by Stuart Y. McDougal
The film of tomorrow seems to me even more personal than a novel, individual and autobiographical, like a confession or a private diary.
—François Truffaut, 19571
In 1956, François Truffaut was browsing in a Paris bookstore when his eyes fell on a copy of Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché. He was immediately drawn to the title and, as he studied the jacket, intrigued to discover that it was a septuagenarian’s first novel. At the time Truffaut was twenty-four and supporting himself by writing film criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma and Arts. He purchased the novel, took it home, and pored over it until, like a character in Fahrenheit 451, he knew it by heart. Later that year, in a review of Edgar Ulmer’s film The Naked Dawn, he wrote:
One of the most beautiful modern novels I know is Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché, which shows how, over a lifetime, two friends and the woman companion they share love one another with tenderness and almost no harshness, thanks to an esthetic morality constantly reconsidered. The Naked Dawn is the first film that has made me think that Jules et Jim could be done as a film.2
Henri-Pierre Roché received a copy of the review and sent Truffaut a note of thanks. Thus began a lengthy correspondence. Among the subjects discussed w as the possibility of filming Jules et Jim. Like many of the Cahiers critics, Truffaut was already dreaming of putting his ideas into action.
The following year, Truffaut adapted “Les Mistons,” a short story by Maurice Pons about a group of adolescents in the south of France who discover the mysteries of sexuality during the course of a summer. Roché viewed the film and found that it confirmed his belief that Truffaut had the proper sensibility to adapt his novel. However, because of “circumstances and economic arguments,”3 Truffaut filmed his own work of autobiographical fiction, Les Quatres Cents Coups (The 400 Blows’, 1959), rather than Roché’s. During the filming, Truffaut gave a copy of Jules et Jim to Jeanne Moreau. She was most enthusiastic about the book and saw a strong role in it for herself. Truffaut mailed her photograph to Roché, who immediately replied: “I absolutely must meet her: bring her to me.”4 Shortly thereafter he died, without meeting the living embodiment of Catherine and without ever seeing Truffaut’s first feature film, The 400 Blows.
Several years later, Truffaut was able to film Jules et Jim. Although Roché’s novel forms the basis of his film, Truffaut also draws upon incidents in his own life and in particular his relationship with Roché. Jules et Jim becomes both an adaptation of Roché’s novel and the “confession of private diary” of its director. This film shows how an auteur can adapt the work of someone else and still make a very personal statement.
In the second half of the film, Jim recounts to Jules and Albert a story about a soldier who meets a girl briefly on a train and begins a correspondence with her. The girl responds to the soldier’s letters by sending her photograph. As the weeks pass, the exchange of letters becomes more and more frequent and their relationship becomes increasingly intimate. They decide to marry, and the soldier requests permission from the girl’s mother. Then, suddenly, the soldier receives a head wound. He dies in the hospital the day before the armistice, without ever seeing the girl again.
To many viewers this story seems out of place, and yet it is central to an understanding of Truffaut’s movie. The soldier was Guillaume Apollinaire, and the incident is related in his letters to Madeleine Pages, collected in Tendre Comme le Souvenir. An accomplished poet and friend of painters in addition to being a prodigious correspondent, Apollinaire could easily have served as a model for the Jules and Jim of prewar Paris. Apollinaire’s story, as Truffaut presents it, leads us in two directions: both inward to the world of the film, and outward to Truffaut’s personal experience.
The incident is changed in one significant respect: Truffaut makes the soldier die before being reunited with the girl, and thus his dreams are never tested by reality. Apollinaire did die from a war wound, but at the time of his death he was married to a woman he had met while convalescing, after he had severed his relationship with Madeleine Pages. By altering the story, Truffaut creates a strong parallel to his relationship with Roché. Like the soldier in Jim’s anecdote, Roché died before he could see the dreams of his correspondence realized.
