Sunday, 21 May 2017

Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim) (1961)

Jules og Jim
In his third attempt (on this List at least) Francois Truffaut finally seems to have found the formula, which is basically to tone down his own awesomeness and tell an interesting story.

This is very much an alternative love story, which is interesting in the sense that the sixties was the decade of the sexual revolution. In fact it is difficult to imagine this story told in any  earlier decade although the actual story takes place in the beginning of the century. While the movie presents some rather sophisticated forms of relationships they are not borne out of a desire to experiment, but out of necessity. This is to my mind more a story of how far people are willing to go to help and stay with loved ones with mental issues.

Jules and Jim are best mates in Paris around the turn of the century. Jules (Oskar Werner) is Austrian (with hardly an accent) and introvert while Jim (Henri Serre) is native French and rather extrovert. In each other they find what they are lacking and together they have an entire universe. Into their world steps Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a quite unusual woman with a dynamite character.

Catherine is at first accepted as a third member of their group, one of the boys, but she is undeniably a woman and at first Jules and later Jim fall in love with her. That would be trouble enough in itself, but Catherine I suspect is suffering from a bipolar disorder. She swings from manic joy to manic depression, she is incredibly impulsive and she chafe at any sort of restrictions to her life. While that may sound like a few women I could point out, Catherine is rather extreme. On hers and Jules wedding night she takes revenge for a perceived slight that Jules does not even recognize by having sex with another man.  

Jules is clearly out of his league with this woman. The life he has created for them in Schwartzwald with a beautiful wooden chalet and a lovely daughter sounds like paradise to me, but to Catherine it is a prison. Jules takes an awful lot of crap from her in the hope that she does not leave and when Jim after the war comes to visit and starts an affair with Catherine Jules gives them his blessing.

Jim soon realizes that he is not enough either and returns to Paris to his on/off girlfriend. Catherine however is more than ever at the mercy of her own emotions and does not take no for an answer. That of course sets the stage for tragedy, one way or the other.

It is remarkable how open everybody in the movie are about their feelings and intensions. Throughout the whole thing, Jules and Jim remain friends and completely honest with each other and Catherine simply says what is one her mind with no filter at all. Despite this honesty and openness and despite all the creativity they apply to their relationships it is just not enough. Although we are several years prior to Summer of Love we see sexual freedom embraced, but even when not generating hard feelings, which usually is the backlash, it is still unable and not flexible enough to fit these people and avert crisis.

You could make a case for Catherine simply being incompatible with Jules and Jim and to some extend I would agree. Jules adores her, but he could never offer her the life she wants. But nobody could. Catherine has appetites and needs, demands and complaints that only a man as patient as Jules would put up with, but nobody could meet. A century later Catherine would, I think, be diagnosed and receive medical help and that might make things easier. Without that sort of assistance, she is a ticking bomb.

This story is quite spectacular and this is why this movie works for me. The narrating style has gotten some attention, but this style was already in use in France back in the thirties with several examples on the List. The only cinematographical element I would consider a novelty is the openness with which their relationships are discussed, the brutal honesty. It is refreshing and helps making this an interesting movie. Otherwise it seems as if Truffaut is stepping back and letting the story unfold. And that works.

I was surprised that a movie with these themes could hold my attention, but it did. It sucked me in. Perhaps because I can relate to Jules, but more likely because we get so deeply under skin of these people through their honesty. An honesty, I should note, with very little screaming, even from Catherine. Modern filmmakers trying to make the brutally honest love drama could learn something from that. I hate screaming.



  1. I am not a fan. I'll offer the last paragraph of my review as the distillation of my opinion:

    "Suffice to say that while this film is considered a nouvelle vague masterpiece, I didn’t think much of it. Catherine was not the enchantress I was led to believe she would be, but was a vain, vindictive, selfish person with severe emotional and mental issues. Eventually, even if the sex comes gold-plated, there’s a time to move on, but Jules and Jim never get there. What a couple of clods."

    1. I can understand that position completely. Catherine is poison. But somehow I do understand where Jim and Jules are coming from.

  2. I have this as a 1962 film so it will be awhile before I get to it. It was one of the first foreign films I saw and I have found memories of it.

    1. Yes, there seem to be some disagreement on whether this is a 61 or 62 movie. In my (old) edition of the Book it is 61, so that is what I go with. I think it is interesting enough.