In tandem with the previous post concerning Francois Truffaut’s interest in the dynamic human person, at this point I wish to connect this to some similar ideas a bit more concretely by looking at his 1962 film Jules and Jim. The film itself concerns the friendship between Frenchman Jim and the German Jules and their mutual adoration for Catherine. Based on a fictionalized retelling of author, Henri-Pierre Roche’s romantic life in the early 20th century, the film follows these vivacious characters over a period of roughly 20 years (1900-1923).
Compared to some of the formally complex and narratively challenging films of the French New Wave, Truffaut’s film is accessible and fairly easy to digest. This is, of course, not a critique of the film, on the contrary, considering how formally intriguing Jules and Jim is, it is quite a credit to it instead. Upon first viewing, the first thing one notices is how fast paced the first act is. Following the spirit and style of Roche’s novel, the camera jostles, the characters jump from scene to scene, and within minutes Jules and Jim have met, become friends, have begun to make their way about town and playfully enjoy nightlife in Paris.
Raoul Coutard’s camera glides in tracking shots, spins 360 degrees, and moves with an elegant freedom that is so distinctly ‘New Wave’. It is here, at Truffaut’s mise-en-scene, that the film really begins to shine. A notable example of this comes when Jules and Jim arrive at the statue of the woman with the enigmatic smile:
The camera mimics Hitchcock with the focused zoom—functioning here as mysterious punctuation—it swings left and right, darting quickly while panning, all emphasizing the enigma of this statue that has stolen the gaze of the two male protagonists. This is of course to be repeated once Catherine walks down Jules’ stairs a few minutes later…
The same camera work.
The same smile.
The same editing.
The same enigma.
This doubling is certainly problematic (in terms of the gender associations: Catherine being connected visually and narratively to a literal object), but it is very representative of the double, dichotomous nature of her character: free, yet rigid. Impulsive—seeking excitement—yet stubborn and static. The camera sweeps with reckless abandon while she remains stable, almost motionless. She is thus a character simultaneously aware of how the world sees and treats her (as a beautiful woman) and unwilling to accommodate the hypocrisies that such a world turns a blind eye to (even if that means living within analogous forms of hypocrisy).
Later, while Jules and Jim play dominoes, Truffaut uses freeze frames to highlight similar aspects of Catherine’s character. As she acts out her past’s ‘sad’, ‘dreary‘ self and the present’s sly, joy that she lives with now Truffaut expresses much about the character, the story, and reflexively about the film itself.
Not only does the freeze frame visually connect Catherine to the statue, it doubly represents the formal dissonance of a still image within a motion-picture. What’s more, the diegetic sound proceeds. The audience hears their continuing laughter, but the images stop. This functions as a kind of cinematic premonition concerning the way she reacts to and expresses her feelings towards the men. Some describe this as a kind of manipulative, manic, reaction to one’s feelings. However, if one checks classical fiction ‘psychology’ at the door—the kind that the French New Wave continually subverted—she appears to make a bit more sense. She is a character who is impulsive. Literally speaking, she acts moment to moment on impulse as she listens to her own mind and body for her ever changing wants and desires.
And in the end, she is a character. A literary character. A cinematic character. Just as the camera’s black and white photography mimics reality while at the same time distancing itself from it, Catherine’s existence is reflexively contingent upon Jeanne Moreau as a real-life actress performing… playing…
(If you forgive the tautology…) Catherine is not real because she is not real.
Through all this and more we see Jules and Jim as a film of dissonance, dichotomy, and discord. Though certainly a literary film—based on the novel, featuring characters who are authors, littered with references from Shakespeare to Baudelaire, etc.—it is Truffaut’s cinematic genius which elevates the film to more than just a great comedic and tragic story.
Truffaut’s use of duality reigns in the film: the film can be seen as doubly playing on cinematic traditions concerning comedy and tragedy (including melodrama); the visual linkage of the statue and Catherine; Catherine’s dressing up as the androgynous ‘Thomas’, the dual function of the reflexive camera movements depicting the statue and Catherine’s first appearance—i.e. making the viewer aware of the camera and its movements while simultaneously immersing the viewer in the experience of the character via a montage mimetic to mental processes; and to a certain extent, this is a dual ‘author’ film—Roche and Truffaut. Additionally, when one looks to the characters and narrative one sees that Catherine loves Jules and Jim; Catherine is the daughter of a high-class Burgundian man and a lower-class English woman; time both passes literally (tracked by the Picasso paintings and World War I) and does not pass at all (Truffaut specifically did not age the characters/actors); there is a distinction between the city (specifically Paris) and nature (the countryside)—Anne Gillain notes, “Any movement generated by Catherine always leads away from towns. The space and time she occupies is inseparable from nature.”—; the double sided coin that is Jules and Jim—Jules as ‘boring‘ stability and Jim as living at both sides of ‘exciting‘ extremes; their ‘free’ response to (what they believe to be) the archaic conventions of love, etc…
The double nature of everything is particularly interesting considering the fact that Catherine tries to develop herself dialectically. As Jim explains to Gilberte:
Jim: When Catherine wants to do something…she does it for pleasure and to learn something from it. She hopes to attain wisdom that way.
Gilberte: That could go on quite a while!
Oddly, instead of finding a synthesis that can push forward towards some kind of practical wisdom, one finds Catherine to be quite a static and rigid figure. Her rules for fairness and equality reign and neither she nor anyone else can steer clear of them. Instead of a synthesis, Catherine loses interest in the thesis + antithesis relationship of ‘Catherine and Jules‘—importantly, after Jules’ initial marriage proposal she proclaims: “You’ve known few women, I’ve known lots of men. With our averages, maybe we’d make a good couple.“—and Catherine and Jim tragically end up cancelling each other out.
This seems to be one of the poetic and beautiful qualities of the film: paradoxically satisfying dissatisfaction. When one experiences the cinematic equivalent of ‘two plus two’ equals zero instead of four, one understands Jules’ fascinatingly discordant relief and grief at the end of the film. On a similar note, Robert Stam connects this paradox in reference to Catherine when he notes, “This is cinema for [Truffaut] I think, something which makes life worth living because it seems to hold on but it lets them free. You have to let Catherine be free... [and] you want to catch her at the same time.“
And perhaps this is what gives the film such a lasting legacy, the formal, aesthetic, and narratively complex world which works through many layers and challenges easy classification and interpretation. John Powers writes about the character of Catherine, “Whether playing with vitriol or jumping into the Seine, she elevates capriciousness to an existential principle. When Jim says he understands her, she responds, ‘I don’t want to be understood.‘ And this is absolutely true.“ She, like the film itself, has agency and freedom, and with that power refuses to move to accommodate the world at large.
In the end, if Catherine can stand for Truffaut’s cinema, as Stam suggests, then perhaps we too can find the experience, or the ‘chase’, in and of itself worthwhile.