim back, but he rebuffs her, saying he is going to marry Gilberte – the other constant female in his life. Furious, she pulls a gun on him, but he wrestles it away and flees. He later encounters Jules and Catherine in a famous (at that time) movie theater, the Studio des Ursulines. The three of them visit a park, and after lunch, Catherine invites Jim to get into her car because she has something to show him. After telling Jules to watch them, she proceeds to drive the car off the broken arch of a bridge, killing them both. Jules is left to dispose of the ashes of his friends. Jules is left with his deepest fear – that he would have to live with out Catherine and Jim.
I have to make a girly point here regarding characterisation. In 1962 when the film was made, and in the subsequent years, Catherine was a role model for the liberated woman. She’s french (for a start) plus she comes across as so liberated because she “does what she wants” and because she shows no respect for marriage. Women were dressing like her, she made heavy black top-lidded eye liner fashionable and those with enough moxy started to sleep around. IN fact, Truffaut liked this impression to be made on the women at the time, as if Catherine were a role model for the freewheeling modern woman.
Through the lens of time, both Catherine and Truffaut have dated. No modern male would put up with her unfaithful bratishness, least of all an intelligent bohemian one. Today Catherine looks a lot like a deeply troubled girl who has been molly-codled all her life. Indeed, Jules refers to Catherine as a Queen and from then on in the film, her sycophantic males are refered to as drones. She is elusive, unreal and unnatural. She is not a real person. She feels pain, but only in dramatic fits of attention seeking childishness. She is pathological when she doesn’t get her own way. She has so little empathy as to border on sociopathy. She is a good mother, but it is an act designed to seduce hapless pathetic males.
Because the cinematography is so light and playful, we are given to feeling as though we understand Catherine. When she runs across the bridge pretending to be Tom, the camera runs along side of her and we feel that we are beating the men in this race as well. However, cinema is not sexuality and in today’s society these neat tricks do not hide from us the disturbing nature of Catherine. In fact, what is overwhelming obvious under the lens of po-mo pop deconstruction, is that Jules and Jim have got to be gay. It is each other they are attracted to and positing Catherine between them is now and has always been a way for two men to get close to each other. Moreau is completely inexplicable. We have no idea why she cheats at everything. It is assumed to be a complete integrity with authenticity, but no one would fall for that nowadays. And what authenticity? To what is she being loyal? her desire to hurt and castrate every male in a ten-mile radius?
Like Hugh Hefner today, I feel sure if you accused Traffaut of misogyny, he would look at you owl-eyed, shocked and clasp a hand to his breast. Ad yet look at the women in the film. Therese entertains her many male lovers by placing the cigarette in her mouth backwards and pretends to be a steam train (phallic), and she is still doing this twenty years later in the film. To quote Germaine Greer in her Jules and Jim piece in the Guardian, “The sequence in which she babbles her tawdry life story at Jim must be one of the most repulsive vignettes of a woman ever made.” Jim rarely pays her any attention as she vomited her story out regardless. “Jim’s faithful doormat girlfriend Gilberte is probably meant simply as a foil to the fascinating Catherine, but she is no less contemptible in her abject way. Then we have the speechless Denise, “un bel objet” who is nothing but a “creux”, a hole.” The moment when Jim is introduced to Denise is shocking by today’s standards. Her lover raps his knuckles on her head and declares” empty” in a triumphant sort of way. She is only for sex, he claims and both men stare at her in a wonder that lasts for a full two seconds.
Having said that… I did love this film very much.
I’ve watched two Truffaut films in the last couple of days, and although there are similarities, I will save that for the other review of A Gorgeous Girl Like Me. Jules and Jim is a film too rich and beautiful in scope, and I don’t want to bore my precious readers with my endless adorations. So I am forced to elicit a series of observations as succinctly and clearly as I can, because there is so much to say about this film I can go on and on for days. Francoise Truffaut has such control over every aspect of his films, we are offered several vantage points from which to see the film, such as complex characterisation, complex situations, literature, music and art.
The use or works of art in his films never fall into sycophantic homage. Instead they act as symbols which extend the meaning of cinema so that it becomes its own all-inclusive art. The way Truffaut includes these in this film (in particular) gives us access to the works almost as if we were one of the characters in the film being affected. The problem with this is obvious. The viewer has to be familiar with several artistic expressions in order to receive the full impact. However, the way Truffaut uses the works of art, invite us to experience them outside of our knowledge. Take the multiple references to Picasso in Jules and Jim. Yes his works are seen on the walls of many of the shots, but when Jules wants to tell Jim what the pretty girl he likes back home looks like, he clears the table and draws her in cubist style. The girl looks exactly like a Picasso ink drawing and Jim is suitably impressed with her beauty. Picasso is used as the symbol of European intellectualism before the second world war.
