Why is it that this film has remained one of the most significant movies I have seen? It has been there, in the background of my life, ever since I first saw it at the age of about 20. A part of this is a sweet nostalgia for university days – I would have seen it at a late night screening on campus. But other films viewed in those seemingly carefree times haven’t stayed with me like Jules et Jim. I saw it again recently.
Directed by Francois Truffaut, the context of the film isn’t really very important. It is set before, during, and after the Great War . Jules (Oskar Werner) is a shy writer from Austria, who forges a friendship with the more extroverted Frenchman, Jim (Henri Serre). They share an interest in the arts. They also share women. One woman they meet at this time is Thérèse, who has an extraordinary way of smoking (so daring for those times), blowing out the smoke like a train. I believe Truffaut knew someone who smoked like that.
At a slide show, the young men become entranced with a bust of a goddess and her serene smile and travel to see the ancient statue on an island in the Adriatic Sea. After encounters with several women, they meet the free-spirited, capricious Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), whose smile reminds them of the statue. Both men are affected by her attitude toward life. And this is what interests me. Later in the film, Catherine (accompanied on guitar by a lover) sings a song, Le Tourbillon de la vie, The Whirlwind of life, and this seems to be what Catherine’s life is like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjJqHF0mb_k
Throughout the film a narrator tells us of Jules and Jim’s thoughts, but we never get inside Catherine’s mind. She seems to have to make statements – out of frustration? She dresses up as a boy, Thomas, ‘because only men are free to do as they want’.
And one time when the three have been to see a Swedish play together (maybe The Dolls House?), walking home the men are discussing it together when Catherine suddenly jumps into the Seine to gain their attention.
The movie is very much about Catherine. About feeling restricted by convention. Yet the title is Jules et Jim.
The two men are separated by the war and must fight on opposing sides. Each fears that he might have killed his friend. Jules and Catherine marry and have a daughter, Sabine.
After the wartime separation, Jim visits, and later stays with Jules and Catherine in their house in the Black Forest. Things are a little awkward at first, they sit together in silence: ‘Un ange passe’.
Jim senses tensions in the marriage. Jules tells Jim that Catherine has had numerous affairs, and she once left him and Sabine for six months. He is unbelievably calm and tolerant of her behaviour – a loving acceptance.
Catherine ultimately seduces Jim, who has never forgotten her. Jules, desperate that Catherine might leave him forever, gives his blessing for Jim to marry Catherine so that he may continue to visit them and see her. Jules seems to understand Catherine’s ‘whirlwind’ nature, he says, ‘She expresses herself in cataclysms. Wherever she is, she lives surrounded by her own brightness …’ For a while, the three adults live happily with Sabine in the same chalet in Austria, until tensions between Jim and Catherine arise because of their inability to have their own child.
Jim leaves Catherine and returns to Paris. After several exchanges of letters between Catherine and Jim, with crossed letters and misunderstandings, they resolve to reunite when she learns that she is pregnant. But then Jules writes to tell Jim that Catherine suffered a miscarriage and she no longer wants to live with Jim.
After a time, Jim runs into Jules in Paris. He learns that Jules and Catherine have returned to France. Catherine tries to win Jim back, but he rebuffs her, saying he is going to marry Gilberte. Furious, she pulls a gun on him, but he wrestles it away and flees. He later encounters Jules and Catherine in a movie theatre. Jules’s loving fondness is expressed when he gently adjusts Catherine’s scarf as they come out of the movie.
The three of them stop at an outdoor cafe. Catherine asks Jim to get into her car, saying she has something to tell him. She asks Jules to watch them and drives the car off a damaged bridge into the river, killing herself and Jim. Jules is left to deal with the ashes.
There are hints at this ending throughout the film. Firstly, the metaphor of the bridge. Early in their relationship in Paris the three chase each other across a bridge when they seem to be ecstatically happy.
Then, as described above, Catherine jumps off a bridge to gain the men’s attention. The ‘final’ bridge in a sense has no end – it is broken off. The music (by Georges Delerue) plays an integral part in preparing our feelings. There is a sweeping circular, very French, theme – the ‘circular’ rhythm suggests the wheels of the bicycles that the three ride from time to time and of course the wheels of Catherine’s car. When there are tensions in relationships, tensions are built into this sweeping music – slight discords, the harmonies are tinged with dissonance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhCsqL5pfHs
The warmly observant Jules tells Jim in a letter that after the miscarriage Catherine walked around ‘with the fixed smile of a corpse’.
Jules is left with the ashes of the two people who have meant so much to him. The narrator tells us: ‘A feeling of relief swept over him’ and the music strengthens. Truffaut described this movie as ‘a hymn to life and death’. It is far more than a failed ménage à trois : a gem of a movie.