Three’s a crowd
by Germaine Greer
on The Guardian, Sat 24 May 2008
When François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim was released in 1962, it was an instant hit with girls like me, francophile, penniless and non-monogamous. In those days, when contraception was available if you were sufficiently guileful, there were a fair few sex adventuresses about, though nowhere near as many as there are now. Enough of us took Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine as a role model to establish a fashion for heavy black eye-liner, pale lips, sloppy jumpers and flappy skirts. Some even went so far as to try the Jackie Coogan cap worn by Catherine when she is masquerading as Thomas. We could all whistle “Le Tourbillon de la Vie”. Catherine seemed a woman after our own hearts, who followed her desires rather than the rules.
Those of us who spoke the language of the Cahiers du Cinéma rejoiced in the film’s innovation, its daring introduction of still photography, the occasional fleeting freeze-frame, pans, dolly shots, wipes and masking. In retrospect, it is obvious that some of these innovations, such as using newsreel of the first world war instead of shooting new footage, were made necessary by a shortage of funds following the box-office failure of the preceding production from Les Films du Carrosse, Tirez sur le PianisteCinematography has followed in the path carved out by Truffaut. The sequence in which Moreau comes freewheeling towards us on a bike, faithfully followed by her lovers, was shot by a lightweight camera mounted on a bicycle that Moreau and the men had been directed to follow, so we feel airborne along with the action. In the race across the bridge, when Catherine is disguised as a boy, the handheld camera keeps pace with her, and we feel as if we are running alongside. By such ruses Truffaut involves us in the childlike delight of the characters. It is this freedom that captivated the film’s original audiences, a freedom that has now become part of the repertoire of every cinematographer.
Sex is a different matter. Sexuality is more protean than technology, and most 21st-century audiences will be puzzled by what seem to be blinkers on the plot. In its earlier life, the film was understood to be about Catherine, rather than Jules and Jim. Synopses were apt to say that it was about a woman who was a free spirit, spontaneous, playful and utterly bewitching, who loved two men. Every character was heterosexual. Men wore hats, and everybody went to bed appropriately clad, with only one person at a time, and of the opposite sex, bien entendu
From this distance, it seems two men loved Catherine, and doubtful whether Catherine ever loved anyone. When Jim visits Jules and Catherine after the war, Jules meditates on the difference between German and French gendering of basic concepts. In German, unlike in French, war and moon are masculine, while love and sun are feminine. Life, on the other hand, is neuter. Jim responds: “La vie neutre – c’est très jolie et surtout très logique.”
If Truffaut was giving serious thought to the question of gender in 1962, he was ahead of his time. Jules appears short on attributes of masculinity: he is shy, sexually timid and, according to Catherine at any rate, lacks natural authority. Jules is doglike in his fidelity; Jim takes pleasure wherever he finds it. The men fall in friendship when choosing a costume for a fancy-dress ball; at the ball, they discover a deep regard for one another. Both have intellectual pretensions, give each other Picasso prints, quote Shakespeare and Baudelaire, and go to the theatre to see Strindberg’s Miss Julie – but, by this time, Catherine is placing herself between them. Before Catherine, they always ate together, and took pleasure together in expensive cigars. In a more enlightened world, they would probably have married.
Moreau’s performance is spectacular, but the part can hardly be described as a character. The essence of the portrayal is contradiction and inconsistency. Her behaviour is both inexplicable and unforgivable; the wonder of it is that Jules and Jim forgive it. That is the plot; Catherine’s inner life has nothing to do with it. For all we know, she is both frigid and miserable, and her joie de vivre is yet another virtuoso performance. Discussions of the film too often centre on explanations of her behaviour, as if she were a case study in psychology rather than a part in a film. Catherine treats her own face as a mask, the mask of the female, in Baudelaire’s words as quoted by Jules, “scarecrow, monster, enemy of art, numbskull and trollop”, but adorable, n’est-ce pas
Truffaut used the cycling girl motif five years before Jules et Jim for the opening sequence of his second short film, Les Mistons. The narrator, who is one of the brats of the title, explains that the self-propelling female “marked the beginnings of our half-glimpsed dreams and secret fantasies. She brought about our awakening, kindled within us a luminous sensuality.” Bertolucci later adapted the motif of the cycling female in La Luna (1979), but here she was the hero’s mother and he was an infant looking up at her from the basket of her bike. Bertolucci, who was in analysis for many years, was well aware of his own ambivalence towards the figure of the overpowering female.
