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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

Rule Breaking in Jules et Jim: Creating a Portrait of the Modern Woman

By Kathy Michelle Chacón

The French New Wave, a film movement that occurred between the years 1959 and 1965, was a cultural phenomenon that was brought to life in response to the economic, political, and social state of France in the 1950s (Neupert 3). French New Wave films were free to explore new forms of filmmaking, elevate the art of film, and break the spoken and unspoken rules of cinema. Jules et Jim, a 1962 film by François Truffaut, takes the rebellious nature of the French New Wave and flips it on his head. In Jules et Jim, Truffaut utilizes location, lingering moments, and freeze frame to break the rules of the New Wave movement itself in an attempt to pay homage to Poetic Realism—a movement that is characterized by its tendency to linger on precious cinematic moments and occur in a natural setting—and in so doing, presents a new model of the modern French woman.

It is no secret that director François Truffaut was a true cinephile (Neupert 164). And though it is a New Wave film seemingly meant to rebel against the Tradition de Qualité, Jules et Jim pays tribute to Poetic Realism and the great directors of 1930s French cinema. An unspoken rule of the French New Wave is that the films of that era were typically shot on location in Paris, but that is not the case for Jules et Jim. Truffaut breaks the rules set out by the movement and opts for more natural settings throughout the duration of the film — a defining trope of Poetic Realism. This utilization of a natural backdrop is most evident when watching the segment that takes place at the hillside home of Jules and Catherine during the film’s midpoint. The majestic scene in which Catherine, Sabine, Jules, and Jim enjoy time playing in nature together is the embodiment of Poetic Realism’s ideals. Protected by joyful music and the freedom of their natural environment, the four are shown running around an open field and relishing each other’s company. The segment is reminiscent of the earlier works produced in France by directors like Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo. The minute-long scene emits feelings of cheerfulness and peace. These are the same feelings one feels when watching Renoir’s swing sequence in A Day in the Country, a 1946 film that follows a family as they spend time relaxing in France’s countryside. Renoir’s swing sequence is a minute and forty-seven second sequence that captures a young girl’s joy and laughter as she thrusts her body back and forth on a backyard swing (YouTube). Although the sequence is lengthy and provides no real story advancement, it is there for the simple reason of enjoying the moment. This is a unique characteristic of Poetic Realism.

Truffaut’s hillside scene possesses a similar moment in which Jim and Sabine hold each other tightly as they roll down a hill together. The camera follows this action from start to finish, rejecting the new wave inclination to jump cut. Instead of cutting the moment short, Truffaut allows viewers to watch their trip down the hill in its entirety and enjoy the blissful laughs that only that moment could produce. In the style of Renoir, Truffaut breaks the rules of his own movement and allows his art to linger on this special moment.

While propelling these Poetic Realism tropes, Truffaut simultaneously creates a world where Catherine is able to live her nontraditional lifestyle without judgement. In addition to paying homage to past cinematic works, this breaking of the rules also serves to legitimize Catherine’s modern lifestyle. Challenging the normative ideals of women and the nuclear family, this scene illustrates a happy, functioning family in which the mother just happens to have two lovers. Showcasing this modern clan as happy and safe in a grassy field comments on the naturalness of Catherine’s actions and desires. In this scene, the modern woman, with all her wants and complexity, is as natural as the leaves on trees or as grass beneath her feet.

Truffaut also uses the idea of cinema to validate Catherine’s character and affirm the layered identity the modern woman holds. Twenty-four minutes into the film, Truffaut presents a scene in which all three main characters, Jules, Jim, and Catherine, are seen spending time together on an open porch. While Jules and Jim are distracted with a game of chess, Catherine sits on a nearby bench trying to steal their attention. When Jules makes a smart remark in response to one of her conversation starters, she jumps up and slaps him in the face. The three burst out into laughter and the camera pans to Catherine. She tells the two men how happy she has been since they have come into her life, “I never laughed before I met you two. I always looked like this,” she declares as she makes a series of pouts (Jules et Jim 1962). “But that’s over for good. Now it’s like this,” she exclaims with a smirk and roar (Jules et Jim 1962). Within this short twenty-two second clip, the film freezes a total of five times. Apart from its obvious aesthetic value, the sequence of pauses enriches the film by paying tribute to still imagery and recognizing the complicated nature of Catherine’s character.

The freeze frame moments in this particular film are what happens when a cinephile attempts to pay homage to Poetic Realism. In this scene, Truffaut takes the Poetic Realism trope of lingering on a moment literally. The director stops time, forcing audience members to halt in their viewing and share the moment with Catherine. For a few seconds, time stands still and the viewer is able to take in everything that is happening in the scene. We are truly allowed to linger. Truffaut is also pausing to pay respect to cinema itself. In this scene, the breaking of rules is used to admire film’s bare function as a collection of still images that give the illusion of movement when shown one after the other at a rapid pace. In this sequence, the true nature of film is laid bare. The freeze frame editing in Jules et Jim is the perfect example of a knowledgeable film lover breaking the rules to pay homage to his art form.

The freeze frames also serve to admire Catherine and her dedication to her own happiness and truth. The freeze frames demand that we take a moment to appreciate her words and recognize her as a person worth paying attention to. The five different freeze frames in this scene reveal a different facial expression on Catherine’s face with every stop. It is Truffaut’s literal way of telling viewers that there are many faces to Catherine, just as there are many faces to the modern woman. She is somebody who feels an array of emotions. She is somebody deep and interesting. She is also in charge of her own life; this is shown as Catherine is the sole owner of the screen and our attention. Her complexity is her own and not the product of any man. She is going to live her truth despite what society wants for her. The film pauses to validate her and all that comes with her.

Jules et Jim is a French New Wave film that happens to break the rules of the French New Wave because of the freedoms allowed by the French New Wave. It is a complex text that, at its core, celebrates cinema and progressive lifestyles in an aesthetically rewarding manner. It is a technical achievement that is better understood in the larger context of film history and society’s views on women.

Works Cited

Jules and Jim. Dir. François Truffaut. Janus Films (The Criterion Collection), 1962. Kanopy.

Neupert, Richard. A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

“Partie De Campagne Swing(ers) Jean Renoir.” YouTube, uploaded by ReplicaPropStore RPS, 15 February 2016,


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