One of the most interesting filmmaking features of Jules and Jim is the use of temporal distortion. One of the best examples is the first two minutes of the film. The third person narrative, which encapsulates the film’s exposition in the most laconic of terms, describing the meeting and developing friendship of Jules and Jim, and also by the selective images which largely avoid a redunant description of the aural narrative, but instead seek to interpret and compliment. For example when the narrator informs us that Jules is a foreigner in Paris and wants to attend an arts students ball but needs a costume, we have the simple image of the two of them playing dominoes. (incidentally this becomes a motif in the film representing the friendship between the two men and it is played out again later between Jules and his daughter. that was really sweet) Next, the narrator tells us that their friendship grows; the ball takes place; that Jules has tender eyes. The overlaid image though is of Jules and Jim hunting for a costume. What is interesting about this is that not only does Truffaut use technique to speed up time, but he plays it back against itself to create a duality. This created a feeling (sense) of freedom in the viewer – as if we are privy to something the characters are not (which we are) and this results in a great visual freedom that acts out as if it were a child’s story we are watching instead of real life. This dualistic technique is repeated several times throughout the film. In fact, as the film goes on, the characters often act as their own narrators and sometimes even pause to tell their story, almost lifting themselves out of the narrative. (as with Catherine with her song or when she is talking at Jules and Jim – reciting the wines of France – and is being tolerated but ignored.) This has the effect of a story – as if we are being read a child’s story at bed time. Truffaut creates this through temporal displacement as well. A great example of this is when the men meet the anarchists girlfriend.
Another classic example of temporal distortion is when Jules and Jim are watching the slides made by Albert. The swift movement between visualisation of the slides is juxtaposed against the slow meandering method Albert employs the change the slides jars us. We are forced out of the visual narrative and are made to remember this is a film we are watching. We are watching a film about pictures of art. This is an early example of the film’s preoccupation with art and film in particular, which becomes sometimes almost self-reflexive. There is nothing unusual in the moment Jules and Jim go to see the statue in “real Life” but the swiftness of it is a surprise to us, the audience. We are reminded this is a stylised world, a storybook world where wonderful things do come to pass.
Truffaut also uses spacial distortion to create this effect. In the early scenes with Catherine, there is a race across a bridge. This is a scene to establish character. Catherine is cheating at the game of life. She is dressed as a man and she starts to run before the ready set go in an outlandish desire to win. When we see the three of them at the beginning of the bridge, bending to a starting position, with Catherine’s subsequent darting ahead of time, there is a sudden cut which reveals the figures now displaced. The race no longer starts at the beginning of the bridge but at least a third of the way down. And so we see a sympathy between the film—the form that Truffaut creates—and the characters in the film: where Catherine cheats in the race by changing the time of the start, the film itself cheats in the race by changing theplace of the start. This creates two parallel realities. One of the film and one in the film.
Truffaut (in a way I think is brilliant) uses montage to replace narrative. A great example of this is in the dress burning episode. The scene begins with long depth, much detail and very little happening. Jim moves Catherine’s bicycle and attends to other very small bits of business. The pace is deliberately slow. Catherine then takes a pile of letters and claims she wants to burn lies. here is where the montage proper begins. In contrast to the plodding long-take, we now cut rapidly from one brief shot to another, constantly changing angles; and in the space of twenty-four seconds we see twenty separate shots. The short shots are hand-held, and the additional movement of the camera augments the excitement created by the fast paced montage. But nothing has happened. Catherine is still burning papers on the floor. The montage (in place of the absent narrator) is warning us that something will happen here. once the dress is alight, the danger is no longer real – it is actual. The short shots continue with rapid pans and tilts, the montage serving now to intensify our impression of danger. However, because the danger was first suggested and then maintained by a stylistic device and since it portrays a symbolic action – Catherine burning lies – we get the feeling the danger this is predicting is more far-reaching than the one we perceive. Perhaps it is the danger Catherine must face when stripped of her protective pretence, when she must finally confront absolute truth which fails to conform to her idealised image. In this way the montage is informing us, the danger of telling lies then, is the danger of absolute truth.
I could go on and on. Montage used again when Catherine performs her (prophetic) mock suicide by jumping off the bridge, the black background on the panning in on Catherine and Jules feet together under the table to look like a photograph – a story of their future marriage. Long sequences used in expressionist style to posit against realism. The beauty in this lovely lovely film is endless.
Despite the problems with female characters (note to all future filmmakers – lets stop doing this shall we?) this is an incredibly exciting film I can watch again and again to capture the brilliance of Truffaut.
The great news is – I have my hands on Two English Girls now, (!) so I can watch his follow-up years later. Similar tale, different place and time.
I’m looking forward to it.
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For notes on Trauffaut’s cinematic techniques, I went to this brilliant essay by Keith Waddington.