Throughout the film, Truffaut identifies Jim with Roché and Jules with himself. Jim remains close to Roché’s characterization in the novel, but Truffaut makes him, rather than Jules, the novelist. Jules is no longer Jewish, as he is in the novel, nor nearly so neurotic as the suicidal character of Roché’s creation. Jules shares Truffaut’s fascination with language and finds expressions of his own emotions in literary sources (such as Baudelaire and Goethe) at crucial moments in the film. Although awkward with women, he is clearly “the man who loved women,” capable of sketching his beloved’s face on a restaurant table a la Matisse. His fantasy about writing a novel with insects as characters (and the profusion of metaphors in the second half of the film comparing Catherine to an insect) is less surprising when one learns that Truffaut had used some of the profits from his first films to produce a film on the sex life of insects for none other than the son of Henri-Pierre Roché.5
Catherine’s character has undergone the greatest change. While Roché’s Kate is German, Truffaut has made Catherine French to align her more closely with Jim. Throughout the film, she identifies with Napoleon and therefore La France. The many women of different nationalities who surround Jules and Jim in the novel have been dropped, and Catherine’s role has been made correspondingly larger. Incidents involving deleted characters (e.g., the burning of the letters or the translation of Goethe’s poem) have been transferred to Catherine. Whereas in the novel two women represent “sacred love [and] profane love” to Jim, Truffaut’s Catherine is both sacred and profane, “a woman,” in Jules’s words, “we all love . . . and whom all men desire.” She speaks the first words in the film: The screen is dark and we hear her unidentified voice, intoning lines not from Jules et Jim but rather from Roché’s later novel, Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent,6 which Truffaut filmed in 1971. The viewer is immediately disoriented since it is impossible to identify either the speaker or the subject, but the lines articulate a major theme of the film as well as asserting the importance of the verbal in a visual medium. In a sense Catherine has the final word as well, since her song (“Le Tourbillon”) echoes in Jules’s head as the movie ends.
Although Truffaut has simplified Roché’s novel, he has retained an astonishingly large amount of its language. Truffaut’s love of words nearly equals his love of film, and here his fidelity to Roché is the greatest. Indirect discourse becomes direct speech, and important speeches, like incidents, are transferred from deleted characters to one of the principals or to the narrator. It is a tribute to Truffaut’s skill that his characters remain consistent.
Truffaut has retained Roché’s narrator, but his presence naturally becomes much more obtrusive in the film than it was in the novel. He distances us from the action and makes us continually aware of the artifice involved in the storytelling. His is a frequent voice in the film—summarizing action, providing transitions, and giving us access to the thoughts of Jules and Jim.
Truffaut is faithful to the general outlines of Roché’s novel, but he condenses, selects, and even adds, all the while developing the material in a very personal way. The initial encounter between Jules, Jim, and Catherine is taken from Roché’s novel, but Truffaut makes significant alterations and additions. Roché has the pair spend months studying at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris before they feel prepared to visit Greece. Once in Athens, they perceive resemblances everywhere between statues and the women in their lives: “The Wingless Victory reminded them of Lucie; a female combatant on a pediment, of Gertrude; and a dancing girl on a vase, of Odile.” After a month there, they are joined by Albert, a friend of Jules who is a painter. Among his collection of sketches and photos is one of a “goddess being abducted by a hero.” The trio seek out this statue and are captivated by it. Jules and Jim return to Paris “feeling sure that the divine was within human reach.” Months pass, and Jules receives a visit from three German girls. One of them, Roché notes, “had the smile of the statue on the island,” and Jules falls in love with her immediately.
