When I was just a young’un growing up in suburbia, one of my favorite Saturday night diversions was the series of Janus films they used to show on channel 11. ‘L’Avventura’, and the profound inscrutability of Monica Vitti; Cocteau’s ‘Orpheus’ – death as the elegant blonde in a black limousine, Lattuada’s ‘The Overcoat’, and a generous sampling of Bergman – ‘Seventh Seal’, ‘Virgin Spring’, ‘Sawdust and Tinsel’. I saw these films as an ongoing course in How Grown-Ups Behave, what adults think about, how joyfully they can laugh, how bitterly they can despair.
But the landmark, the tabula rasa, the textbook of How Grown-Ups Behave was Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. I watched it, enthralled, when I was eleven or twelve years old, and just thought “Jules! Jim! Catherine! They’re so cool! They’re so much smarter than anyone else I’ve ever known!”, with all the wisdom and reverence a pre-teen can muster. I saw it once again shortly after college, mid-twenties, and thought ‘OK, this explains why people don’t like french movies. Characters sitting in living rooms, characters sitting in cafes, characters sitting next to each other in bedrooms, talking, talking, talking, about life, and death, and l’amour fou. Trying to have everything both ways, hell, every way. How goddamn French.” But that didn’t necessarily mean I had dismissed Truffaut – I recognized him as a great filmmaker, and loved a number of his later movies; ‘Wild Child’, ‘Day For Night’, ‘Adele H’.
So ‘Jules And Jim’ was always planted in my brain as a film I should revisit, and this week I did. And was completely blown away. It was interesting to discover how much of it I had actually remembered, how much of it had stayed with me. Jules and Jim (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) meet in Paris in the days before World War I, and form a deep and lasting friendship. Georges Delarue’s brilliant music score describes, overtly, the carnival atmosphere of being young in vernacular Paris society. In the midst of having the usual entanglements with girlfriends serious and transitory, they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). They compare her to a face they’ve seen on a primitive sculpture they both admire – the first time the three of them go out together, Catherine’s in male drag as a goof, and instantly closes the gender gap that might separate the nature of their friendship-to-be. Catherine is established as a force of nature, a walking, talking, living, breathing argument against conventionality. Now there are three inseparable friends. Catherine gravitates to Jules in this particular present, and they become a couple before the three of them are separated by Jules and Jim’s conscriptions for the war. Jules and Catherine reunite as a married couple after the war, and have a child together, Sabine. Jim is happily reunited with his coupled friends post-war at their cottage in Austria, only to find that they are deeply troubled by their domesticity, Catherine most profoundly.
At this point, we’re about halfway through the film, and what follows is, to my mind, one of the deepest, richest, most passionately thoughtful explorations of human behaviour that has ever been commited to celluloid. Jim and Catherine commence an affair of their own, with Jules’ resigned blessing, and they agree to live together with Sabine as a threesome.
Catherine-as-force-of-nature, from all her irresistable graciousness to her seemingly unforgivable betrayals, adored by the devoted friends, and the constantly changing emotional landscape between the three of them, isn’t presented by Truffaut in happy-happy montages or knock-down-drag-out arguments or taciturn earnestness. He simply follows the characters honestly through events over time. When Catherine meets Jim’s train in Austria for their reunion, Jim describes her demeanor as ‘fantasy and daring barely held in check.’ Throughout the film, there’s a running motif of them chasing her – across a footbridge, through a field, on bicycles. Jules and Jim frequently, off-handedly, refer to ‘the others’ – “How are the others?” “Oh, the others. You know.” When Jules inadvertantly witnesses a demonstration of Jim’s love for Catherine, he says “Give my regards to the others.” Catherine becomes the defining reference for the mens’ own regard for themselves. When the one is in her favor, the other has been self-consigned to the fate of,…well…, The Others. The pedestrians, the regular joes, the conventional. Each feels exiled, and in exile refers to the present couple as the ‘Other’ – it’s your turn for the shot at domesticity with her, as long as it lasts. What it is the three have together, and what is the ‘other’ life, is constantly examined and rethought.
There are also a number of references to Goethe’s novel ‘Elective Affinities’, which takes the scientific theories of how chemicals behave when incongruously combined, and uses that as a metaphor for human relationships. I’ve never read it, but did a little homework and came across this from an Amazon.com commenter: “With this novel, Goethe tries to demonstrate that love is not a matter of conscious decision-making; that we can not control at all who we fall in love with, and that it is absurd to try to fight against it.” One could very well reach this same conclusion with Truffaut’s film – is this a truth that Catherine already takes for granted? Is this what Jules and Jim must constantly struggle with, unresolvedly? Can they choose not to struggle and just accept a sublime truth?
Obviously, I worship this film. The only other film that I can recall even coming close to the profound intimacy and understated passion of this film is Marco Giordana’s ‘Best Of Youth,’ and God Bless Marco, but he needed six hours to pull off what Truffaut did in 1:45. I may someday review ‘Best Of Youth’, a superb film, but for now I think this review does it as much justice as I’ll ever be able to: