Wednesday, April 1, 2015

François Truffaut | Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim)

traces of civilization
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Gruault and François Truffaut (screenplay, based on the book by Henri-Pierre Roché), François Truffaut (director) Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim) / 1962

As those many film-goers and readers who have seen François Truffaut’s 1962 picture or have read the earlier novel by Henri-Pierre Roché well know, Jules and Jim is the tale of the triangular interrelationships between two men, Jules (Oscar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), and a woman Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) presented over a number of years. The close friendship and male bonding between Jules and Jim is described as similar to the inextricable pairing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, while, quite obviously, calling up images of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet—who pondered the failures of 19th century culture—and, remind one of the cinema comics, Laurel and Hardy, with Jim playing the tall and lean Stan Laurel, and Werner playing the shorter, rounder-faced and loveable—but in this case still quite handsome Oliver Hardy. Although their interactions are obviously heterosexual, there are intimations, through their athletic encounters in the gymnasium, where they share showers and massages of, at least, a homoerotic attraction. At one point in the film, they refer to their own relationship as “queer.”

     Early in the film they share a number of women, but it is, finally, Catherine, who most attracts them, for her beauty and, more importantly, her impetuous behavior. For the two slightly pedantic “fools,” Catherine, a proto-feminist figure, is irresistible in her ability to bring out the insignificance (and comic silliness) of their lives, and they soon determine to join her in a vacation chateau, where they seem content to share her equally. She, in turn, entreats them to join her on ridiculous activities such as searching for traces of civilization in the countryside about (the three discovering all sorts of lost objects, from shoes, cigarette packages, cups, hats, etc.) and frolicking, a bit like children, in the slightly “befouled,” but nonetheless Prelapsarian paradise. 
     When Jules determines to go further in his encounters with Catherine, with the intention of marrying her, things begin to take a slightly more serious tone. Although, outwardly, the trio attempts to remain open about sexuality and to refrain from jealousy and expressions of sexual dominance, these very issues rear their head in Jules’ disquisition on Baudelaire’s attitude towards women and in Jim’s passive silences in response; Catherine reacts, as she will increasingly throughout the tale, with an impetuous act that runs counter to her two friends’ muted attempts at self-preservation, by jumping into the Seine. Fortunately, she survives the act.
     Outwardly, then, the film presents itself as a being about the battle of the sexes in which both men, in thrall to the feminine, attempt to resist their own temptations to manipulate or control their “Queen.” Catherine, on her part, refuses to settle into a normative domestic world, continuing to goad both men with numerous outside affairs and through her erratic behavior, while still playing upon their own desires for domesticity and progeny. In the world in which they exist, their sexual experimentation is destined, alas, to end in tragedy, which, when Jim, finally exhausted with the flirtatiousness and unpredictability of Catherine’s version of “love”—l’amour for him as opposed to Jules’ more stolid and abiding notion of the same emotion Liebe—attempts to leave her, only to be destroyed by the “Queen Bee” for his attempt to abandon “the hive.”

