Friday, November 28, 2008

Jules and Jim (1962)

Driven by an intense desire to see Jeanne Moreau on the screen again, I loaded our Netflix queue with her films. This classic by director Francois Truffaut is an ambitious exploration of a friendship and love triangle spanning 20 or 30 years. Jules (Oskar Werner) is an Austrian and Jim (Henri Serre) is French. The two meet and become fast friends in the Bohemian haunts of early-twentieth-century Paris. There, they drink, chase girls, and pursue their fascination with art. They become particularly taken with an ancient statue of a gently smiling female face. One day they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), whose serene, yet devilish smile matches that of the statue.

Both men are struck by her, but it is Jules who woos and eventually marries her. The three share an invigorating friendship that survives WWI, but Jim warns Jules that perhaps Catherine was never meant for just one man. The wisdom of his advice is obvious from the way Catherine flirts with Jim, and it is inevitable that they will become lovers. What is not expected is how, as she ages, Catherine’s free spirit morphs into malicious capriciousness, which respectively hardens and softens the hearts of the men she loves.

I’m torn as to whether I loved or hated this movie. It’s clear that, by the end, I mostly hated the characters for their self-indulgence, self-delusion, and self-loathing. The film itself, though, is quite thought-provoking, and it mostly succeeds in its efforts to explore the tricky landscape of love and friendship. This is considered one of Truffaut’s classics, and it is no mystery why. The tale of two friends who fall for the same girl, and the kinky love triangle that eventually engulfs them all, is thoughtfully written and beautifully filmed. It’s a bit of a downer, though, because the passions that initially drive them all wind up becoming muted and sad. Their free lifestyle turns into a prison of the soul.

What initially seems free-spirited and alive about Catherine looks more and more like narcissism as the years pass. Early on, her character has an almost feminist aura, as she seeks to have the same power and freedom as her male companions. Tragically, she winds up looking self-absorbed and destructive. As much as she annoys me though, it is Jules whom I really dislike. His need to be with Catherine is so great that he is willing to tolerate ANY behavior on her part. His weakness is a crutch that allows her weakness to worsen. Jim, the most likeable of them, is only marginally better. He can at least summon up the gumption to be jealous of Catherine, but his constant wavering between her and his steady girlfriend in Paris dooms both loves. Come to think of it, why does Jim’s girlfriend tolerate this over the years? This movie is absolutely lousy with people who have no self-respect!

Most of my impressions from this film are negative, but I didn’t completely dislike it. I’m sure there is a variety of opinion on this tale, which was based on the real-life experiences of Henri-Pierre Roche, who wrote the novel on which it is based. Those more tolerant of human frailty might celebrate these characters for breaking with convention, even if it doesn’t work out well for them. As Jim describes it, they “tried to re-invent love.” The film raises questions about the emotional laws of love. Which laws are immutable, and which are societal constructs? Jim, Jules, and Catherine try to find out by breaking them all. Catherine says, “You said, ‘I love you,’ I said, ‘Wait.’ I was going to say, ‘Take me,’ you said, ‘Go away.’” This statement captures love’s confusion and bad timing, something we have all suffered. For the first half of the film, the threesome's friendship and love are truly delightful. Alas, they can never recapture that joy of their youth, and neither does the movie. For Catherine, Jim, and Jules, as for the viewer, delight gives way to delirium and despair.

3 stars out of 5

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