A Thematic Exploration of Francois Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim (1962)

Given the fairly conservative and moralistic attitude of the France of 1961, “Truffaut was understandably concerned about the reaction of the general public to his bohemian threesome” (Stam 2006: 91). Critically explore the themes raised in the film and how they are expressed through plot, camera work and montage.

Often described as one of the seminal texts of the Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim (1962) rejected the dominant ideology of France at the time, both in morals and cinematic mode. In particular, Truffaut utilised plot, camera work, and editing in order to accurately portray the feelings of his characters, and thus represent the disillusioned youth culture of the time.

Based on Henri-Pierre Roché’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, Jules Et Jim takes the story of two young well educated men, and discovers how a woman, Catherine, impacts various periods of their lives. After meeting Catherine for the first time, both Jules and Jim fall for her, but she eventually marries Jules, the quieter of the friends. The three are spilt by war, and upon reconciliation, Jules reveals to Jim that his marriage is not a happy one, and that Catherine has affairs, once abandoning her husband and their young daughter Sabine, for six months. Catherine attempts to seduce Jim, who is still fond of the woman, and with Jules’ blessing (due to his worries of losing his wife), he moves in with the family and openly becomes Catherine’s lover. After struggling to conceive, Jim leaves the family to be with his former girlfriend, Gilberte. After a while, Jules, Catherine, and Jim reunite, but Catherine attempts to kill Jim with a gun, she later succeeds in murdering him (and herself) by driving from a broken bridge in the view of Jules.

As suggested by Stam ,“Truffaut was understandably concerned about the reaction of the general public to his bohemian threesome” (Stam 2006: 91), due to its predominantly Catholic and capitalist audience. The dominant ideology of France had begun to mirror that of America, due to the advent of mass production, consumerism, and entertainment – so any behaviour outside of this norm was considered crude or unhealthy. However, post-war France held power within the youth, those born during the baby boom, who were now reaching adulthood. These young people demanded more from life, determined to develop their minds rather than just settle down as their parents did. This led to higher rates of university education, which in turn brought like-minded students together, that would later result in the student riots of 1968. The youth craved knowledge in art, philosophy, language, and literature – tendencies that are reflected in the characters of Jules and Jim.

Both young Flâneurs, Jules and Jim live a life deemed idyllic by French youth. They both have no job, and live a bohemian lifestyle in which they do as they wish, which tends to be actions in the pursuit of art. They travel to visit friends, one of which has travelled to the Adriatic sea, and watch slideshows of the monuments their peers have discovered. Both men speak multiple languages, and speak of books, science, and culture. They are not concerned with mass media or materialism, even before they embark on the infamous three way relationship, they are at odds with the world around them. Catherine too, engages in bohemian behaviour, asking the men to test her on her language skills.

An element that Truffaut despised about French cinema was what he called the “tradition of quality”. Film was too polished, and yet again, had begun to mirror Hollywood films, which further signals the impact of mass media. He suggested that films in which the “best technique is one that is not seen” are lacking the beauty and commendation of the art form that filmmaking deserves. In pursuit of art over polish (which was at odds with all but the youth’s ideologies), he drew attention to the artifice of the film. An example is when Catherine is introduced, she is shown in close up from all angles to highlight her beauty, rapidly edited, with a voiceover atop the shots. In another sequence, Catherine is discussing how she felt before she met Jules and Jim, and with each caricature style facial expression, a freeze-frame takes place. These freeze frames much like in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) , which ends on a frozen shot, serve as snapshots of moments that the director though were key to the narrative and overall aesthetic of the film. He forces you to recognise the editing, in turn distancing the viewer and demanding observation, much like Brecht would do with stage shows.

Whilst the film opens with the male characters exploring their sexuality with various women, the female characters are not confined to the realm of the simple love interest. A common trope in popular film of the time (also being a reflection on society) was for women to be second class characters or citizens, purely there for spectacle or servitude. The Nouvelle Vague rejected this, creating complex female characters – Catherine being the ultimate example of this. Clearly inspired by the feminist movement, Truffaut sought out to create a character who beguiled not only with her looks, but with her unpredictability. David Davidson regards Catherine as an “Amoral woman”, a character who is allowed an open feminine sexuality “without resorting to caricature or to a kind of implicitly self pitying sentimentality” (Davidson 1981: 31). She is fully rounded and developed socially, mentally, and sexually – rather than a conduit for male fantasy. Within the first segment of the film, Catherine happily wears mens clothes, draws on a moustache, and plays as a Dandy with her male friends – she quite literally becomes a man, which can be seen as a foreshadowing of her later behaviour. She is quirky and aloof, traits that became popular within the Nouvelle vague (for example many of Anna Karina’s characters appeared like this), as a sort of test for the male viewer – could they handle this independent modern woman? Catherine at one point throws herself into the Seine for no other reason than that is what she felt like doing. She works within a moral (or in this case amoral) compass that was formerly reserved for men, she need not have a motive, she lives in the moment.

The irregular romantic relationships within the film are to be noted as somewhat of a controversial topic for the public of the time. Whilst it is common for men to “sow their wild oats”, having a female character commit so many acts of infidelity was uncommon for cinema. Within society, a woman who acted like this would be frowned upon more-so than if a male were to do the same. Whilst it is often the male who will have both a wife and a lover, with little to no consequence, Catherine has a husband who willingly allows her to have extramarital affairs to keep her happy. The two men who accept their places in Catherine’s life are also at odds with behaviour typical of the time. Men had to be dominant, and claim ownership over what was theirs (including their wife) – not share, as Jules and Jim do. They become submissive, allowing Catherine to do whatever pleases her, and catering to her occasional mania and unpredictability. This is why Catherine’s male guise signals her transformation into a fluid character, one who defies societal gender binaries, she can at once be uncommitted to her husband and lovers, yet also be a caring mother to her child.

In conclusion, the reaction of the general public to Jules et Jim was a legitimate concern for Truffaut due to its rejection of the ideologies that upheld France at the time. A capitalist, consumerist, and Catholic country wanted nothing to do with sharing, free love, or culture. A generation of risk takers, those who wanted more, would go on to not only ask for what they deserve, but take it with force.

References

Davidson, D. (1981). From Virgin to Dynamo: The “Amoral Woman” in European Cinema. Cinema Journal, 21(1), p.31.

Greene, N. (2007). The French New Wave. 1st ed. London: Wallflower Press.

Jules et Jim. (1962). [DVD] Directed by F. Truffaut. France.

Sellier, G. (2008). Masculine Singular : French New Wave Cinema. 1st ed. Durham: Duke University Press.

Stam, R. (2006). François Truffaut and friends. 1st ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, pp.91 – 122.

The 400 Blows. (1959). [DVD] Directed by F. Truffaut. France.

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