Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim

I wrote this piece for a program note at a college film series in 1983 and subsequently published it in The Informer. I am amused now by the worldly opening phrase, since I was a kid at the time and over 25 years have passed since then. Jules and Jim is one of my favorite movies, and this strikes me as a young person’s angle on a complex movie. For me, now, this appreciation is one of those “odd, left-behind artifacts” that the characters discover on their trek. Maybe someday I can write to the movie as a grown-up.–Robert Horton

julesposterI’ve known Jules and Jim for a few years now, and whenever anybody mentions the title, the same moment always comes to my mind first. Jules and Jim and Catherine are at their white castle, and they head into the woods—Catherine says, “Let’s find the last signs of civilization!” The three figures, dressed primarily in summery white, pick up odd, left-behind artifacts, and toss them into the air. Catherine finds a chain hanging from a tree, and swings from it. The camera prowls along the ground with them, and discovers a matchbook, a cup, a pottery shard, and, under Jules’ foot, a packet of cigarettes. During the sequence, that incomparable music is swelling on the soundtrack, music full of youth, romance, melancholy. Part of Francois Truffaut’s special gift is in capturing essential moments such as this—those moments when nothing much is happening, and yet everything matters: the quality of the sun on the grass, Catherine’s hair swirling when she shakes her head, Jim’s hand hoisting Jules’ foot. The sequence is lit by the intensity of the friendship of the three people, an intensity that will later darken the film, and their lives.

Let’s follow that sequence a bit: when Jules tells Jim he wants to marry Catherine, Jim tells Jules, “She’s a vision for all men—not just one.” Cut to Catherine, shaking her mane in rapturous close-up. Jules and Jim carry her back to the house. She takes their swimming clothes down from the line, and they ride off on bicycles. Truffaut cuts to a gorgeous long shot of the three figures riding around a curve, then to closer shots as Jim looks at the back of Catherine’s neck as she rides in front of him. At this point in the film, we are aware of the way in which Catherine is both woman and objet d’art to the two men—she is the statue that they traveled to see (and which they first encountered on a movie screen, at the slide show). They will discover that behind the mysterious smile of Catherine is a complex and unpredictable woman—a real woman, not the dry and dusty statue.

Earlier, we have seen Jules sketch a woman’s face on a café table—Jim wanted to buy the table, but the café only sold them by the dozen—and this is symptomatic of the way the two men see women. They are in love with love, and they are in love with the idea of Catherine, but the flesh-and-blood Catherine, very much a woman of her own mind, turns out to be titanically confounding. She is different from anything they know or have experienced, and in some way—the movie does not tell us, this, but we must assume it—the instability she produces makes them feel alive. When the three of them foot-race across the bridge, and Catherine, in her boy’s outfit, jumps to an early start so she can win, it is unfair. But Jules, dazzled, can only turn to Jim and say, “She’s taught me things.”

jules3Jim’s relationship with Catherine is somewhat more complicated, and more darkly shaded; something is stirred in him in that exquisite moment in her apartment when he hooks the clasp on the neck of her dress. Later he will tell her, “I like the nape of your neck—you can’t see me when I look at it,” as though he treasures the safety of that position; he can abstract the object of his love more easily when her flashing eyes aren’t looking him in the face.

Incidentally, the arc of the relationship between Catherine and Jim is marked by a nice directorial device on Truffaut’s part: Continue reading