A Woman Like That
It’s mainly a book about morality. That’s what moved me about it.
—François Truffaut on Henri-Pierre Roché‘s Jules et Jim, Bibliothèque de poche (1966)
Perhaps she was seducing him, though Jim was far from sure of it. It was impossible to tell. Catherine revealed her goals only after she had achieved them.
—Narrator, Jules and Jim
You can detect what’s unspoken in their looks, the crossed wires.
—Jeanne Moreau, commentary, Jules and Jim: Criterion Collection
During a 1980 interview included on Criterion’s splendid new DVD of Jules and Jim, François Truffaut recalls the controversy inspired by the film. Rumors spread even before its opening, as distributors worried about international sales. As Truffaut tells Claude-Jean Phillippe, he faced the Legion of Decency was especially perturbed. The priests, he says, opposed it. “They said, ‘Mr. Truffaut, do you realize the heroine of your film comports herself the way Elizabeth Taylor does in real life?’” at which point Truffaut and Phillippe can’t help themselves, bursting into laughter.
On some level, ironically and crazily, the priests had it right. Jules and Jim is as much about broadly masculine ideas (and ideals) of women as it is about any particular character. Even as Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) beguiles, bothers, and quite overwhelms her two men, French-born Jim (Henri Serre) and Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner), she also serves as their projection, the beloved work of art that eludes capture, that cannot be frozen in time. The fact that she achieves this odd and unruly status in a film that has in turn become so iconic, so fixed and adored in collective memory, is not the least of the film’s many magics.
Based on Roché‘s autobiographical novel, Truffaut’s movie attends to the details of the trio’s difficult, erratic, and stubbornly egotistical relationships, their efforts to grasp and live out their desires at any given moment. Opening in Paris, 1912, Jules and Jim sets up its multiple layers of focus and tone immediately. As described by Robert Stam, in conversation with Dudley Andrew for the DVD, “In the first minute, [Truffaut is] showing a lot of things a film can do that a novel can’t do.” Over a dark screen, Catherine reads of a somewhat “sinister” poem concerning “misperceptions and misconceptions in romance,” and following, a bouncy montage exults in Jim and Jules’ wholly engaged, youthfully blooming friendship. Andrew notes that the characters are “trying to understand their lives through the arts” (revealed in repeated images of paintings, statues, and films), he and Stam also note the fluidity of art (or maybe, Art), as well as its inevitable difference from experience: they note that Catherine is “basically the condensation of 40 women,” and as such becomes a “scapegoat” for the men’s disappointments.
This function both corresponds and contrasts with co-screenwriter Jean Gruault’s memory of the character’s shifting meanings, between conception and reception. “Truffaut had the dread of everything conventional. Above all, he detested the conventionality of the nonconventional,” Gruault notes. “He had the same reaction to the character of Catherine in Jules and Jim. He detested that her character had become the focus of prestige, because what she stood for had become all the rage.”
Gruault’s point is echoed by other commentators on his track, which splices together separate observations from Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, editor Claudine Bouché, and scholar Annette Insdorf (recorded for the 1992 Criterion laserdisc). They all view the film through different lenses Their remarks range from anecdotal (Bouché recalls that they recorded no sound during shooting because “Truffaut didn’t want the sound recorders bothering him with calls for silence on the set”) to technical-ish (Schiffman says of their “unconventional editing,” that “François would say, ‘It’s better to have a little jump, people will think they dreamt it, than to be bored for 15 seconds, I mean, if there was a longeurs in the shot that there was no other way of dealing with’”) to predictably academic (Insdorf: “When Catherine appears, she is visually linked to the statue, since the camera makes the same excited movements around her. The men see her as the incarnation of their prized objet d’art, especially because she shares with the sculpture that mysterious smile”).
A very different sort of commentary is offered by Moreau, who watches the movie with Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana. Together, they consider the film’s thematic and philosophical allusions. Her voice dry and deep, Moreau says, “You live a double, triple, quadruple life, which is different from other people. That’s why I don’t like the idea of separating life and work when talking about a career. That notion seems dated and a bit alien to me. You’re consumed.” Or again, “Being an actress in such a context… is to be in tune with the fantasies of a man. What woman never dreamt of that? And being in all these different settings—Catherine can’t achieve that, but an actress can.” Moreau’s understanding of the characters is as sweeping as the film itself, noting the “ambiguity between Jules and Jim,” as Catherine simultaneously embodies, compels, and threatens it.