Truffaut, by contrast, would have been horrified to be told that he was in any way a misogynist. Yet all the women in Jules et Jim are grotesques. Thérèse entertains her many male partners by impersonating a steam train, blowing smoke through a lighted cigarette placed in her mouth backwards. This she does in 1912, early in the film, and 20 years later she is still doing it. The sequence in which she babbles her tawdry life story at Jim must be one of the most repulsive vignettes of a woman ever made. Jim’s faithful doormat girlfriend Gilberte is probably meant simply as a foil to the fascinating Catherine, but she is no less contemptible in her abject way. Then we have the speechless Denise, “un bel objet” who is nothing but a “creux”, a hole.
Truffaut is reputed to have been greatly susceptible to women’s charms. He was constantly falling in love. The reason for his joining the army in 1952 is supposed to have been his despair at being rejected by a woman. In choosing a wife, he showed rather more enlightened self-interest. His first was Madeleine Morgenstern, whose father ran the distribution company Cocinor and financed the production of Les 400 Coups. She divorced him after eight years, in 1965. He is said to have had relationships with many of his actresses – with Marie Dubois, Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Bernadette Lafont and Fanny Ardant, who had been his secretary and became his second wife.
Truffaut could be thought, like Don Juan and many another lady-killer, to be following a fantasy quest for the “ewige Weibliche”, the eternal feminine. In Jules et Jim, this is emblematised in the “recently exhumed” sculpted female head of which a slide is shown to Jules and Jim by Albert, and which they travel to see at an open-air museum on the Adriatic. There they decide that, if ever they saw a woman with such a smile, they would both follow it. At this point, it would seem that the archetypal female will function as the enabler of their intimacy with each other, which they dare not act out any other way. Then they meet Catherine, decide she has the same expression as the sculpture, and woo her in tandem. Jules and Jim kick-box together; when Catherine accepts Jules’s proposal of marriage, she tells Jim that Jules is going to teach her “le boxe français”. In a subtler film, this could be interpreted as meaning that she will take over the role previously played by Jim, but not in Jules et Jim, which remains innocent to the point of obtuseness.
Watching Jules et Jim through the prism of the past 46 years, one wonders whether Truffaut would have done anything differently if he had been repelled by Catherine/Moreau rather than attracted to her. The camera caresses her, and she responds marvellously to it, but, viewed from this end of the telescope, Catherine seems insufferable. She will do anything to get attention. She decides on a whim to read Goethe’s Elective Affinities, but her husband has lent his copy to Jim. We then witness Jules telephoning Jim asking him to bring the book back so that she can read it. Instead of telling her to sod off, Jim obediently trots back with the book. Both men understand that this is Jules handing Catherine over to Jim, who is fool enough to take her. Such abominable use of other people is justified in Catherine because both men insist on thinking of her as a queen, an apparition, a creature of another world. The ménage à trois is supposed to be blissfully happy, though Jules can hardly be enjoying overhearing his best friend and his wife making love. When Catherine decides to seduce Jules by way of light relief from Jim, she does so as noisily as possible.
Jules et Jim is a reminder of how much has changed since 1962, and how much of that change has been for the good. We no longer expect lovers of the same sex to live in denial, or to interact through the medium of a person of the other sex, nor do we expect women to achieve their own ends by manipulating the agency of men. I hope I am not wrong in thinking that most people seeing Jules et Jim for the first time will find the ending to be not an act of poetic justice, but the final atrocious extravagance of an indulged and destructive narcissist. The question is not, after all, whether a woman can love two men at once, because obviously she can. But for true love to flourish, as Jules and Jim could both tell you, the parties must be free and equal.