Truffaut makes the discovery of Catherine symptomatic of the confusion of art and life which pervades his protagonists’ lives. The sequence opens in Albert’s Paris apartment, where Jules and Jim have come to view a slide show. Truffaut spent his own childhood in darkened cinemas, and it is appropriate that he should have Jules and Jim discover their ideal woman in a similar environment. Her model is revealed through the successive refinements of different artistic media: the photographic reproduction (slide) of an “imitation” (statue) of a woman dead for many centuries. As spectators, we experience this process with them through yet another medium: film. To heighten our awareness of the distances involved here and to emphasize the element of artifice, Truffaut has the second half of the sequence narrated entirely. Jules and Jim pursue this statue at once; Truffaut dissolves directly from the slide of the statue in Albert’s apartment to a shot of Jules and Jim on the island, and the juxtaposition substantiates our feelings about their impetuosity. Then, through a subjective camera, we participate in their exploration of the terrain until the statue is located. A series of shots of the statue recapitulates the shots in Albert’s apartment, while the narrator assures us that if ever they met such a statue, “they would follow it.”
Truffaut adds an important scene before the meeting with Catherine. Jules and Jim are boxing in a gymnasium. Jim offers to read from his novel, which, it becomes clear, is quite autobiographical. Jules listens intently and then declares that he would like to translate it into German. In Roché’s novel, Jules is also writing fiction, but without the autobiographical intent of this scene. Truffaut makes Jim the novelist to identify him with Roché; the novel he reads from resembles nothing more than Jules et Jim. Jules, like Truffaut, chooses to “translate” the work from one language (or medium) to another. Their activities here contribute to their own characterizations, but also illuminate the life of their creator and his problems in the making of this film.
For the meeting with Catherine, Truffaut takes a scene from early in the novel, in which Jules proposes a toast to the abolishment of all formalities while drinking with Jim, Lucie, and Gertrude in Munich, and transfers it to Jules’s apartment. As the three women descend the steps, the camera lingers on Catherine’s face. Here is the actualization of the ideal they have discovered in art. A series of close-ups duplicates the earlier shots of the statue, which duplicated the slides in Albert’s apartment. Once again the viewer participates in their discovery. To strengthen the visual parallels, the narrator comments on the likeness, noting that “the occasion took on a dreamlike quality.” The scene is a perfect fusion of the literary and the purely cinematic.
Truffaut’s adaptation of Roché’s novel reflects strongly his relationship with Roché, but it is personal for other reasons as well. Through his use of cinematic allusions and through an extraordinary variety of cinematic techniques, Truffaut presents the viewer with a cross-section of some of the films in his life: Renoir’s Une Partie de Campagne (1936), in the early shot of Jules and Jim rowing with two women on the river; Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), in the sequence at the theater as well as the use of musical themes identified with characters; Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), in the scene where Jules saws logs on the terrace of his German home; Ophuls’s La Ronde (1959), in the scene before the mirror when Jim and Catherine spend a night at a hotel before his return to France; Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), in Catherine’s masquerade; Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), in the use of the moving camera when Catherine tries to seduce Jules after she has taken Jim for her lover; Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), with the superstition of the hat on the bed; and Griffith’s Intolerance (1916); among others. Moreover, there is a production still accompanying both the French and English editions of the film script showing Truffaut directing in a costume which recalls D. W. Griffith, just as there is a painting within the film of Jules as Mozart. And Jules, as he is leaving the Left Bank’s Cinema des Ursulines with Catherine, pauses momentarily before a 1928 cover from the French periodical Du Cinema. an important predecessor of Cahiers du Cinéma, which helped support Truffaut as a young critic. Truffaut has lived his life in and through films, and Jules et Jim chronicles some of these privileged moments.
The tribute to Chaplin builds upon separate incidents in Roché’s novel: Catherine’s masquerade, and her footrace with Jules and Jim. Truffaut combines a homage to The Kid, by dressing Catherine like “the kid,” with a homage to its creator, by giving her a mustache like Chaplin himself. In addition, the music helps evoke the period of the great silent films. The scene captures Catherine’s need to dramatize and to masquerade. But with all its gaiety, it is filled with ominous undertones. The setting contrasts markedly with the early shots of Jules and Jim frolicking over a bridge in the countryside, where the simple, pastoral beauty of nature was an appropriate metaphor for their relationship. Here the trio passes a barred fence and then enters a totally enclosed industrial bridge with iron girders and chain-link fencing, suggesting confinement and entrapment. Catherine’s behavior substantiates the feeling created by the mise-en-scène.
