In the male-dominated world of the French New Wave, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) stands out as a mysterious and particularly beguiling female presence. Far more than an object of desire or destruction, she inhabits a deep internal world that the titular characters are never privy to. As they alternatively win and lose her affections over the years, it becomes increasingly clear that they know and perhaps care little for who the real Catherine is. Truffaut’s careful filmmaking in Jules and Jim allows Catherine agency and depth beyond the purpose she serves in the lives of her male counterparts.
Before bringing Catherine to life on the big screen, Moreau had already experienced a fairly rich career. Even in her early works though, when quite young, she seemed wise beyond her years, giving her demeanor an air of sadness and wisdom. In Moreau’s face, she seemed to carry the burden of tragedy, with her eyes and mouth more comfortable downturned than brimming with youthful affection. This nature lures in audiences, as without even seeming to try very hard, one can feel the sheer breadth of her pain through her silence. In Jules and Jim, this is amplified through the contrasting moments of cinematic ecstasy and Catherine’s impulse towards self-destruction.
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The key scene in Jules and Jim is when Catherine sings “Le Tourbillon,” which succinctly summarizes the struggles she faces with her identity. As Moreau’s character drifts from man to man, and back again, she is ultimately trapped by the restrictions on her gender. Jules and Jim’s most vibrant sequence of love and liberation comes early on, when Catherine paints a moustache on her upper lip and runs through Paris as a young man without prejudice and restriction. Throughout the rest of the film, she seems to be chasing this liberty, forever lost in the obligations of her femininity. If gender roles were reversed, it seems that Catherine’s polyamorous impulses would be less destructive, or at the very least, less neurotic.
While Moreau has nearly 150 screen credits to her name as of 2015, Jules and Jim’s Catherine still stands out as her greatest role. She maintains a huge amount of range, but it is how she handles being on the peripheries of the film’s subjectivity that thrusts her into greatness. She is not the protagonist, and viewers do not see the world from her point of view, but rather from the men who surround her. Catherine’s true nature, her thoughts, her desires and her dreams remain a mystery leading up to Jules and Jim’s shocking (if not foreshadowed) final moments. Yet, one might have a sense of who Catherine is in the same way that one can fall in love with the wrong person; the viewer can fall for what lies near the surface, unable or unwilling to grasp what lies any deeper. Catherine is easy to fall in love with — the character is beautiful, charming and intelligent — but it’s as if she is being robbed of her true identity as a flawed and ultimately damaged person.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.