by Pauline Kael
When the Legion of Decency condemned Jules and Jim earlier this year, the statement read: the story has been developed “in a context alien to Christian and traditional natural morality.” It certainly has. The Legion went on to say: “If the director has a definite moral viewpoint to express, it is so obscure that the visual amorality and immorality of the film are predominant and consequently pose a serious problem for a mass medium of entertainment.” There is really no answer to this sort of thing: it is perfectly true that Truffaut does not have “a definite moral viewpoint to express.” This absence of moral judgments is part of the point of the film; it is even the art of the film.
It would be possible to make a fraudulent case for the film’s morality by pointing out that the adulterous individuals suffer and die, but this is so specious and so irrelevant to the meanings and qualities of the work that surely the Legion, expert in these matters, would recognize that it was casuistry. The Legion isn’t wrong about the visual amorality either, and yet, Jules and Jim is not only one of the most beautiful films ever made, and the greatest motion picture of recent years, it is also, viewed as a work of art, exquisitely and impeccably moral. Truffaut does not use the screen for messages or special pleading or to sell sex for money; he uses the film medium to express his love and knowledge of life as completely as he can.
The film is adapted from Henri-Pierre Roché’s autobiographical novel, written when he was seventy-four. It has never been translated into English, and if some of us have heard of Roché, it’s probably just from the scrap of information that he was the man who introduced Gertrude Stein to Picasso—but this scrap shouldn’t be discarded, because both Stein and Picasso are relevant to the characters and period of Jules and Jim. Roché is now dead, but the model for Catherine, the Jeanne Moreau role, is a German literary woman who is still alive; it was she who translated Lolita into German. Truffaut has indicated, also, that some of the material which he improvised on location was suggested by Apollinaire’s letters to Marie Laurencin.
The film begins in Paris before the first World War. Jules the Austrian (Oskar Werner) and Jim the Frenchman (Henri Serre) are Mutt and Jeff, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, devoted friends, contentedly arguing about life and letters. Catherine enters their lives, and Jules and Jim try to have both the calm of their friendship and the excitement of her imperious, magical presence. She marries Jules who can’t hold her, and in despair he encourages Jim’s interest in her— “That way she’ll still be ours.” But Catherine can’t subjugate Jim: he is too independent to be dominated by her whims. Not completely captivated, Jim fails to believe in her love when she most desperately offers it. She kills herself and him.
The music, the camera and editing movement, the rhythm of the film carry us along without pauses for reflection. Truffaut doesn’t linger; nothing is held too long, nothing is over-stated or even stated. Perhaps that’s why others besides the Legion of Decency have complained: Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic says that Jules and Jim “loses sight of purposes … It is a confusion of the sheer happiness of being in the studio . . . with the reason for being there.” Truffaut creates movies as other men create novels or poems or paintings; he is the most youthfully alive and abundant of all the major film directors. He needs a reason for making films about as much as Picasso needs a reason for picking up a brush or a lump of clay. And of what filmmaker could a reference to a studio be less apt? He works everywhere and with anything at hand. Kauffmann says of Jules and Jim, “There is a lot less here than meets the eye,” and Dwight Macdonald, who considers Kauffmann his only peer, is reassured: “one doesn’t want to be the only square,” he writes. If it gives him comfort to know there are two of them . . .
What is the film about? It’s a celebration of life in a great historical period, a period of ferment and extraordinary achievement in painting and music and literature. Together Jules and Jim have a peaceful friendship (and Jim has a quiet love affair with Gilberte) but when Jules and Jim are with Catherine they feel alive. Anything may happen— she’s die catalyst, the troublemaker, the source of despair as well as the source of joy. She is the enchantress who makes art out of life.
At the end, Jules, who has always given in to everything in order to keep Catherine, experiences relief at her death, although he has always delighted in the splendor she conferred on his existence. The dullness in Jules, the bourgeois under the Bohemian, the passivity is made clear from the outset: it is why the girls don’t fall in love with him. At the end, the excitements and humiliations arc over. He will have peace, and after a lifetime with Catherine he has earned it.
Catherine is, of course, a little crazy, but that’s not too surprising. Pioneers can easily become fanatics, maniacs. And Catherine is part of a new breed—the independent, intellectual modern woman, so determined to live as freely as a man that while claiming equality she uses every feminine wile to gain extra advantages, to demonstrate her superiority, and to increase her power-position. She is the emerging twentieth-century woman satirized by Strindberg, who also adored her; she is the woman with rights and responsibilities who entered Western literature after the turn of the century and has almost always been seen by the male authors as demanding the rights but refusing the responsibilities. This is the traditional male view of the feminist, and the film’s view is not different.
