Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Mystique of Woman: Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 'The Marriage of Maria Braun'

Francois Truffaut's 'Jules et Jim' made in 1961 is showcased as a perfect example of the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave that took of at the end of the 1950s. It is a charming love story of two friends with Catherine, played captivatingly by Jeanne Moreau. She seems to love Jim but she marries Jules. It is nicely melodramatic triangular love story which does not turn into a tragedy, but there are tragic overtones. The film pulsates with the typical French sensibility -- emotional complexity meets intellectual lucidity. That does not however help sort out the unhappiness in the life of each protagonist. Truffaut tells the story with a supremely light touch translated into impressionist images. There is the scene when Catherine kicks off a race on a bridge, or they go off cycling on a picnic, go to the countryside. The second world war intervenes. There is of course the very Dostoevskian scene while the three are strolling along the embankment on the Seine, Catherine jumps off into the river at the spur of the moment, in her evening dress. Both Jules and Jim go off to the front and Catherine receives the wonderful love letters which convinces that Jules is the man for her. A few years later Jim rejoins. Jules, Catherine have a daughter, Sabine, and there is the scene of strange domesticity where Catherine, Jules with Sabine and Jim sit in their chairs. There is an emotional shadow lurking somewhere.
It is through these gentle composition of the scenes that Truffaut carries forward the story. He shows Catherine who seeks happiness, gets it and becomes uneasy the moment she is uneasy. Jules confesses to Jim that he is married to her but she does not belong to him. Yes. There is all this heavy existential dilemmas grating their souls. Truffaut keeps it all picture perfect so that the viewer revels in the lovable scenes and intelligent, intense dialogues.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German new wave director of the 1970s made 'The Marriage of Maria Braun' in 1979, is again about a complex woman, but the context is absolutely different, and you can even call it German. Maria Braun is played by the mysteriously beautiful Hanna Schygulla. Maria has to fight for survival in war-ravaged Germany after the disastrous defeat at the end of the second world war. Her dilemmas are not as gentle and ironic as that of Catherine in 'Jules et Jim'. The moving part of the film is her affair with an American black, part of the occupying force in post-war Germany. The woman of a defeated country connects with the man marginalised in his own country because his colour. Maria's existential dilemma is extremely political, not personal. But the political has tragic impact on her personal life.
Truffaut and Fassbinder in these two films, which are not heavy-handed like many art-house filmmakers, explore with what can be called reverence the inner and external life of Catherine and Maria, perhaps much better than if women had tried to direct them.

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