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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Jules and Jim

Director: François Truffaut
Country: France
Year: 1962

Background

I’ve already told you about Truffaut, right? A tart-tongued film critic who regularly denounced the state of French cinema? Who eventually stepped up to the plate with The 400 Blows and knocked it out of the park on his first at-bat? At the age of 27? Right, so we don’t need to go over that again, thereby increasing my feelings of insignificance?

Jules and Jim was originally what they call a roman à clef (“a novel in which some or all of the characters are based on real people and that usually includes clues to the characters’ true identities”) written in 1953 by Henri-Pierre Roché. François Truffaut praised the novel, calling it “a perfect hymn to love, perhaps even a hymn to life.”

In 1961, after the astonishing one-two punch of The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut felt ready to turn Roché’s elegiac novel into a film.

Though the film is named after the two male leads, the heart of the film, its driving force, is the character of Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau. Ironically, given the events of the plot, Truffaut began a torrid affair with Moreau while on vacation with her and her ex-husband (Jean-Louis Richard, who has a bit part in Jules and Jim, and who would later collaborate with Truffaut on the screenplays for The Bride Wore Black and Day for Night).

Upon its release, Jules and Jim was immediately and (almost) universally heralded as a masterpiece. Perhaps more significantly, Helene Hessel, the woman on whom the character of Catherine was closely based, praised the film in a letter to Truffaut: “…what disposition in you, what affinity could enlighten you to the point of making the essence of our intimate emotions perceptible?”

Pauline Kael says that Jules and Jim “…ranks among the great lyric achievements of the screen.”

Derek Malcom of the Guardian calls it “…the audacious apotheosis of the French New Wave.”

I can’t make up anything more pithy or accurate than the following quote from film critic Andrew Sarris, who wrote that Jules and Jim celebrates “the sweet pain of the impossible and the magnificent failure of an ideal.”

Synopsis

You said “I love you.” I said, “wait.”
I was about to say “Take me.” You said, “Go.”

Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a Frenchy, meet in Paris in 1912 when Jules asks Jim to get him an invitation to a costume ball.

“It was while Jules rummaged gently through the clothes for a slave costume that Jim’s friendship for Jules was born…” and soon they are inseparable, reading poetry to each other, discussing philosophy, and (they are men, after all) trying to figure out how to get laid.

“Jules had no girls in Paris, and wanted one. Jim had several.” Jim therefore tries to hook up Jules with one of his excess girls, but none of these dates develop into anything lasting. One night, out walking together, Jules and Jim meet Thérèse, currently employed as the paint-carrier for an anarchist. Introductions are made all around: “Jim and Jules, then?” asks Thérèse. “Jules and Jim!” says Jim, correcting her.

Jim has a previously-scheduled assignation with his girlfriend Gilberte, but Jules offers to put up Thérèse for the night. Back at his apartment, she entertains Jules with some cigarette tricks.

Jules, Jim and Thérèse go out together, but when the two men ignore their new friend, she disappears with another Parisian lothario. “Let her go, Jules,” counsels Jim. “Lose one, find ten more.” Jules sees the wisdom in his friend’s philosophy. With a stray bit of chalk, he sketches a woman’s face on the tabletop as he muses about those ten other women he is now free to pursue.

Jules and Jim visit a friend who treats them to a slideshow. Our heroes are mesmerized by one image in particular; a sculpted woman’s face with a serene smile.

The following day, they have matching white suits made, and set off to an island in the Adriatic to see the sculpture in person. The beauty of the statue exceeds their expectations, and they walk around it in silence, entranced.

Back in Paris, during a break from sparring practice in the gym, Jim shares an excerpt from his in-progress novel with his friend: “‘Jacques and Julien were inseparable…'” he reads. “‘…People called them Don Quixote and Sancho Panza… and rumors circulated behind their backs about their unusual friendship…'”

“It’s quite beautiful,” responds Jules. “Let’s hit the showers.”

At a luncheon party, Jules and Jim meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who has “the smile of the statue on the island.” The camera examines her features from all angles, echoing the earlier shots of the statue.

Jules and Catherine play footsy under the table, and the events of the plot are set into motion.

“Jules vanished for a month,” the narrator tells us. “He saw Catherine every day on his own.” The two friends, formerly inseparable, now see each other only at the gym.

Jules finally invites his friend to have dinner with him and his new amour. “Catherine is eager to know you better,” he says. A beat later, his smile fades and he adds a warning: “but not this one, Jim. Okay?” To emphasize the importance of this point, Jules’ words are spelled out on-screen. (Wes Anderson, a huge Truffaut geek, quotes this line in Life Aquatic.)

