Since its release in 1962, Francois Truffaut’s seminal Nouvelle Vague film, Jules et Jim, has created much controversy over its diagetic/stylistic representation of gender politics. A film about trying to investigate the capabilities of human relationships from a modern perspective, the character of Catherine seems to refuse any adherence to societal norms; thus, creating a figure that without closer analyzation could easily be mistaken as a representation of female empowerment and/or liberation. Yet, Truffaut makes it clear that these were not his intentions in various written statements and interviews. Instead, he presents, from an, arguably, chauvinist perspective, Catherine as a figure that is inherently ambiguous in nature; moreover, he depicts her as goddess-like on some levels but also humanely flawed on others. Accordingly, he shows her to be motherly in some episodes and childish in others; Catherine’s character is one that is marked by a certain essential ambiguity perhaps best illustrated through the vial of acid, or shall I say ‘liquid fire’ that she carries in her purse. Indeed, this ‘liquid fire’ is an icon defined by opposing elements that are just as contradictory as the nature of Catherine herself. (Schiffman et al) Thus, it is arguable that Truffaut presents her in such a domineering, selfish, almost grotesque sort of manner in order to evoke the artist’s own perception of women, one that is more negative and critical and than empowering, certainly.
Truffaut said regarding the film: “Lots of people didn’t like the scenario for Jules et Jim. The distributors said ‘that woman is a whore,’ ‘the husband is going to seem pretty grotesque,’ etc.” (Interview, p. 8) Thus, before the problems began later down the road in the 1970s regarding the second-wave feminist interpretations of the film, people in the industry were already complaining about the film and its seemingly, amazingly distasteful presentation of the woman as this all-powerful rebelling goddess, free to float around her environment, sleeping with who she wants and going and coming as she pleases; yet, what they could not understand was that within Truffaut’s presentation of Catherine was an implicit criticism. We must remember, Catherine does die at the end of the novel as result of her inability to accept her own selfishness and egoism. Moreover, her behavior is what causes her downfall, also, her inability to conform to societal expectations of the conventional/acceptable feminine identity, perhaps best embodied by the supporting character of Gilberte, constantly floating around in the background providing a stable anchor for the sake of stylistic counterpoint. Thus, we can see in this sense that Truffaut is not then condemning all women but only those that wish to go against the social expectations of their gender and try to engage in epic endeavors such as the redefinition of love with a fundamental crippling sense of Hubris hindering any chance of success. Of course, this other type of women is embodied in the form of Catherine. It is these women then that go against the grain, so to speak, whom are being criticized by Truffaut. Therefore, he is advocating moral principles that are not feminist but instead, a bit chauvinistic in nature.
Considerably reminiscent of the popularized literary perception of women as disembodied goddess, Elaine DalMolin remarks: “Catherine’s complex psychological nature leaves her out of reach, and despite her coming into Jules and Jim’s human world, she remains and unattainable object of desire throughout the film.” (Voice, p. 238) Thus, as we have suggested, Catherine’s ambiguous nature of being represented as a goddess, yet, with human folly, a mother, yet, with childish tendencies, places her in the realm of the unattainable, this disembodied object of romantic desire. Moreover, she comes to represent the image that initially introduces us to Catherine, the statue with the “serene smile”. Throughout the film this association is emphasized not only initially, when Catherine appears and she is “visually linked to the statue since the camera makes the same excited movement around her”. (Schiffman et al) But also, in the scene in which Jules and Jim are playing dominoes and almost ignoring Catherine, causing her to come over and start making various theatrically emphasized expressions of various common emotions. This use of the freeze-frame almost metaphorically places Catherine into the same realm as the statue, both the freeze-frames and the sculpture are the artistic product of the inspiration of an individual; thus, through the usage of the stylistic device of the freeze-frame, we see a another link drawn between Catherine and the original statue of which she is associated with.
Be that as it may, another important element of the first scene in which we are introduced to Catherine is that of the slow dissolve that leads into the episode. Finishing off the scene in which Jules and Jim are showering in the boxing gym, the camera pans up to a sort of metallic surface before dissolving to the next scene; yet, what is left over more than anything or these two blurbs of glaring light that seem to last longer than the rest of the image as it eventually all fades away. The effect of this lingering brightness is that it surrounds Catherine as she walks down the stairs giving her an almost celestial or divine appearance before the camera even provides the audience with a close-up. Once again, this just provides another example of how Truffaut utilizes style to communicate and/or develop the thematic content of the film. In a later scene in which Jim and Catherine have their first kiss, one may notice that it is indeed, another instance of Truffaut’s style communicating thematic content of the film. Jim and Catherine’s face are shown against a window and the lighting is composed so as Catherine’s face is completely black. The effect, of course, is that the stylistic contribution of lighting is representative of the trope of Catherine as the unattainable, disembodied goddess perhaps evoking, on a larger scale, a chauvinistic criticism of women who desire to go against the grain of conservative gender politics in the time period. We must remember that Truffaut and for that matter, Henri-Pierre Roché (the original writer of the novel), always include Gilberte as a sort anchor, solidifying the presence of a certain counterpoint, to remind the reader that the criticism is not of all women, just of those that seek to recreate their own identities in society with too much hubris, too much revolutionary fervor, with not enough heed being paid to the long-established conventions of the past, etc.