This ambiguity is literalized in Catherine’s donning of a cap, mustache, and cigar, pretending to be a man (Insdorf notes here, “We’re told that the men were touched as if by a symbol they could not quite understand. Well, perhaps the symbol is hermaphroditic,” as Catherine “represents life, but life that contains the seeds of its own violation”). Jules and Jim’s friendship, touched by Catherine and apart from her, is surely intimate, in all its dimensions, whether competitive or supportive, childish or erotic (everyone in the film is beautiful and appreciative of one another’s beauty, an appreciation displayed for us in freeze frames and close-ups). Their most emphatic split, during WWI, has to do with pressing historical and political forces: Jim and Jules’ nations fight against one another, and both worry that they might be shooting at one another from their trenches.
At the same time, when they are not torn apart by war or more deeply by Catherine, the two men are joined in profound, deep-into-the-night conversations concerning the disparate natures of men and women. Following their attendance at a play, Jules insists that the difference he assumes is “not psychology. It’s metaphysics. The most important factor in any couple is the woman’s fidelity. The husband’s is secondary. Who was it that wrote, ‘Woman is natural, therefore abominable’?” In response, and not a little irritated that Jules and Jim are discussing “woman” and ignoring her, Catherine takes her infamous plunge into the Seine, the film’s narrator notes here, “Catherine’s plunge into the river so astonished Jim that he drew it the next day, though he didn’t usually draw. Admiration for Catherine welled up in him, and he sent her a kiss in his mind. He was calm. He imagined himself swimming with her and holding his breath to frighten Jules.”
And so Jules, who has been Catherine’s lover (the only one the men have not shared thus far), will become Jim’s rival for her affection. Even after the war, when Catherine and Jules are married, with adorable daughter Sabine, the threesome strikes sparks. Jules confesses to Jim that he believes his wife is unhappy enough to leave him (she’s had affairs, she says, specifically to punish Jules for various infractions and insecure behaviors); soon Jules encourages Jim to act on his obvious attraction to Catherine. Within days, the three are all living together, with Catherine making “all the choices.” (Watching one scene with the three together, Moreau notes, “You can detect what’s unspoken in their looks, the crossed wires,” even in their best efforts to be polite and compassionate with one another.
The complications of their intersections are explored in a number of extras on this magnificent two-DVD set. These include excerpts from The Key to Jules and Jim (a documentary on Roché, who wrote his first novel at age 73); an interview with director of photography Coutard; excerpts from the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps dedicated to Truffaut; a segment from L’invité du Dimanche (1969), featuring Truffaut and Moreau; and a bit of the program, Bibliothèque de poche (1966), when Truffaut discusses Roché, repeating the somewhat famous story that the novel inspired him to begin making films (“I think it was the title that grabbed me, the two ‘J’s, there was something magical about it”).
As Truffaut’s comment reveals, his film, for all its understandable focus on the mesmerizing Catherine, is fully concerned with these two “J"s. A translator by trade, Jules is deft with words and more than self-conscious about the various weights of any utterance. “Keep in mind,” he tells Jim, “that words can’t have the same meaning across languages, because they’re not of the same gender. Unlike in French, ‘war,’ ‘death,’ and ‘moon’ are masculine in German, while ‘sun’ and ‘love’ are feminine.”
His interest in gender is more than incidental, of course. Jules and Jim is as much about the gendering of behaviors and expectations as it is about the losses and longings produced by love. Catherine appears a cipher, but she is perpetually cast through Jules and Jim’s perspectives visions. She is gendered across nationalities, across desires, and across her own ferocity. “Perhaps,” the narrator observes of one interlude with Jim, “she was seducing him, though Jim was far from sure of it. It was impossible to tell. Catherine revealed her goals only after she had achieved them.”
That she is, at last, unable to reveal her goals is less an indication that she does not achieve them than that language cannot contain those goals. Vibrant, grand, and mercurial, Catherine at once becomes and exceeds her lovers’ projection. “I agree with you that in love, a couple is not ideal,” says Jim in his effort to leave her. (At this point in her commentary, Moreau breathes in: “Oui!”) “You wanted to invent something better by rejecting hypocrisy and resignation. You wanted to invent love. But pioneers must be humble and unselfish. You must face the truth.” And this is the end the film can’t quite attain, a single truth. Jules and Jim and Catherine all seek their own, and more generously and brilliantly, seek to share them with one another.