On a lark, Catherine dresses as a man, complete with ridiculous motoring cap and painted-on mustache, just like Kim Basinger in 9 ½ Weeks. The two men and their cross-dressing friend hit the streets to test the efficacy of her disguise. “The men were moved, as if by a symbol they didn’t understand.”

The threesome plan a trip to the seashore. While packing, Catherine sets fire to a pile of crumpled paper (“lies”) and nearly immolates herself. She also, inexplicably, packs a flask of sulfuric acid “…to burn the eyes of men who lie.” Catherine is certainly beautiful and charming, but I am beginning to wonder about her mental stability.

While on vacation, Jules confides to Jim that he plans to propose to Catherine. “I’m afraid she’ll never be happy on this earth,” replies his friend. “Perhaps she is a vision meant for all, not meant for one man alone.” But is Jim speaking honestly, or merely angling for his own chance with Catherine? We can’t be certain.

As the friends play on the beach, ride bicycles along country lanes, and hike in the forest, it appears that Jim’s attraction to his friend’s girlfriend may be intensifying… which can only lead to heartbreak and tragedy somewhere down the line.

Catherine accepts Jules’ proposal. “You haven’t known many women, but I’ve known plenty of men,” she tells him. “It averages out. We might make an honest couple.”

Again back in Paris, things seem to be going well for our three heroes: Jim has sold his book; Jules and Catherine are in love. “Jim saw his friends often and enjoyed their company… Jules’ two pillows lay side by side on the bed, and the bed smelled nice. Catherine grew more beautiful and learned to live again.”

“Horror, monster, assassin of the arts, little fool, little slut. The greatest idiocy combined with the greatest depravity.” This is Jules, quoting Baudelaire’s view of young women, a view which he seems to half-endorse. “You are both fools,” says Catherine, and she’s right. “I don’t necessarily agree with what Jules says at 2 in the morning,” Jim protests weakly. Catherine is not satisfied, and dives off the nearest bridge into the Seine, which shuts up Jules and intrigues Jim.

Catherine makes a date with Jim, to ask his advice. He arrives slightly late, waits for an hour and then leaves. Catherine arrives soon after. What did she want to talk about? We are not told.

Jules and Catherine make plans to travel to Germany and marry. “I am very happy,” Catherine tells Jim.

“War broke out soon after,” the narrator tells us. “Jules and Jim were called up by their respective armies, and lost touch for a long time.”

On leave in Paris, Jim visits his old girlfriend Gilberte. When she asks about Jules, he tells her: “No news of him since his marriage. In the trenches, sometimes I’m afraid I’ll kill him.” Jules, we soon find, has the same fear of killing his old friend, and is therefore relieved when he is sent to the Russian front.

“Jules’ country had lost the war. Jim’s had won. But the true victory was that both were still alive.”

Overjoyed to find each other thus spared, the two friends make plans to reunite. Jules and Catherine live in a chalet on the Rhine with their daughter, Sabine; Jim comes to visit. Along the way, he revisits the battlefields where he fought the hardest, writing about the experience for a Paris newspaper.

“Some places had been bombarded so heavily that the land was a mass of iron where nothing could ever grow again. They became cemeteries where Jim searched crosses for familiar names, and schoolchildren were already brought to visit.”

“Should I get married and have children, too?” Jim writes to his friend. “Come and judge for yourself,” Jules writes back.

Catherine meets Jim at the train station: “Jim felt she was making a long delayed appearance for their café rendezvous and had dressed up especially for him.” The trio’s reunion is awkward. In a new house, a new country, with the addition of children and time passed, none of them knows quite what to say. Soon enough, they fall into their old habits, but Jim senses something is amiss.

Indeed, Jules confirms that Catherine is unhappy: “…if things go too smoothly, discontent sets in. She lashes out at everything… I am afraid she’ll leave us.” Jules tells Jim of Catherine’s violent mood swings, frequent infidelity, and increasing attachment to Albert, a musician living in a nearby village. “She’s no longer altogether my wife, Jim… I am slowly renouncing my claim to her.”

On a moonlit walk, Catherine tells Jim her side of the story, which actually isn’t that different from Jules’ version. She has had affairs. She is bored with Jules and his innocence, his lack of authority. “Jules is finished as a husband for me,” she tells Jim, and Jim realizes that he is in love with his best friend’s wife.

