Published: Feb 15, 2012
Shall we talk about…. love triangles?
We will come, in a few paragraphs, to a novel and a movie about a love triangle — “Jules et Jim.” You may know of, or have even seen, the 1962 movie written and directed by Francois Truffaut. Some critics say it’s Truffaut’s best film; many say it’s one of the best films ever made. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here. To buy or rent the streaming video, click here.]
The story is compelling. In 1907, Jim, a young French writer, meets Jules, a young Austrian writer. They share everything: "They taught each other their languages; they translated poetry." Some people assume they’re lovers. But their hobby is women, and in the Paris of the Belle Époque, they collect quite a few. Then they meet Kate, who is of another level of magnitude. Jules marries her. They have two children. But love cools, and there is Jim….
First, though, an all-male love triangle: Henri-Pierre Roché, Francois Truffaut … and me.
Henri-Pierre Roché wrote the novel — his first — when he was 76. He’d spent his life in the avant-garde; he introduced Picasso to Gertrude Stein. His other interest was women. He married twice, but there were many, many more lovers; as Truffaut writes, “He made a work of art out of his love life.” And his novel is more than a little autobiographical. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]
Francois Truffaut read the book when he was 23. He fell in love with it; Roché wrote even better than his hero, Jean Cocteau. Short sentences. Everyday speech. The novel read like a telegram. Truffaut knew he had to film it, and when he was 29, he did. The style is fluid, exuberant, efficient — Truffaut effortlessly tells a story that spans three decades. No wonder Warren Beatty wanted him to direct “Bonnie and Clyde.”
In 1962, when the film was released, I was 16 years old and new to Milton Academy, a boarding school in the suburbs of Boston. My interests, then as now, were writing, music, movies and my social life — that is, girls. On Saturday afternoons, you could find me at the Exeter Street Theatrein Boston, devouring foreign films. Ingmar Bergman was my god. Then I saw “Jules et Jim,” and fell in love both with Truffaut and the way Roché had constructed a story that explained everyone and “blamed” no one. And now, all these years later, I find myself writing a novel about…. a love triangle.
And, all these years later, I read the novel. It is astonishing. Not just crisp and fast moving as a thriller, but acute in its wisdom about people, about women, about love. At 240 pages, it spins its wheels only occasionally; mostly, I slowed down to mark passages I wanted to think about later, or steal.
An early lover “took her time over everything she did, so that other people found every moment endowed with the same abundant value as she conferred on it.”
“Odile was happy all the time. Jim bathed in her blondness at night and the sea by day.”
“Jules no longer slept in the same room as Kate. She treated him kindly but strictly.”
“Her gospel was that the world was rich and that you could cheat a bit sometimes.”
Sex? It perfumes the book. But it is never more explicit than this:
She was in his arms now, sitting on his knees, and her voice was deep. This was their first kiss, and it lasted the rest of the night. They didn’t talk; they let their intimacy take hold of them and bring them closer and closer together. She was revealing herself to him in all her splendour. Towards dawn, they became one. Kate’s expression was full of an incredible jubilation and curiosity. This perfect union, and the archaic smile, more accentuated now — Jim was irresistibly drawn. When he got up to go he was a man in chains.
See why Truffaut memorized long passages of the book, why he used so much of it in his movie? See why this story was ripe to be branded on the psyche of an impressionable boy? See why I think you’ll read it as if it was written — by a master — only yesterday?