     I had not seen Jules and Jim since I was a youth, and, although, I think I comprehended much of the above at that time, I also felt removed from the story, in part because of the inscrutability of the woman, and her lovers’ obsessive devotion to her. I was, after all, young exclusively gay man, with little experience with women (as I perhaps am still today) and had, for that reason, had difficulty with all of Truffaut’s primarily heterosexual fables. If I felt any sympathy with the characters, it was clearly with Jules, who remained with Catherine out of faith and filial commitment, as well as demonstrating a strong sense of responsibility to their daughter, Sabine. He was a tender being, more interested in insects, ultimately, than in human beings, a loner (described as “a monk”) who had long ago abandoned his windmill battles at the side of his Quixote or as a foil for Laurel’s abuse.
      This time, however, I realized that Truffaut was also telling us other tales in his focus on the sexual alliances which seemed so central to the film’s story. First, the tale of Jules, Jim, and Catherine, is a story of photography and the cinema itself. Early in the film, their mutual friend, Albert, shows slides in the manner of La Belle Époque, the era when the film begins. Soon after, as the figures folic throughout the landscape, their capers are presented more in the manner of a Charlie Chaplin film, as they seemingly improvise their silly antics, the film speeding up to match the frantic movement of the little tramp, along with momentary friezes of action, reminding us again of the photographic roots of cinema. Soon after, Truffaut infuses his film with a sense of the scratchy documentary style of World War I filmic images, presumably many of them stolen from war-time archives. Jim’s visit to Jules’ and Catherine’s alpine-like chalet in the Black Forest corresponds with a cinematic rendition of post-war romances in which loving images of domesticity alternate with interludes of romantic trysts and stylized representations of longing. 
     These scenes are followed by Jim’s return to Paris where the scenes appear to be much more related to the Jacques Prévert-influenced tales of the underground city, which transform, soon after, to a much more contemporary (clearly new-wave inspired) street scenes and bar-crawls, including the comic story-telling of the erotically uncontrollable Thérèse. By film’s end, Truffaut’s movie takes on images that might remind us more of scenes from Open City, with Catherine’s, careening, out-of-control car circling a square (and foretelling the last major scene of the film) and with a newsreel rendition of the German book-burnings, particularly the one on May 10, 1933. Jim and Catherine’s mad drive across a partially demolished bridge certainly suggests the soon-to-be war-time destruction, and the film’s final scenes clearly represent the post World-War II realism, as the camera focuses on the burning bodies and burials that would become common in post-Holocaust imagery.

     In short, this movie about obsessive love is also a film within-a-film about the ways we perceive reality through photography and celluloid, which helps, of course, to redefine not only the way we see the world but how we experience the truth.

     Just as importantly, moreover, is how this film applies love as a metaphor for cultural and national distinctions and the inevitable struggles that result. Love, in other words, stands in for war throughout this film, and the seemingly vagaries of these figures’ love-lives can be directly connected to their national distinctions. If Jim and Jules begin as inseparable friends, like Germany and France, they soon must go to war with one another. Although they are both terrified of destroying one another, they both seem active in the battles that destroy everyone else around them. 
     Jules’ Alpine chalet could not be more different from Jim’s urban Paris or even from their shared country chateau in the earlier part of the film (in fact, another interpretation of this film might just involve just the architectural images presented in Truffaut’s cinema). This is a film, we must remember, in which most of the action occurs between the wars, and we must recognize that the prize they both seek, Catherine, symbolically speaking, is the cause of the great discord documented throughout the film. 
     The French-born Catherine, moreover, is verbally abused by Jules’ German-speaking parents, which leads her to abandon him almost before the marriage vows have been blessed. And her several marital affairs must be recognized as her seeking a way out of the idyllically constricted German life to which she committed herself. If the French have “won” the first war, the Germans will, at least temporarily, dominate the French in the brewing Second World War, which is on the horizon by film’s end. 
     Catherine’s and Jules’ return to Paris may suggest their personal moral positions, indicating their inabilities to remain in Germany at the time of such growing discord, but the battle continues, suggested through their once again rural idyll of a mill-house abode and through Catherine’s clearly war-like endeavors, which include threats (in the form of her motorized terrorizing of the square outside his window, a gun with which she threatens to shoot Jim, and her own threatened suicide). Her final solution, taking her former lover and herself to their grave with another kind of dive in the river waters, is merely a reiteration of the violent actions Jules must now face in France from his own compatriots (Catherine, is after all, still his wife). If he and his daughter have survived the war of love, he may not be able to survive the battles of the nationalities ahead.
      The search the threesome underwent early on in the film for traces of civilization, may be harder to perform for Jules in the spiritually empty landscape that he must now face. Throughout the film, all the characters read, sharing books and ideas; but after the German book-burning events, he may find little literature left to help him interpret the world which lies ahead.

Los Angeles, April 1, 2015

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