The interloper Albert comes to visit, and Catherine sings a sweet, wistful song about lovers meeting then parting and then meeting again. That night, Catherine tells Jules that she is leaving for good. Jules, desperate not to lose Catherine entirely, begs Jim to step in: “Love her, marry her, and let me see her… If you love her, stop thinking of me as an obstacle.”

Catherine and Jim spend the night making love.

In the morning, she asks him to move into the chalet, a solution to every outstanding problem, a solution that makes perfect logical sense, a solution that will ultimately destroy all three of our heroes.

“Time passed,” the narrator informs us. “Happiness isn’t easy to record, and wears out without anyone noticing.” And happiness for Jim wears out pretty quickly when he finds that Catherine is indulging in a bit of “ex sex” with Jules.

Jim has to travel back to Paris to finish some business, but states his plan to return, marry Catherine, and start of family of his own. Jules agrees not to stand in their way. Back in Paris, Jim attempts to break things off for good with his long-suffering girlfriend, but that proves difficult. “Jim could no more leave Gilberte than Catherine could leave Jules. They couldn’t hurt Jules or Gilberte, who both counterbalanced each other as fruit of the past.”

When Jim finally returns to Austria, Catherine is gone. “She’s a force of nature that manifests itself in cataclysms,” Jules says about her. “Catherine’s not especially beautiful or intelligent or sincere, but she is a real woman. It’s that woman that you and I love, that all men desire. If she’s so sought after, why did she give us the gift of her presence? Because we gave her our undivided attention, like a queen.”

Jim is ready to call the whole thing off, but of course Catherine returns. They vow to be faithful to each other, to have a child together: “…the promised land was in view,” the narrator tells us. The next section of the film is preceded by a title: “The Promised Land Abruptly Receded,” which gives us a clear indication where this is all heading.

Catherine does not become pregnant, for reasons unknown.

Jim continues to receive letters from Gilberte. Catherine banishes Jim to a separate bedroom and tells him that she no longer loves him. Jim agrees to leave, while Jules happily comforts his estranged wife.

In the morning fog, Catherine walks Jim to the train station. Finding that the train does not leave until the following day, they spend the night in a hotel. “They didn’t speak, but they made love once more in that cold, sad hotel room, not knowing why – perhaps to bring their story to a close. It was like a burial, or as if they were already dead.”

Once Jim returns to Paris and the arms of the waiting Gilberte, Catherine writes to say she is pregnant. Jim rushes to her side, but Catherine has a miscarriage (or so she claims) and therefore rejects him once more.

Months or perhaps years later, Jim runs into his old friend in Paris; Jules and Catherine are now living in France. Catherine tries to rekindle her affair with Jim, but he resists: “We failed. We made a mess of everything… I’m going to marry Gilberte.” Catherine responds by pulling a gun, and Jim narrowly escapes with his life.

“Several Months Later,” the three friends are reunited once again. “For Catherine, you were easy to get and hard to keep,” Jules tells Jim. Catherine asks Jim to join her in the car; she has something important to tell him.

As Jules watches, Catherine smiles and waves, and then drives off a bridge into the river below. “Their bodies were found entangled in the reeds,” the narrator tells us. “They had left nothing of themselves, but Jules had his daughter.”

What I Liked

What a beautiful, exciting, human, funny, and heartbreaking film! The friendship between the titular characters is fresh and real and sweet and believable; it made my heart yearn for the powerfully heartfelt male friendships of my youth.

As with all Truffaut films, the pace is unhurried, the filmmaking is technically dazzling without being flashy, and human behavior is observed with a laconic reserve and with great empathy.

The skillful use of music and montage, stock footage to give a sense of time and place, voice-over narration that illuminates without being didactic, freeze-frames, and countless other little technical flourishes add to our sense of Truffaut’s deep and abiding love for the language of film. We share his joy, his exuberance, and realize how rare that feeling is in the cinema.

Jules and Jim begins as a light romp about two young bohemians, making their way in the big city, but eventually turns into something like melodrama. This gradual turning, however, never feels forced or unnatural. Rather, it feels like the very real, gradually increasing heartache of growing up, growing away from treasured friends, realizing that your love or need for someone is not reciprocated, relinquishing your youthful idealism.

