To fully explain how I view Jules and Jim, I have to start with a story.
I once received a letter from my great uncle about my grandmother's youth in Scotland, around the time Jules and Jim was set. He described how one day while he was enjoying a book, my grandmother got really snarky whilst cleaning the house, and flew into a range that had him run away for the rest of the day. When I first read the tale, I laughed, amused by the quirky and seemingly silly story. But then my aunt offered another spin on the memory, which gave it a whole different light.
She painted a picture where my grandmother was a woman shackled by societal expectation, infuriated not on a whim, but because she was cleaning the house from top to bottom with no help, while her brother relaxed and read. (And, knowing my grandmother's voracious appetite for literature, I'm sure jealousy made the sting double.) I realized I was imbuing the story with my own experience, making false assumptions due to the entirely different life I lead. I assumed it was her turn to clean; I imagined her life as having the same freedoms that I enjoy.
Watching Jules and Jim, I can't stop thinking of that letter.
At a superficial glance, with no thought to the context of the time François Truffaut is capturing, Jules and Jim feels like the tale of two men who fell for a wildly imbalanced woman. However, when you're aware of Catherine's persona, and the time in which she was living, an entirely different story emerges, one that reveals an intellectual equal caught in a moment when women's liberation was just beginning, a woman in limbo between the old and new worlds.
Jules and Jim are two intellectuals enamored with ideas and discussion. Though they both follow and feed sexual urges, those needs are secondary to intellectual connection. Because of this, women are but a footnote in their lives until they meet the statuesque Catherine. They're drawn to her because she's not just a beautiful woman, but a figure full of thoughts and exuberance. She wants to live with the freedom of a man, even disguising herself as one so she can run free and frolic with Jules and Jim as an equal. In fact, putting on her tight, female frocks seems much more like a spurious performance than a pair of trousers and a drawn-on moustache.
But Catherine is clearly troubled. One interpretation could be that she's just emotionally imbalanced. But considering that letter, to me it seems very likely that Truffaut crafted a woman (with the help of real-life inspiration) who simply doesn't know how to make herself happy within the world she lives. She's continually torn between conflicting passions, visions for possible futures, desires taught to her (being a wife and mother), and the realization that nothing is making her truly happy. She's got the urges of a modern woman, but no knowledge of how to feed and appease those desires. Can we blame her for feeling so disconnected when she marries and moves to a small town, living a life as a housewife and mother? In this context, it doesn't seem so strange that she's running off to yet another paramour to make music and be creative, or that she soon falls for Jim. Jules' friend wants the world, and doesn't feel quite connected to the typical ways of life.
Another way to see this is in the context of two world wars. We can't ignore the fact that Truffaut places the first world war just as Catherine and Jules' want to get married. It's as if, just as she's given a world that looks more kindly on women, one that is exploding with change, she's heading for a life in the opposite direction. Before it, she's engaged with the world and her own idealism. After, she feels out of touch, as if her life is wrong. And by the second World War -- we've been dealt her tragic demise -- her second and ultimate removal from the changing world she desires.
Upon first viewing, the end of Catherine seems to be feeding into the idea of woman as crazy and unstable. However, another reason could see death rising out of futility. Why does she bring Jim along? Why not her daughter, Jules, or just herself? She feels her own dreams of fleeing shackles and living in a larger world are dead, and she chooses to kill the person who personifies that.
Like Catherine strived to stretch beyond the world she was born into, Jules and Jim is a premiere title in the French New Wave, as filmmakers reached beyond the cinematic boundaries set by earlier filmmakers and strove to add new life to the medium. The film uses freeze frames, panning, 360-shots, and even newsreel footage which gave a modern feel to a period piece. While now it might not seem like anything new, since the film paved the way for the cinema we know today, it's still just as relevant for its intermingling of history and modernity.
In the '60s, this was Truffaut's modern look at life in the early 1900s, and how history began to morph at a shocking rate as it dealt with a myriad of social movements and world wars. Jules and Jim suggests that the passions and progressive ideas of the '60s might have been alive 40 or 50 years earlier. It's a reminder, even now, that ideas we hold today were present years ago -- just on a smaller or more hidden scale. At the end of World War II in fact, Ernest Hemingway was even writing a story similar to Jules and Jim. The Garden of Eden -- an unfinished novel recently adapted into a film yet to reach us -- details a woman struggling with barriers, and a complicated sexual triangle that includes androgyny and gender crossing. These thoughts are nothing new.
As much as we need to prize the film for how it helped bring the advancements in cinema we know today, I can't help but admire it more for the curtain it pulls back on life years ago, which can seem wholly foreign but also quite modern.
- How do you see Catherine in this tale? Why do you think she acts as she does? Why are Jules and Jim so utterly captivated by her?
- At the Guardian, Francesca Steele wrote: "Take Jules et Jim. Fashionably choppy editing is one thing. But a totally unrealistic menage a trois, with three incredibly unlikeable characters? Truffaut is the master of self-indulgent film-making." Thoughts?
- Do you like the extensive war footage used to relay that time period? Is it a nice buffer before a change in the character's lives, or does it stretch for too long?
- In Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson writes that French films are like action films. With Jules and Jim, for an American audience, it's quite an active experience. Between the New Wave cinematic techniques used and the sometimes rapid-fire dialogue, the viewer must pay close attention. How do you feel about the intermingling of action and drama in this way?
Next Week's Film: Stir Crazy | Add it to your Netflix queue (also streaming!)
Last Week's Film: Bottle Rocket