Jules and Jim is François Truffaut’s deceptively lyrical, yet understatedly complex nouvelle vague film on love and friendship. At the heart of the conflict is the enigmatic Catherine (exquisitely played by the incomparable Jeanne Moreau), whose chameleon personality adapts to suit the relationship she is in. (Note the effect of the equally inscrutable character, Anna, in Louis Malle’s Damage.) In fact, she is the avatar of an intriguing, seemingly unfinished statue with a haunting smile that the two best friends, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), were captivated by during a friend’s slide presentation of the Adriatic Island (so much so that the two travel to the same outdoor museum just to see it). For Jules, the shy, conservative Austrian, Catherine assumes the image of a devoted country wife and mother. For Jim, the adventurous, extroverted Frenchman, she transforms herself into a carefree, sexually liberated lover. The tragedy of the film lies in Catherine’s emotional ambiguity towards Jules and Jim. Inasmuch as she desires both men, she eludes their attempts to love her. Unable to choose between them, she destroys everyone by holding on. Set during the advent of World War I, Jules and Jim is an allegorical film about the turmoil between French nationalism and the German occupation of World War II. As with the characters’ doomed love triangle, the film is a scathing indictment of a country led to ruin by lack of conviction and feigned neutrality.
Truffaut uses the recurrent theme of cycles throughout the film (as in Anatole Litvak’s Goodbye Again). Jules habitually turns an hourglass at his apartment in order to set his bedtime. There is a scene where the camera pans around the bistro, beginning and ending with the two friends talking. Catherine is constantly changing hats, and assumes a different personality with each one. Bicycle trips feature prominently in several scenes, and involve Catherine’s lovers. Lastly, note the structure and lyrics of Catherine’s song, which allude to her pattern of indiscretions, separations, and reconciliations with Jules. Similar to Claude Sautet’s Un Coeur en Hiver, the cyclical theme represents a love triangle. However, it also symbolizes a vicious circle – Catherine’s self-destructive “whirlpool” – of extramarital affairs, emotional vacillation, and cruelty to the people who love her. It is a desperate, hopelessly impossible situation that entraps, rather than liberates. Jules and Jim is a thought provoking film about the devastating consequences of indecision on three people… and a nation.
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