Catherine’s first leap into the Seine foreshadows the plunge with which the film concludes. Here too, Truffaut takes significant liberties with his text and incorporates several important homages. Truffaut prefaces the sequence with an original scene at a theatrical performance to which Jim has invited Jules and Catherine. At the conclusion of the play, Catherine claps with an enthusiasm and persistence that recall a similar scene in Citizen Kane (1941). The three leave the theater, and Catherine states the reasons for the heroine’s appeal in terms which define her perfectly: “She wants to be free. She invents her life at every moment.” Catherine identifies with the liberated heroines of Strindberg, an identification which also points to her propensity to dramatize, and that is exactly what she does in the scene which follows. Jules and Jim pay little attention to her and instead discuss the play in a cerebral manner, with Jules quoting Baudelaire on the nature of women. To regain their attention. Catherine takes a dramatic jump. Truffaut has provided a motivation for Catherine’s action which is lacking in the novel; it is a protest against both the crippling intellectualism of Jules and the personal neglect which accompanies it. Roché’s woman calls for help after jumping, but Truffaut’s Catherine manages extremely well on her own. She succeeds by this gesture in becoming once again the focus of their attention and in inspiring Jim to attempt to capture this magnificent action in a drawing. Truffaut’s characters continually make art out of the materials of their lives, and model their lives on works of art.
Truffaut’s love of film also reveals itself in his use within Jules et Jim of actual footage from earlier films. Old footage of Paris, for example, adds an important note of authenticity to his period recreation. The lengthy footage of World War I marks a decisive break between the gaiety of prewar Paris and the more somber life which follows. The war, which plays a negligible role in Roché’s novel, looms large in the film. Truffaut stretches this footage to the dimensions of his wide screen, and projects silent footage at sound speed; as a result, the images become distorted and the movement of the figures appears mechanized. Not only does this increase our sense of distance from the war. but it becomes a telling comment on the futility of combat.
Truffaut also uses the war metaphorically. The war separates Jules and Jim. who fight on opposite sides, each with the fear of killing the other. Yet when peace comes, their relationship becomes strained because of Catherine, and their own personal warfare begins. Tensions are symbolized by the difficulty of communication, and failure by the inability to create. Again, the relationship between art and life is close.
Truffaut makes the different nationalities of the trio serve as bonds and barriers. At one point in the novel, Jim laments that he and Catherine “only communicated in translation,” and this becomes the case in the film both with Jules and Catherine and with Jules and Jim. Catherine is capable of translating Jules’s recitation of a stanza of Goethe’s “Rastlose Liebe” into French for Jim, but she prefers to read Goethe in French and has a copy of Les Affinites Électives in Germany which Jim borrows. In Germany, Jules discourses at length to Jim on the difficulty of translation and the importance of this activity for communication: “You will note that the words cannot have the same significance in two different languages as they don’t have the same gender. . . .” He then invites Jim to transcend national boundaries and learn “to appreciate German beer,” but typically, Catherine interrupts: “Jim is like me, he’s French, and he doesn’t give a damn about German beer.” She follows this by reciting a litany of French wines, which serves as a preface to a quiet taunt: “Catch me,” she murmurs to Jim as she flees from the house. Thus, her relationship with Jim begins on a note of linguistic and nationalistic unity. But the importance of translation as an activity with strong parallels to cinematic adaptation has been reaffirmed.
In Roché’s novel, the problems Catherine and Jim encounter are principally legal, as they struggle endlessly with the Germanic legal system while she and Jules seek a divorce. Truffaut symbolizes their difficulties by their inability to create a child. Their failure to conceive separates them. When, surprisingly, Catherine becomes pregnant, she suffers a miscarriage. As the narrator notes soberly: “Thus between the two of them, they had created nothing.”
