I first watched Jules Et Jim while getting into film. Certainly one of the first films I watched after I started the Netflix account that would become my pathway to the history of cinema (modern age, eh?). I enjoyed it. I recall thinking Catherine was an evil character. This stuck out to me because I linked the way women were treated in French New Wave. Godard’s Breathless sees a man fall because of a woman* and in Contempt a woman dies after being angry with her husband* (*as best as I can remember, having only seen each of these films once, around the same time).
In addition, Truffaut’s first film The 400 Blows shows a great anger towards the mother in the film. The film is autobiographical in nature, and I certainly felt (and feel) that Antoine was at war with mainly his mother, the person he seems to be blaming in part for his unhappiness.
So with all that said, I felt Jules Et Jim was more of the same. Though maybe a bit accurate, a far too simplistic memory of the film.
Getting a fresh perspective and a second viewing has made all the difference. I’ve seen some people mention that the film is not among the favorites. But I find myself blown away. Jules and Jim’s friendship is warm and beautiful. A woman does come between them. But it’s not that simple. All friendships, sexual and platonic, can be disturbed by a third party. And thankfully, for the film, Catherine is the real deal. We get to establish why they’d be so interested in her, she is beautiful and unique, and she is human. She is decidedly imperfect. The men, at no point, determine that she is some perfect woman. Instead, they are in love with her as a person. They treat her as a person. Understanding the way she feels, and respecting those feelings and temperaments. While Jules makes some dumb comments before she initially jumps into water (the first time), about it being more important for woman not to adulterate than it is for men, for the most part, she is treated with the respect she deserves. The audience, like the men in the film, spend their time chasing after her. Eager to see what comes next.
Catherine is demanding, there can be no doubt. She is stubborn and will get what she wants. And when she decides to kill Jim, it may take a few months. But like the first time she has the chance to jump in water, she seizes the second opportunity, doing it again, this time, finishing off Jim in the process.
While Jim is the center of the film to a degree, Jules is the beautiful person we can identify with (since presumably, that is the author of the source novel’s perspective, being only he lives, right?) Credit the strength of Catherine’s performance in the film as totally believable: it makes you absolutely feel that Jules’ heartbreak is real. He maintains his position as a loving husband. He has kept his fidelity, though like he said at the outset, it was more important for the woman to, after all. She has had lovers. And that IS what destroys them. Though Catherine, of course, is not only to blame. Jules probably isn’t the man she thought he was. As Jules walks away from the cemetery, the narrator makes a glib joke about regulations and them going against Catherine’s burial wishes. But it’s a crushing final scene. And one must feel that while his torment might be over, Jules’ life, so built with those two people he loved, and so far from his ancestral home, is so heartbreakingly sad.
One more thought: is using World War I to divide the film a nod to Renoir’s Grande Illusion? It really marks the end of the era for our heroes. After the war, the film is more serious, slower, more mature, more thoughtful, and certainly more somber. What affect did the war have on our protagonists?
I believe I’ve figured it out as I was writing this. Is the key point that they feared killing each other on the battlefield? Jules claimed that war took away an individual’s ability to wage war (or some similar point). They survived one war, but continued to engage in another one, after battle. After war, the boundary of respect for Catherine was gone, as well. There is no limit to the amount of conflicts and wars one can wage. Catherine sort of shows that, doesn’t she?