Finally, I love Le Tourbillon de la vie, the song that Jeanne Moreau sings. You can watch that scene here.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

jules_poster3

I love this film! Unfortunately, I fear that there is also some rather ugly sexism going on beneath the surface. When Jules quotes Baudelaire’s scathing rant about women, I at first laughed, thinking that the point of the scene was to laugh at Jules for quoting something so obviously offensive and wrong-headed. “…assassin of the arts, little fool, little slut.” He can’t be serious, right? Unfortunately, the movie goes on to essentially support his assessment. Catherine’s wanton infidelity and rejection of societal rules eventually brings about Jules’ spiritual death and Jim’s physical death, even as both men continue to idolize her. Jules says that she isn’t beautiful (demonstrably untrue), isn’t smart (insufficient evidence), and isn’t faithful (fair cop), yet he is in her thrall, trotting out the age-old trope of the dreaded femme fatale and the poor innocent man wriggling helplessly in her web.

And what about that infidelity? Jim is no more faithful than she, but his infidelity is portrayed as something normal and entirely understandable, while Catherine’s infidelity is selfish and destructive.

Should You See It?

If you can overlook the (sort of) veiled misogyny at its core, yes, you should absolutely see Jules and Jim. It’s funny, sexy, vital, exciting, heartbreaking, and yet, somehow, life-affirming. Jules and Jim is a canny masterpiece.

Next: Kind Hearts and Coronets

3 Comments

  1. Full disclosure: I always post my review after reading your review. You catch so much more than I (possibly because you know, PAY ATTENTION) and that alters my review just slightly but never to the point of me completely re-writing or changing my mind. For instance, I did not realize the little girl was Jules and Catherine’s daughter. I feel like a fool for missing it and then half-assed mentioning it here but, again, this is a “full disclosure” posting.

    When I read your reviews I often “get” what you’re getting. I see where you’re going with it. I understand your reasoning and find some acceptance in your logic. Maybe I was a bit too harsh. Maybe if I actually sat and watched one of these f**king films in one sitting, maybe if I actually paid attention I somehow think I would see what you see, feel what you feel, understand what you understand.

    Still…I think that your Ebert to my Siskel is a good point-counter-point to what we’re seeing on the screen. I am fully enjoying this excursion into films I would not normally see and I hope that my reviews and their silliness are adding to a continuing dialogue of the understanding of the art of film.

    Or, should I say, the art of cinema!

  2. Egads, yes, that scene in the bar with Jim’s friend talking about his apparently mute or illiterate girlfriend was AWFUL. Thanks for bringing that up. Truffaut definitely has a load of that old-school brand of sexism, and that did mar the experience for me.

    On the other hand, I have found myself attracted to willful, possibly crazy women once or twice… so I kinda related to that part of it, as long as you could read it simply as a story about these characters and not some larger commentary on women in general. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie seems to indicate otherwise. It cannot be denied; there isn’t a single sane, worthwhile female character in the film.

    And yet, so much of the rest of the film worked for me so beautifully that I find myself wanting to make excuses.

  3. I was initially intrigued by “Jules et Jim,” the François Truffaut film because I’m interested in movies that show a friendship between two men. I wondered, in my pea brain, how the film would compare with my friendship with Jason whom I’ve known since 1981 (has it BEEN 28 YEARS?).

    So to make this review a bit more interesting, I decided to compare “Jules and Jim” to my friendship with Jason. Call it “Jules and Jim” v. “Jason and Matt.”

    The film starts out around the turn of the century and we meet Jules and Jim. They meet and strike up a friendship. (Jason and Matt met in High School drama class.)

    Soon they are off on a trip to view some ancient statues upon which they’ve fallen in love with one of the statutes. (Jason and Matt once went and saw the film “Birdy” together.)

    Before you can say love triangle, Jules and Jim have fallen for Catherine. I can’t recall if WWI had started before this triangle came into play or not, but there was some concern for both of them (since, I think Jules is German) that they feared killing each other. They did write letters back and forth. (Full disclaimer, there was no war in High School, unless it was a religious war between the Fundamentalists (most kids) and the Jehovah’s Witness (Jason) but I was Switzerland in the matter – oh and I dated a girl named Grace whom Jason then fell in love with and dated for years – Grace and I only dated for 6 days. Oh, and Jason and I DID pass notes – so this part of the story is quite similar).

    Now we know early on that, though Catherine is beautiful, she’s a bit of a nutcase as she throws herself into a river and they have to fish her out. (After High School, I do not recollect if there was any “river jumping” and since I was older than Jason by 3 years I was doing the job thing while he was still doing the school thing.)

    As the years pass Jules and Catherine live in the German countryside (I think) while Jim lives in Paris writing (I think). (Jason graduated in 1985, I was two years into my job. We still lived a few miles from each other. Jason may have known a German word, or two, I don’t know.)