For Catherine, having a child by Jim would be a way of transcending time. When she is unable to do this, she steps out of time by committing suicide and taking Jim with her. Like Jules, we bear witness with horror as her car plunges downward in a broken arc. At significant moments in the film, such as this one, Truffaut is able to do what none of the characters can achieve in their lives: manipulate time cinematically by slowing and freezing the moments of descent, just as he had done in Catherine’s earlier jump into the Seine, which this scene evokes. In the quickly paced first half of the film, time seems to stand still. Characteristically, Jules records the passage of time with an hourglass, whose form remains the same while the sands shift from one side to another. Neither he nor Jim appears to age during the more than twenty years chronicled by the film. Jim is living with Gilberte and still thinking of getting married, as he was when the film began. Jules attends the cremation in the same striped suit he had worn on his first outing with Jim and Catherine. Jules and Jim live for art and thus seem to be eternally young, as Roché must have appeared to Truffaut. Only Catherine expresses a fear of aging, and her appearance gradually alters from one of romantic lushness to Nazi severity in the more slowly paced second half of the film. Truffaut signals the passage of time not by changes in his characters’ appearances but by the presence of works of art which transcend time.
Chief among these are the different paintings by Picasso, which can be dated only by the time of their creation. The other means are the films we see within this film—the newsreels of the war and the burning of books.
Jules and Jim make creation a part of their daily lives: Jim attempts to capture his early experiences by creating the Jim of his novel, Jules sketches the woman he loves on a cafe table, Jim observes Catherine’s first plunge into the Seine and desires to make a drawing of it. Catherine shares their continual need to shape the incidents of their lives into anecdotal stories, and few films contain as many narrated stories as this one. But while it is salutary to transform the materials of one’s life into works of art, there is a danger in doing the reverse. Jules and Jim’s discovery of Catherine is a good example of this, and Catherine herself aspires to model her entire life after works of art. In Roché’s novel, Catherine keeps a diary and later achieves some success as a writer and illustrator. Truffaut eliminates this aspect of her creativity and instead shows her attempting to make her life a work of art. Albert’s song, “Le Tourbillon” (“The Whirlwind”), is both about her and characteristically performed by her; it is a perfect summation of her enticing and capricious nature. But Catherine realizes that her life, however artful, is transient, and she seeks to overcome this by having a child with Jim.
Within the world of the film, none of the characters succeeds in creating a lasting monument, yet their aspirations are realized by the work of Roché and then Truffaut. We have no way of evaluating Roché’s fidelity to his own experience, although his preoccupation with the subject of fidelity in the novel demonstrates its importance for him. It clearly has a bearing on the nature of adaptation, and on this score we are able to assess Truffaut’s achievement. Truffaut adheres to the contours of Roché’s plot and displays an extraordinary fidelity to the book’s language. He also honors his relationship with Roché by creating strong parallels between it and Jules’s relationship with Jim. His film resembles a series of reflecting mirrors: a semiautobiographical film creating a work of art out of a semiautobiographical novel which creates a work of art out of the lives of the author’s friends, who themselves are engaged in the same process. Truffaut’s film is an affirmation of the powers of art to immortalize experience, and it joins the august company of those timeless works which he has incorporated into it.
1. Quoted in Roy Armes, French Cinema Since 1946. Volume II: The Personal Style, London, A Zwemmer; New York, A. S. Barnes & Co., 1966, p. 5.
2. François Truffaut, The Films in My Life, translated by Leonard Mayhew, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1975. p. 155.
3. C. G. Crisp, François Truffaut, New York, Praeger, 1972, p. 58.
6. Noted in Annette Insdorf, François Truffaut, Boston, Twayne, 1978, p. 85.