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: when Jim enters Catherine’s apartment to help her move her baggage, he tosses his hat on her bed, nonchalantly. She scoops it up and places it somewhere else, muttering, “A hat on the bed,” referring to the classic signifier of bad luck. It’s such a throwaway, this line is not even translated in the subtitles. Much later, when Jim is moving into a room in Catherine and Jules’ house, the action is repeated—Catherine once again sweeps Jim’s hat off a bed, and this time they share a secret smile, remembering the first time it happened. This is both beautiful and eerie—the sweetness of the remembrance coupled with the fact that the act itself portends bad luck.

If Jim’s home is wherever he hangs his hat, perhaps he had some kind of precognition in the earlier scene—that someday he would be making his home in Catherine’s bed; that ultimately, in fact, he was destined to lie beside her forever. That touch is typical of the careful layering that Truffaut has accomplished in Jules and Jim: he establishes motifs, and builds them skillfully, like Catherine’s Napoleonic tendencies (including the small bust of Napoleon on her table), and the references, both verbal and visual, to insects.

Truffaut has his characters return again and again to water, which serves as both a reminder of eternity and a premonition of disaster. The whole movie is in the scene in which the three are walking along the Seine after seeing the new Swedish play; as Jules starts getting heavily into quoting Baudelaire, and what Baudelaire’s idea of women was all about, he and Jim barely notice Catherine walking away from them. As usual, they’re too busy intellectualizing an idea of Woman to pay attention to the woman in front of them. Catherine is going to change all that. She walks to the rail and jumps in the water, and during the ride home, she wears her smile of triumph. Her hat floats away, to the sea.

One of the things Truffaut is getting at here is the extraordinary tension between the seductive lure of Art and the formidable challenge of living in the real world. Jules and Jim have been comfortably lost in that exhilarating galaxy where the discussion of a book, a play, or a painting, when argued about over a small table in an all-night café, can seem the most important thing in the world, as crucial as life and death—or love and death—and just as meaningful. One is tempted to imagine—and it’s not all imagination—that Truffaut himself has lived this lifestyle, particularly during the years when he and the other young film critics (soon to be the French New Wave of young filmmakers) were running around Paris, devouring movies as though life itself depended on it, and then pouring their passionate writings into Cahiers du Cinema.

julesejimposter2Truffaut brings that exuberant passion to the filming of Jules and Jim, even while the film is laced with his underlying morbidity. It seems to burst with experimentation and daring: his judicious use of sudden and brief freeze-frames, as though grasping privileged moments out of the winds of memory (or “life’s whirlpool of days,” as Catherine sings it); the poetically apt use of masking to black out parts of the screen at certain moments; the use of natural outdoor light, brilliantly captured by Jean-Luc Godard’s favorite cinematographer, Raoul Coutard; the freewheeling movement of the camera itself, as Truffaut pans, tracks, and spins his Franscope frame with the same excitement Jules and Jim show towards their mysterious statue (note the Hitchcockian zoom-in track-out when they see the stone head on the beach)—but Truffaut also knows when to let his camera just sit there and watch. And then there’s Georges Delerue’s musical score, which incorporates brash jazz, the lush romantic theme, and the song that Albert plays with Catherine, all of which may play over a series of scenes, or just emerge in the middle of a scene for a few seconds.

This litany must not exclude contributions of the actors: Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, the Don Quixote-Sancho Panza/Stan Laurel-Oliver Hardy friends, perfectly capture the romanticism, the rapture, and the vague ordinariness of Jules and Jim. I don’t know what Jules and Jim would be like without Jeanne Moreau as Catherine, but it would be some sort of different movie. An almost mythical figure in French cinema, especially to Truffaut, Moreau manages to be both idol and human being; and although the film is an examination of her dark smile, that smile will remain mysterious and unknowable.

“Let’s find the last signs of civilization!” The cry seems to invite the audience to join the special feeling of this film. Nothing much seems to be real in the world, except the three people and the audience’s involvement with them. There’s the periodic and quietly troubling presence of Gilberte (Vanna Urbino), and la petite Sabine (Sabine), and that strange fellow Albert (Boris Bassiak), of course, but even World War I, existing as it does in old newsreel footage, appears distant and artificial, a disturbing distraction from the true drama of our main characters. Somehow Jules and Jim maintains its embrace of the audience, even when it turns dark—even up through the point of coffins being sent through flames, and bones being ground up (that’s some of the best and most startling footage Truffaut ever shot). We come to know exactly what Jules means when he recites a quote to Jim and Catherine, having just seen them caressing—Jim has impetuously kissed her on the nape of her neck, of course. Jules reels off the quote in German, which Catherine translates back, “The yearnings of two hearts create such heavenly pain.” Jules smiles bittersweetly; “Pretty good,” he says to her, “But you added the heavenly!” Indeed she has, and we can all sense that, and share it.


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