Catherine, in her way, compensates for the homage she demands. She has, despite her need to intrude and to dominate, the gift for life. She holds nothing in reserve; she lives out her desires; when she can’t control the situation, she destroys it. Catherine may be wrong-headed— as those who aspire to be free spirits often are (and they make this wrongness more visible than pliable, amiable people do) but she is devoid of hypocrisy and she doesn’t lie. In one of the most upsetting and odd little scenes in the film she takes out a bottle which she says is “vitriol for lying eyes”—and Jim doesn’t react any more than if it were aspirin. Catherine the free spirit has the insanity of many free spirits— she believes that she knows truth from lies, right from wrong. Her absolutism is fascinating, but it is also rather clearly morally insane. She punishes Jim because he has not broken with Gilberte, though she has not broken with Jules. Only the relationships she sets and dominates are right. Catherine suffers from the fatal ambivalence of the “free and equal” woman toward sex: she can leave men, but if they leave her, she is as abandoned and desolate, as destroyed and helpless as any clinging vine. Jules and Jim is about the impossibility of freedom, as it is about the many losses of innocence.
All these elements are elliptical in the film—you catch them out of the corner of your eye and mind. So much is caught in the span of an hour and three quarters that even if you don’t catch more than a fraction of the possible meanings in the material, you still get far more than if you examined almost any other current film, frame by frame, under a microscope. Jules and Jim is as full of character and wit and radiance as Marienbad is empty, and the performance by Jeanne Moreau is so vivid that the bored, alienated wife of La Notte is a faded monochrome. In Jules and Jim alienation is just one aspect of her character and we sec how Catherine got there: she becomes alienated when she can’t get her own way, when she is blocked. It is not a universal condition as in La Notte (neither Jules nor Jim shares in it): it is her developing insanity as she is cut off from what she wants and no longer takes pleasure in life.
Jules and Jim are portraits of artists as young men, but they are the kind of artists who grow up into something else—they become specialists in some field, or journalists; and the dedication to art of their youth becomes the civilizing influence in their lives. The war blasts the images of Bohemian life; both Jules and Jim arc changed, but not Catherine. She is the unreconstructed Bohemian who does not settle down. She needed more strength, more will than they to live the artist’s life—and this determination is the uncivilizing factor. Bohemian- ism has made her, underneath all the graces, a moral barbarian: freedom has come to mean whatever she says it is. And when she loses what she believes to be freedom—when she can no longer dictate the terms on which Jim will live—she is lost, destroyed. She no longer makes art out of life; she makes life hell.
She chooses death, and she calls on Jules to observe her choice, the last demonstration of her power over life and death, because Jules by a lifetime of yielding his own freedom to her has become, to her, a witness. He can only observe grand gestures; he cannot make them. In the last moment in the car, when self-destruction is completely determined, she smiles the smile of the statue: this was the mystery that drew them to her—the smile that looks so easy and natural but which is self-contained and impenetrable.
Jules and Jim ends after the burning of the books in Germany, the end of an epoch, as Truffaut has said, for intellectual Bohemians like Jules and Jim. The film is, in a way, a tribute to the books that were burned; I can’t think of another movie so full of books, and of references to books and of writing and translating books. Books were the blood of these characters: they took their ideas of life from books, and writing books was their idea of living.
Jules and Jim is, among other things, the best movie ever made about what I guess most of us think of as the Scott Fitzgerald period. Catherine jumping into the waters of the Seine to demonstrate her supremacy over Jules and Jim who are discussing the weaknesses of women, is not unlike Zelda jumping over that balustrade. This filmic treatment of the period is a work of lyric poetry, a work of art as complex and suggestive in its way as the paintings and poetry and novels and music of the period that it is based on. It is a tribute to the school of Paris when art and Paris were synonymous; filmically it is a new school of Paris—and the new school of Paris is cinema. You go to movies, you talk movies, and you make movies. The young French painters don’t compare with the Americans, and French literature is in a fancy trance, but oh, how the young French artists can make movies!
Several of the critics, among them Kauffmann, have complained that the song Jeanne Moreau sings is irrelevant to the action of the film. It’s embarrassing to have to point out the obvious, that the song is the theme and spirit of the film: Jules and Jim and Catherine arc the ones who “make their way in life’s whirlpool of days—round and round together bound.” And, in the film, the song is an epiphany: when Catherine sings, the story is crystallized, and the song, like Jim and the child rolling on the hill, seems to belong to memory almost before it is over. In the same way, the still shots catch for us, as for the characters, the distillation, the beauty of the moment. Throughout the film, George Delerue’s exquisite music—simple and fragrant, popular without being banal—is part of the atmosphere; it is so evocative that if you put the music on the phonograph, like the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata, it brings back the images, the emotions, the experience. Though emotionally in the tradition of Jean Renoir, as a work of film craftsmanship Jules and Jim is an homage to D. W. Griffith. Truffaut explores the medium, plays with it, overlaps scenes, uses fast cutting in the manner of Breathless, changes the size and shape of the images as Griffith did, and in one glorious act of homage he recreates a frame out of Intolerance. Jules and Jim is the most exciting movie made in the west since L’Avventura and Breathless and Truffaut’s earlier Shoot the Piano Player; because of the beauty and warmth of its images, it is a richer, a more satisfying film than any of them. I think it will rank among the great lyric achievements of the screen, right up there with the work of Griffith and Renoir.
Partisan Review, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 1962