The Illogical, Lyrical Morality of Jules and Jim

Though you’d never guess from the title, the most dynamic character in Jules and Jim is not Jules or Jim, but Catherine. Played by a passionate Jeanne Moreau, it is she who makes François Truffaut’s 1962 film—based on Henri Pierre-Roché’s 1953 novel of the same name (which Truffaut purchased on a whim from a street-side Paris book vendor)—great. Catherine is a charming and flirtatious woman who flouts social norms and bewitches the titular characters (Oskar Werner’s ruddy Jules and Henri Serre’s severe Jim) in her quest for lasting happiness. Characterized by jump cuts and sudden transitions, Catherine’s story manages to be one of the most compelling things about a film memorable for its lovable if not entirely sympathetic characters, its ironic, fast-paced, and humorous style, and its powerful, understated symbolism. Overall, I was floored.

Recently screened by Princeton’s Center for Human Values, professor Erika Kiss emphasized the film’s function as moral critique. Before the movie began, she asked the audience to consider film critic Stanley Cavell’s thesis that movies about couples that break up and make up reinforce societal power dynamics. Cavell claims that remarriage plots tell a social narrative as well as a personal one: when these couples choose to stay married, they implicitly support the social structure they find themselves within. But in movies like Jules and Jim where such a happy ending cannot be found, it is “precisely the question of what constitutes a union, what makes these two into one, what bands, what sanctifies” that is challenged, and precisely the disregard for the importance of this question that still pleases the audience so.

We laugh deliriously, stupidly at the jokes Truffaut makes, which aren’t exactly jokes as much as absurdities: wild, energetic, and most of all fun. The camera whirls around hilariously as characters chortle and gallivant and twirl. They draw mustaches on each other. They stick cigarettes in their mouths (lit side in) and puff smoke around the room. They decide to go to the beach on a whim and stay for weeks. They traipse through the woods collecting bits and pieces of someone else’s picnic. They let their wife love another man because they love her and cannot bear to see her go. We laugh with them because rules are being broken, because they are being broken with glee, and because—delightfully—no one cares. We laugh because this disregard for what is normal makes sense: it should outrage us but instead it brings us joy.

The movie overflows with love, both romantic and platonic. This love is what saves the characters from the judgment of the audience: though they flout societal norms easily and gleefully, doing exactly what they want without second thought, we can sense the ardency of their love for each other, and we can forgive them the wealth they don’t seem to have worked for, their jobless unproductivity, their sexual immorality. Catherine’s character especially is redeemed by the strength of her affections. She changes her mind as easily as the weather, conforming to an incomprehensible code of ethics all her own. If she feels slighted or unloved in anyway, robbed of her due, she takes matters into her own hands to level the playing field. Her indiscretion and her affairs she admits to, explaining that she only behaved in that way because she wanted to make things even, a motivation she presents over and over again throughout the film.

While her actions can be cruel, they are not unfounded. Catherine knows society is ruled by give and take, and though her morality is entirely unlike that of the men around her, they accept it because it is, on some level, logical. We’ve been taught that male morality stems from this kind of logic, that it is self-explanatory, that it can be easily understood by whoever seeks to understand it. But in Jules and Jim Truffaut spoofs a commitment to logic that can itself produce illogical—and painful—consequences.

Consider the conversation between Jules and Jim as they leave a play and scornfully discuss its female protagonist. They dislike the play as a whole because they don’t know whether this character is a virgin, and they begin to express criticism towards all women, referencing Baudelaire’s misogyny: “Horror, monster, assassin of the arts, little fool, little slut.” Catherine, hearing them speak of her sex in this way, turns and jumps into the river. In that moment, as she walks along the riverbank and lifts her veil above her head, music swelling, she is like a bride choosing to throw herself into the embrace of a powerful, rushing river rather than the arms of a man. The men rescue her, pulling her drenched out of the water, saying little to her except, “You’re crazy.” To the modern viewer, however, Catherine’s reaction seems pretty logical: listening to a man she loves and a man she will love blame her existence for their fixation on a woman’s sexual history, she does something to make herself disappear. Her veiled hat floats away, a virginity lost. She’s been deflowered by the strength of her will, by the danger of denying its existence. Though Jules and Jim claim otherwise, her action is definitely not “crazy.”

This continual flouting of logic—even in cinema—is what so impresses me about Jules and Jim. It’s what gives this French New Wave film its surreal, imaginative vibe: cutting from shot to shot, leaving behind the important details, focusing on seemingly small dramas that therefore become significant. It is an appropriate response to a world after World War II where the logic and formalism that have defined society seemed suddenly useless, a time that challenged social norms and embraced subconscious urges, after centuries of denying that they existed at all.

Perhaps the true victory of Jules and Jim is that Catherine, in all her heady willfulness, is never demonized. Truffaut allows her eyes to well with tears, even when she’s cheating in a race, or cheating on her husband with his best friend, or cheating on the both of them with an artist. Her eventual death does not feel like just retribution for a loose, wayward woman but a true tragedy, brought on by the loneliness of a wild spirit desperate for some kind of happiness—and maybe even a little fun—in a world of suited, logical, and unhappy men.

Grade: A