I had intended to watch my final Johnnie To movie, but that got postponed with the news that Jeanne Moreau had died, prompting another viewing of Jules and Jim.
This one has been championed by everyone from Jean Renoir to Stephen Hawking. Paul Mazursky made an homage/remake with Willie and Phil, where the title characters meet coming out of a theater showing Jules and Jim (Margot Kidder has the Moreau part in that one). It's my favorite Truffaut movie if you don't count Close Encounters. And it feels as fresh today as it ever did.
The three main characters (Jules, Jim, and Catherine) are not equal, and the title of the film doesn't give a clue to the imbalance. Catherine is the center of their lives ... as Jules says, "She is a queen. Let me be frank. She's not especially beautiful or intelligent or sincere... but she is a real woman. And that is why we love her... and all men desire her. Despite this, why did she make us a gift... of her presence? Because we treated her like a queen." This hints at her power and magnificence, but it also points to a problem with her character. For Catherine is defined by men ... by Henri-Pierre Roché, who wrote the novel on which the film is based; by Truffaut; by the male characters. Why is Catherine a queen? Because Jules and Jim treated her like one.
The reason this works is because of Jeanne Moreau. The men involved both behind and in front of the camera create fantasies out of Catherine, and try, in a gentle way, to define her through their fantasies. Catherine only partially returns their desire ... she is willing to be their fantasy until it no longer interests her, at which point she moves on to another man's fantasy. As many have noted, Catherine is barely a character ... she is an idea. But Moreau brings that idea to life. She demands that we see her (Catherine, and Moreau) as a person, not someone's idea. The character is drawn in a fuzzy enough fashion that we can't always get a handle on it, but we never doubt Jules and Jim's feelings towards her. And by her, I mean Jeanne Moreau. It's not that she is playing herself, but she is filling in the large blanks in the character as written with her own sense of self.
Perhaps because of Moreau's death, I'm focusing on her. I haven't said anything about the brilliant use and subversion of the language of film, or about how Jules and Jim is a crucial part of the French New Wave. All of that is true. But today, I'm thinking about Jeanne Moreau. #82 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.