[19 February 2014]
You said, “I love you.” I said, “Wait.” And so with Jeanne Moreau’s hushed voiceover begins François Truffaut’s masterpiece Jules and Jim, and with it Moreau’s indelible imprint on the world as we know it. Of course, she was already a star at the time, having headlined Antonioni’s La Notte and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, but it’s her first collaboration here with Truffaut that remains her most iconic, and one which endures as perhaps the best female role from the New Wave era.
Her non-eponymous character Catherine is the catalyst for a love triangle between titular best friends Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), men who do everything together, including, as it were, coveting each other’s love interests. The film is adapted from Henri-Pierre Roche’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, and has since become synonymous with turbulent love affairs and the blueprint against which all other cinematic threesomes should be compared.
But what’s striking some 50 years after the release of Jules and Jim is the rather unambiguous queer subtext that runs throughout, evidenced by Moreau’s casting as the bewitching temptress, but mostly through the gender-free codifications championed by Jules and Jim that effectuate the queering of private spaces.
Truffaut establishes the intense homosociality between his leading men from the outset: from gym workouts to double dates they’re basically inseparable. To such a degree that at one point Jim abruptly leaves post-coitus to return to Jules, presumably because he’d rather be hanging out with his best bud than with a naked, welcoming female.
The queerness of their relationship is addressed forthrightly by Truffaut in the beginning of the film when Jim reads a review of one of Jules’s articles that comments on “the unusual relationship” the men share. They shrug it off without comment, but the seed has been planted in the viewer’s mind that there’s more than meets the eye with their friendship.
Soon Catherine emerges as a rare creature whose irrepressible sensuality radiates an intoxicating confidence. She meets the men together, of course, whereupon Jules almost immediately proclaims that they “abolish Monsieur, Madame, and Mademoiselle” altogether, indicating a level of comfort with one another, but also an environment of gender fluidity.
It’s not clear if this comment is what initially attracts her to Jules, but it’s with him that Catherine first cohabits, though this doesn’t preclude Jim from always hanging around with the newly smitten couple. He never feels like a third wheel, and this perpetually open invitation is essential in understanding the film’s undercurrent of homoeroticism.
The attraction between Jim and Catherine has heretofore been tame, at least from her end, but that changes when he visits her and Jules (now married with child) at their idyllic chalet hideaway, a place removed from society and its accompanying morals. This very secluded space allows for the gendered cosplay between the trio to become intensified; as she alternates interchangeably between the men, neither of them take particular issue with her sexual transgressions or with one other for sleeping with the other’s woman. In essence, by sharing her she becomes the tool through which they can realize their most perfect union with one another.
This back and forth continues throughout the film, but it’s specifically once she has slept with both Jules and Jim that their interactions with one another become increasingly infrequent and sanitized. It’s as if the reality of this tangible proximity becomes an unbearable burden that drives the men apart. If we understand Catherine as a symbol of their longing and desire, the attainment of this taboo brings about the trio’s ultimate separation.
The indifference with which they relinquish possession of Catherine, an altogether anomalous concession of masculinity, particular at that time, underscores that their primary interest has always been in one another, leaving Catherine as nothing more than the human subterfuge of two men in love.
The destructive nature of their relationship comes to a head when Catherine reunites with Jim after a long absence and drives the two off a bridge in a conspicuous display, an abrupt but inevitable ending reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Jules remarks at their joint funeral that his relationship with Jim “had no equivalent in love”, but it’s clear all along that the men are meant to be together.
Catherine, with all her promiscuity and androgyny, is masculinized with traditionally male traits that pervert her character. These characterizations are what draw the men to her, subconsciously, as each of them already embody these aspects.
In the film’s most famous scene, Moreau’s Catherine adopts fake facial hair and dresses as a man (Chaplin’s tramp), is called Thomas, and runs freely through the streets with Jules and Jim. Truffaut taps into this exhilarating sense of sexual freedom throughout, perhaps unaware of the queer subtext. He captures the beauty of love and longing by showing the truth in human interaction.
Werner and Serre are capable actors, but it’s Moreau who really leaves an impression; her striking beauty exemplifies a struggle with tradition that become synonymous with the French New Wave and nascent second wave of feminism.
In one of the many exemplary special features on Criterion’s newly issued blu-ray upgrade, cinematographer Raoul Coutard notes that what makes Jules and Jim timeless is that it’s a product that transcends an already excellent script through a fortuitous frisson of elements. Part of what makes the film feel as alive now as it must have then is the depth of its commentary on gender and sexuality.
The included commentary track from Moreau is not to be missed, nor are the overflowing supplements that accompany this gorgeous 2K digital restoration. The booklet alone includes no fewer than three insightful essays, one by Truffaut on Roche and the adaptation of the source material. Also included are several video interviews with Truffaut as he discusses the film and its impact at various stages of his career, The Key to Jules and Jim, a documentary that looks at Roche and the people who inspired his novel, and an interview between sundry film scholars on the film’s legacy.
Truffaut’s newly included essay ‘Henri-Pierre Roche Revisited’ shows a creator at the absolute height of his intellectual capabilities. He ruminates on the effects of the novel and how, when still working as a film critic for the Cahiers du cinéma, he vowed to make the story a film if he ever became a success. Luckily for us, he did just that.