Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sociopath de L'amour

Film: Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I don’t think I’m a prude. I don’t object to sex, or to expressions of sex, or even to honest conversation about sex. But I didn’t expect what I got with Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim). What I expected was the summary on the NetFlix envelope: “Writers Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are close friends who fall in love with the same woman, the unpredictable Catherine (Jeanne Moreau)…What results is a decades-long love triangle that both tests and strengthens the bond between the two men.” Sounds interesting, no? Yeah, it’s not that at all.

What Jules et Jim is instead is a film about capriciousness, jealousy, infidelity, dependency, and selfishness. To a one, these are character traits that I don’t hold in a lot of esteem. There’s love, and then there’s this film, in which love appears like someone looking in through a window. It’s sort of there, but not really a part of the gathering. Love is an onlooker here, not a member of the cast.

So, while the Austrian Jules and the French Jim have their names emblazoned in the title, it is Catherine who truly takes center stage in this strange little drama. Our two writers meet and become close friends, bonding over art, writing, poetry, and eventually, over a particular statue that bears an enigmatic smile. Later, they meet Catherine, who has the same smile. It is Jules who she attaches herself to first. They leave for Austria, and almost immediately, World War I begins.

Jules and Jim survive the war, and eventually Jim goes to visit his friends. What he finds is their child, Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) and a marriage that is on the rocks. Catherine has not been faithful and has never been faithful. In fact, she was unfaithful to Jules the night before the wedding because of some slight uttered by Jules’s mother. And there were others, of course. We are given to believe that there have been many others. Jules, of course, has been faithful because Catherine demands it—in her philosophy, one person in a relationship must be faithful, and it certainly isn’t going to be her.

Jules eventually figures out that Catherine is looking for a reason to leave him. He confesses that she has in the past—she walked out for six months before returning. Why? She wanted to. Or something. Eventually, Jules convinces Jim to marry Catherine just so he can stay close to her. Jim does, and then they have to wait for awhile before sexing it up because Catherine wants a child with Jim, and wouldn’t know if the child was his if she became pregnant right away. And naturally, when they don’t instantly conceive a child, Catherine decides that she is tired of Jim and hates him and wants him to go away and never come back. Until she discovers she is pregnant and loves him more than anything. Until she loses the child and decides she hates him again.

Essentially, this film is supposed to be about the tremendous bond of friendship between Jules and Jim that endures and grows stronger despite the war between their countries and (really) despite them both falling madly in love with Catherine. And my reaction is to wonder why anyone would put up with the antics of Catherine, because they aren’t lighthearted, whimsical moments that anyone would find endearing, but fickle, erratic actions of someone who cares only about herself and damn the cost. Catherine is abusive and thinks only of herself constantly with no regard to how anyone else feels at any time. She turns her love for someone on and off like a faucet. In fact, she may be a borderline sociopath, and "may" and "borderline" might not apply.

So with Catherine sufficiently analyzed (or at least to my own satisfaction), let’s take a look at our two titular characters. These two, especially Jules, are men who seriously need to grow a pair. Jules even comments that Catherine is not particularly “…beautiful, intelligent, or sincere, but she’s a real woman.” And? That’s worth your own personal misery? But they are completely unable to break away from Catherine. Jim tries; he returns from Paris at one point when he is planning to marry Catherine only to discover that she has disappeared because she didn’t like his last letter. So Jim prepares to return to Paris and be done with things when she shows back up. So he stays.

This says nothing of the fact that Catherine vanished so she could have revenge sex with a guy named Albert (Boris Bassiak). And this doesn’t touch on the fact that Jim was in Paris sleeping with an ex-girlfriend named Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) who is still waiting for him to get over this whole Catherine thing. And this says nothing of the ultimate ending to the film (which I will not spoil) in which Catherine pulls one of the greatest dick moves in film history, and which we are supposed to accept as essentially the natural culmination of her “charming” ways.

Suffice to say that while this film is considered a nouvelle vague masterpiece, I didn’t think much of it. Catherine was not the enchantress I was led to believe she would be, but was a vain, vindictive, selfish person with severe emotional and mental issues. Eventually, even if the sex comes gold-plated, there’s a time to move on, but Jules and Jim never get there. What a couple of clods.

Why to watch Jules et Jim: Truffaut is too good to make something not worth watching.
Why not to watch: Sociopathy is not a positive character trait.


  1. Great review! Jules and Jim has been on my list of things to watch since I first learnt who Truffaut was and all about the French New Wave (when I was young and naive, he was simply the guy from Close Encounters...) So far I've only seen a couple of Godard films. This one definitely sounds like it needs to be seen to be understood.
    (I haven't commented in a while, apologies on that :P)

  2. I was really hoping to like this film a lot. I'm always prepared to like Truffaut's films. No small part of this is the fact that I really liked him as the French scientist in Close Encounters. He just seemed like such a...joyful person, someone who truly enjoyed his existence. It's hard to not want to like that. And it's especially true of a film that is so well-loved as this one. Really, I'm a little sad.

  3. Sigh... Yes, I essentially agree with your assessment. Catherine's crazy ways work for me in the very beginning when everyone is young, but not for much longer. I don't understand why Jules and Jim claim to "get" her, but clearly don't, or why she could ever think she'd be happy with the two of them. In essence, why are these three people trying to pretend they can work with one another when it's painfully obvious from the outset they cannot?

    But the style, the style is good. As you say, Truffaut is always worth watching. I believe that (and also have liked him since Close Encounters as well!).

    1. There's a real difference between someone being flighty or "spontaneous" and the stuff the Catherine does in this film, and that difference is a massive gulf too big to be seen across. I don't often hate film characters who aren't very specifically villains, but I came really, really close to hating Catherine by the end of this one.

  4. I watched this thinking how glad I was I didn't have to live with these three. My goodness, they are all so self-involved!

    The film techniques are the real reason to see this; they were far more charming than any of the characters.

    1. Absolutely. Watch this for its influence, not for the people--especially her.

  5. You are definitely spot on with your description of Catherine. As a principal charater she loses sympathy incredibly fast. I am almost shouting at Jules and Jim to let her go, to get rid of her, but there is a part, a pathetic part I suppose, that understand why Jules cannot let go, frustrating as it is. Anyway, she belongs in a hospital.

    1. Agreed. This is a movie to watch for how it influenced other movies. As a stand-alone, I can't really say I like it.