Screenwriter of this film, Jean Grault, represents the difficulty of the misinterpretation of this film by various females as a result of the maturation of various feminist movements, years after the release of the film when he recounts the statements made a Canadian female reporter in regard to her reaction to the film, notably, she remarked the impact the film had made on her was that it allowed her to “sleep with a priest”. In another instance, he remembers being approached by an older woman who stated that after seeing Jules and Jim she realized “she could cheat on her husband”; furthermore, in her recounting of this realization she mused: “Boy, did I ever!” (Schiffman et al) He explains that it was these sort of all-encompassing, ill-investigated, pro-feminist interpretations of the film that started showing up years after the film was released began to, in their minds, mar the essence of the film. Grault was so passionate about having the work not being interpreted in such a manner that he included a dedication on Jules et Jim not just hoping that it “doesn’t inspire any evocations of feminism” but also stating quite comically, “I’ve got enough feminists already, starting with my wife and my daughter, that’s enough.” (Schiffman et al)
Long-time Truffaut collaborator and assistant. Suzanne Shiffman, basically acknowledges these claims with supporting evidence in her explanation of Truffaut’s approach to the post-release feminist interpretations of the film, she goes as far to explain that if Truffaut had been aware of the interpretations that the feminists would make out of the work, he would have never endeavored in creating the film. Specifically, she remarks: “Truffaut didn’t like the idea of a masculine movement against the feminist movement, he was not a feminist; he had nothing to do with the feminists, he had something to do with his own feelings about but not the feminists.” (Schiffman et al) Thus, although not directly in accordance with our hypothesis of a more chauvinistic tone to the thematic content of the film in terms of the representation of the deviant feminine, living outside of social constraints and attempting to redefine her identity, yet, finding herself hopelessly tied down by the manacles of hubris and therefore, not able to continue to exist without existing within the perception of others, namely, Jules and Jim. However, she does affirm our claims that Truffaut did not condone any of the emerging feminist interpretations of the novel with evidence based on personal, first-hand discussion with the artist himself. Furthermore, she remarks that he was intent on defining his own conception of the woman. The woman he presents is this disembodied, idealized, unattainable goddess who eventually finds herself unable to subsist in the environment of reality, that is, within the diagetic realm of the story.
In the final scenes of the film, we experience Jim’s metaphorical bursting of the bubble as he discontinues his relationship with Catherine; he remarks that “you wanted to invent love but pioneers should be humble without egoism”. Therefore, in attempting to redefine the concept of romantic love in order to best suit the unique demands of this disembodied, unattainable figure of the feminine being represented beyond the grasps of societal constraint has in a sense, pushed the envelope far too far, even attempting to bring a third lover into the triangle. Perhaps then, one can suggest that not only through the inclusion of the character of Gilberte, serving a sort of counter-point reminding us of the presence of this conventional women in this diagetic realm the film but also, through Catherine, that Truffaut is suggesting the problem arises comes from this sense of hubris in certain women, especially those regarded as especially beautiful or attractive by a particular culture, etc. In presenting us this woman who has no adherence to social norms, it is not this rejection of the normative behavior that is being condemned; it is more the pride of the character that not just rejects some normative behavior but all of it. It is not enough for Catherine to manipulate these two men into partaking in a romantic relationship with her at the same time, but she wants to bring somebody else into the triangle. Thus, it is not the rejection of societal norms that is being condemned here but the hubris of this character.
It is almost as if in the beginning of the film, Catherine is shown as being able to balance this role of the earthly woman and the disembodied goddess of sorts; however, being the beautiful woman she is, played by the most beautiful of New Wave actresses, Jeane Moreau, we can see embedded within the characterization of Catherine a criticism of all women blessed with the gift of striking physical beauty. Be that as it may, the last line of the film is also of chief importance because it sort of leaves the larger message of the narrative as an open-ended question. Catherine is dead and she has taken Jim along with her, the tragedy has come full circle in its culminating moments, her actions, now, seem characteristic of a figure suffering from the character flaws of hubris, of greed and pettiness. Yet, the last line of the film raises this sort of element of ambiguity: “Catherine had wanted her ashes to be scattered but this was not allowed.” Annette Insdorf quite aptly comments on this conclusion by stating that: “Once again, we get this sense of a societal prohibition that Catherine, in death, comes up against as much as she did in life.”
1. Schiffman, Suzanne, asst./collab., Grault, Jean, wrtr., Insdorf, Annette, schlr., and Bouché, Claudine, edtr. Jules et Jim. Audio Commentary. The Criterion Collection, 2005. DVD.
2. Neupert, Richard. “Where Did the Wave Begin?” A History of French New Wave Cinema. Ed. Kristin Thompson. The University of Wisconsin Press: Wisconsin. 2007.
3. Truffaut, Francois, Ronder, Paul. “Francois Truffaut: An Interview.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 17, No. 1 (1963): 3-13. Web. 03/03/2010.
4. Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. “Fascination, Friendship, and the ‘Eternal Feminine,’ or the Discursive Production of Cinematic Desire.” The French Review. Vol. 66, No. 6 (1993): 941-946. Web. 02/20/10.
5. Grossvogel, David I. “Truffaut & Roché” Diacritics. (1973): 47-52. Web. 03/03/10.