A rocking chair has a rhythm of its own; so does
Jules and Ji m. More than 40 years old, François Truffaut’s whirling dervish remains an ageless beauty. The film appears to us as like a specter, with a sensibility about cinematic language and sexual relations rarely seen today. A better title for this benchmark of the French New Wave might have been Breathless—an apt descriptor for the film’s lyrical visual flair and whirlpool of emotions. Too bad it was already taken. Truffaut’s camera not only stands with Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), it moves with them, searching for the pair when they are lost, and opening and closing its frame as they run into and retreat from the world, even freezing it when they are smitten by the rapture their great Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) rouses in them.
Like the cadences of Georges Delerue’s score, Truffaut is always inquiring, using the 20-year relationship of a prickly threesome as the jumping-off point for head-spinning moral and sexual scrutiny. If Jules is the Don Quixote to Jim’s Sancho Panza, then Catherine is their windmill: Always tilting toward her, the men are oblivious that she is the apotheosis of obscure objects of desire. This free spirit drops clues like
bread crumbs (she admires a character in a play for her ability to invent her own life), but Jules and Jim, victims of their culture-vulture precepts, readily ignore them. Duped by their civility, these men ask for Catherine to bulldoze their ideals.
A woman is a woman to Godard, but Truffaut saw deeper. Catherine is autonomous, using her sex as leverage to claim a man’s sense of freedom. Truffaut doesn’t typecast Catherine as a feminist or a repudiation of one. She is wild, passionate, maybe even a little mad, but always straight—which is to say, she is more real than anyone in the film’s carnival of souls. But she is above all a romantic, and like another famous Catherine familiar to fans of Emily Bront and Kate Bush, her love is potentially metaphysical. Daring us to understand her, Catherine shatters traditional views of women, just as Jules and Jim‘s visual panache destroyed conventional opinions of film art.