    When Jim visits, he and Catherine strike up a friendship and they spend many minutes of the film wandering the village and having a great time and Catherine sings. Finally, the attraction is too great she throws herself at Jim. Seems Catherine’s a bit of a…slut…who, on occasion will sleep around with other men for fun? Profit? Time share points? It’s hard to grasp but Jules seems to have resigned himself to it. Plus there’s Jules and Catherine’s daughter hanging around. (Jason and Grace had a messy break-up and then Jason started dating his first wife Jenny. I knew Jenny, liked Jenny, thought she was swell…but Jenny never made a play for me and by 1986 I was married. Though I will admit that Jenny is FAR more attractive than the actress playing Catherine.)

    Jules encourages Jim to be with Catherine, spend time with her, show her some lovin’. He’s a bit heartbroken but he wants their happiness. (Jason never gave up Jenny to me, nor did I ever give up Miriam to him…though Jason and Jenny stayed at our house while I was at a church conference in 1987.) Jim and Catherine start their relationship but then she makes a play for Jules and it gets a bit messy and Jim decides to leave.

    Jim travels back to Paris to “write” (or something) and there he meets up with a number of ex-girlfriends (including an anarchist we meet early on who likes to smoke cigarettes backwards). While he’s in his café everyone comes up to him and asks where Jules is. (After High School Jason fell off my radar screen and no one I know asked about him – except my mother. I assume that Jason wasn’t asked about me. Though I had taken up writing screenplays and giving that a “go.”)

    Jim and Catherine write letters back and forth to each other. There’s this whole thing about them not having a baby that seems to be an issue for their relationship to be complete. Plus there’s this ne’er do well “Albert” who shows up and sleeps with Catherine, too, on occasion (I think). (Jason and Jenny had a son, Max. I had two children with Miriam; Michelle and Nick.) Jim decides to marry this other gal who is on the fringes of the story. Catherine, at some point, decides to hook back up with Jules. (Jason and Jenny divorced and Jason marries a lovely gal named Robin…I stayed married.)

    Jim, in a last ditch effort to save whatever is of the relationship between him and Catherine, travels back to Germany (I think) to be with her and figure out what the hell is going on. Catherine, in all her whacky glory, drives a car around a court-yard, flirts with Albert and they all decide to be one happy family again. (Jason is excommunicated from his church, becomes an atheist, moves with Robin to Massachusetts, gets laid off from his job. Matt, uh, makes a movie.)

    While hanging out at a local lake Catherine wants to take Jim for a drive, she drives them both off a bridge into the water. They’re both killed (though the accident really didn’t look THAT bad). (Jason drives a Prius, Matt drives a Mini-van.)

    Jules buries the two and goes on to live a heartbroken life. (Jason gives Matt a copy of his will…just…in…case. Matt is deeply appreciative of this gesture. Matt sends Jason a copy of his movie.)

    What I liked:

    This is a tough one. As much as I loved Truffaut’s first film, I struggled with this one. It was obvious early on that Truffaut wanted to have a bit o’ fun with the camera so the camera was more fluid, he would use pans, hand-held cameras, helicopters, incorporating stock footage, using still frames, etc. It seemed like he wanted to really push the boundaries of the images – which he did well. But it came off to me as pretentious. Sadly, I also don’t think he had a story worthy of telling.

    The acting was fine.

    What I didn’t like:

    I didn’t much care for the story, the characters, or the situations. There’s a particularly nasty scene late in the film when Jim is back in Paris where this “friend” of his is commenting on this gal that she’s “not stupid, just her head is empty and all we’re really doing is having sex.” Great. Women in this film are pretty much either whores or virgins or insane or all three at the same time. Very few have redeeming qualities to them while Jules and Jim seem to have this air of aristocracy about them (maybe because I never see them do anything that resembles work).

    Catherine is one of the characters (like Ally McBeal) who is completely and totally insane, seems to have no redeeming qualities, makes everyone’s life miserable, sleeps around but, golly – EVERYONE IS ATTRACTED TO HER. For what? Her looks? Her “bee-stung” lips? I see little or no genuine interaction with her in the film that makes me want to spend any more time with her than is humanly possible. Granted, she does sing a song but…

    Bottom line:

    Highly disappointed by the whole exercise. Felt the film was pointless and never really went anywhere. Added to this was the fact that the version that “Neflix” sent me was a “Fox Lorber Release” – not a Criterion version. The quality of the film was good, it just had only 6 chapter stops – every time I stopped watching the film (and for some reason I got interrupted more than usual), I had a chore of a time getting back to where I started. I might have felt differently if I had seen it all in one go-round.

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