In the male-dominated world of the French New Wave, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in François Truffaut’s Jules et 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 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, Jeanne Moreau had already experienced a fairly rich career. Even in her early works though, when quite young, Moreau seemed wise beyond her years, giving her demeanor an air of sadness and wisdom. In her face she seemed to carry the burden of tragedy, with her eyes and mouth more comfortable downturned than brimming with youthful affection. This nature lured in audiences, as without even seeming to try very hard, we felt the sheer breadth of her pain through her silence. In Jules et Jim, this is amplified through the contrasting moments of cinematic ecstasy and Catherine’s impulse towards self-destruction.
The key scene in Jules et Jim is when Catherine sings ‘Le Tourbillon,’ which succinctly summarizes the struggles she faces with her identity. As she drifts from man to man, and back again, she is ultimately trapped by the restrictions on her gender. The film’s most vibrant sequence of love and liberation come early on, when she 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, we get a sense that Catherine’s polyamorous impulses would be less destructive, or at the very least, less neurotic.
While Jeanne Moreau has nearly 150 screen credits to her name as of 2015, 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 we do not see the world from her point of view, but rather from the men who surround her. Her true nature, her thoughts, her desires and her dreams remain a mystery to us leading up to the film’s shocking (if not foreshadowed) final moments. Yet, we have a sense of who Catherine is in the same way we can fall in love with the wrong person, we allow ourselves to fall for what lies near the surface, unable or unwilling to grasp what lies any deeper. Catherine is easy to fall in love with, she is beautiful, charming and intelligent, but in doing so, it is as if we are robbing her of her true identity as a flawed and ultimately damaged person.
Justine Smith lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.
Follow Justine on Twitter @redroomrantings.