Sunday, October 30, 2016

Jules and Jim

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I primarily examine American films, but this 1961 French New Wave film from director Franҫois Truffaut was viewed and discussed in the current film discussion series at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in which I am enrolled, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of the comments made by class members, including my own, concerning this groundbreaking movie.
One of the elements of the New Wave films was to emphasize the movie-making process itself, and in this way, they are anti-realistic. The narrative can be disjointed, with quick cuts and jumps back and forth in time. This experimentation also coincides with the stories, which can contain rebellious or iconoclastic characters and topics. There is also an enigmatic quality to these motion pictures.
This story, which jumps back and forth in time, centers on the relationship between two men, Jules (Oskar Werner), from Austria, who meets up in France with Jim (Henri Serre). They share interests in the arts and a Bohemian lifestyle, and become friends just before World War I. They eventually become involved in a lifelong love triangle with Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). What I noticed in the movie was the shifting between images of movement versus those of stability and permanence. There are trains, bicycles, flowing rivers, and toward the end, an automobile. The character Thérèse (Marie Dubois) puffs a cigarette in a way to produce smoke as she imitates a locomotive. The camera performs 360 degree shots on occasion, which contrasts with other still shots of the characters. Even when the main characters are motionless in a room in Jules’ and Catherine’s home, someone is sitting in a rocking chair that is constantly moving back and forth, scenes which show movement and stasis at the same time. Movement from one moment to the next can represent the fleeting nature of time, which Jules stresses in his use of a large hourglass (its curves suggesting an analogy to a woman’s form, which can be lovely in the moment, but also changeable, due to the toll time exacts on humans). Jules may want to make the most of the time he has with the woman he loves, Catherine. He seeks a long-term stable commitment from a woman, and a family that goes along with that relationship. Jim’s response is different as he likes to move from one woman to the next in his own way of filling his life with different experiences, making each precious moment count.

Jules and Jim, but especially the former, seek permanence in the form of art. They become enamored of a piece of sculpture of a woman with an enchanting smile, and they later find its human counterpart in Catherine. The irony here is that she is human, not an eternal constant representation of beauty, and her personality is mercurial, the opposite of the constancy Jules seeks in a mate. Jules at one point draws the likeness of a former love on a restaurant table, again showing his desire for the eternal frozen ideal captured in a work of art. Thérèse is a female version of movement as she goes from one man to the next. So, movement can also mean freedom from being entrapped in conformity to society’s rules. Although Jules first takes up with Thérèse, she is the opposite of Jules’ attraction for unchanging stability, since she is an anarchist who the audience first sees painting not art that transcends time, but rebellious slogans on walls. Truffaut seems to be saying that film has elements of both change and permanence, since there is movement in a movie (hence its name) and, on the other hand, the entire film is a work of art that is immutable.

The depiction of the romantic relationships also reflects the dueling desires for the change that movement signifies and permanence. Early on in the narrative the three friends stay at a hotel while on vacation. In the morning Truffaut gives us a shot of the two men and the female at their respective room windows. The image is one of a right triangle, which, in mathematics, is a set drawing of lines and angles. But a love triangle is a contradiction in terms, because the relationships among people occupying its corners are unstable, shifting. When they first meet, Catherine dresses up as a man, and the three go out on the town. Jules says that they should discard all references to gender. It appears that if they were three male friends, things would be stable among them. The movie seems to be saying it is the romantic aspect which throws things off balance. In fact, the relationship between Jules and Jim endures even despite political upheavals, as they serve as soldiers on the opposite sides of the fighting during World War I, each man hoping that he will not have to confront the other.

There is a scene when the three friends exit a play and they get into a discussion about women. Jules argues the sexist attitude that it is of primary importance that women remain faithful. He offers a derogatory quote about how women, because of their inconstancy, should not be allowed in church. Catherine, angered by Jules’ attitude, in a symbolic act of not wanting to be, as a woman, restricted in a prescribed code of behavior, jumps into the rushing river, mirroring her desire for freedom from entrenched attitudes (more on the river jumping later). But, she at first joins with Jules, and they settle down and have a daughter. However, she is torn between wanting this life, and not being tied down. She has numerous affairs while married to Jules, but is not happy in her infidelity. She eventually takes up with Jim, who is attracted to her wildness, and the three live in the same house, since Jules becomes resigned to the fact that he is not her soul mate, but at least there is constancy with her in his life if she stays with Jim. He, however, is wary of becoming another Jules in Catherine’s life and returns to France. He had been involved with Gilberte (Vanna Urbino), who would play the traditional female role as a spouse. So, Jim, too, is divided between the free spirit represented by Catherine and a stable relationship symbolized by Gilberte. Catherine, also conflicted, doesn’t want to be tied down, but is jealous of Jim’s “farewells” in Paris. Jim does return, but Catherine, to balance the books as it were, has an affair with a friend of the men, the artist Albert (Serge Rezvani). When Jim returns, he wants to wait a while before he is intimate with Catherine because he wants to make sure that if they have a child, it will be his. He eventually leaves for France again (more movement), but returns when Catherine becomes pregnant, only to learn that she has a miscarriage.
The end of the film can be viewed in different ways. The three are at an outdoor café/dance hall. Catherine invites Jim to get in her car and asks Jules to watch them closely. She drives them off a cliff into a river, killing them both. Again, the car and the river can indicate movement, signifying the freedom of change, but also of time passing and its consequential lack of permanence, except in the final act of time which leads to the permanent state of death. Maybe Catherine realizes that she can’t have the lasting relationship with either or both of these men that Jules and Jim have for each other, and out of desperation, and jealousy, ends the futility, but also denies Jules and Jim the enduring relationship she sought and also resisted. Or, maybe because she couldn’t hold onto Jim in life she felt that she could be together with him in death. Jules experiences a sense of relief that he no longer has to experience shifting (movement?) between loyalties. However, Jules doesn’t allow their ashes to be mixed, thus maybe his jealously not allowing them to be together in death. Catherine wanted her ashes scattered into the wind, a testament to her unfettered wants, but legal regulations wouldn’t permit it, the restraints of civilized life restraining even her final wish.
Others in the class emphasized the homoerotic nature of the relationship between Jules and Jim. After working out in a gymnasium, Jim reads from a work he is writing about two men (them?) who have a gay relationship. Members felt that, just as in Gilda, the two men were using a woman as a conduit for their repressed feelings for each other. Perhaps the messiness of intimacy would have damaged the resilience that the platonic nature of their relationship needed to persist.

Members also pointed out the foreshadowing that exists in the film. As was already noted, Catherine’s plunge into the river after the play is echoed in the final plunge into the river at the end. Catherine’s cheating by getting a head start in a running race with the men shows how she will cheat on them later with other lovers. Her trying to burn love letters at the beginning causes her dress to catch on fire, a foreshadowing of her future cremation. It is also a hint of her self-destructive nature, as is a later incident when she wields a gun. In the first two times, Jim saves her, but he can’t prevent her death (and his) at the end. Jules studies insects and there is a bug crawling across the outside screen door when Jim and Catherine are together, omens of something dark infesting their lives.

Well, I hope the different insights from the film class were helpful in examining this influential movie. 

The next film is Good Will Hunting.

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