Sex, art, and romance — some notes on the sources of Truffaut’s famous film
It is 1935. (Theodore) Adorno writes to Walter Benjamin, “With regard to your remark on fashion, the concept of the changeant (the changeable), of iridescent material, came to mind, surely tied to industrial practices. Perhaps you will dig into this problem.” Adorno urges Benjamin on, referring him to articles by Helen Hessel in the Frankfurter Zeitung, “whom we always follow with great interest.”
Helen Hessel is the woman in Jules and Jim, the 1953 novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, and of Truffaut’s 1956 film. “I am the girl who leaped into the Seine out of spite, who married his dear, generous Jules, and who, yes, shot Jim,” confesses Helen, after having attended, incognito, the film’s premiere.
She, with her mantle of blond hair often dangling like a helmet’s crest on a soldier’s coarse coat, is more athletic than the two other protagonists of this delicate, passionate triangle. Even if Roche once boxed in the ring with Braque, he was a tall, slim dandy, with “something languid about him.” Franz Hessel, the son of Jewish bankers, is small and rotund. He meets Roche in Montparnasse in 1906 and they became inseparable. One evening when Franz is describing the women in Munich to his friend, he excitedly sketches their profile on a small coffee table. Roche wanted to buy the table. He will, in fact, concentrate on art and earn a living as an art consultant to opulent collectors such as the astonishing Raj of Indor.
When the painter Marie Laurenen illustrates Hessel’s poetry, Roche edges into their intimacy; the two friends share women without rivalry. But when Hessel meets Helen Grund, a painter of Prussian origins, Franz advises Roche, “Not this one.”
World War I disperses the trio. But at the end of the conflict, Roche rushes to Helen and Franz, who have been married and live in a forest near Munich. Roche and Franz kiss each other on the mouth and immediately pick up their pre-war conversations; Helen is slightly embarrassed, which is the prelude to passion. The unusual knit of love and friendship prospers. Roche confides this story with meticulous shamelessness to his Notebooks during 1920-21, which will be immortalized in Jules and Jim.
The diary is Roche’s literary monument; he records his encounters, especially the amorous ones, from the first up to mid-century — all the copulations, told with endless wonder for the pleasure and gratitude for the inimitable women. From the first love for two English sisters — which will become the novel Two English Women and the Continent — to the period of relative normality when three substantial stories form the stable background of new incursions, Roche draws out the enigma of his buoyant and eternal availability on the superb pages of 346 notebooks.
On a New Year’s Eve with the director Abel Gance, the writer (Blaise) Cendrars, who was left with but one arm after the war, engaged him in a tennis game with a blue ball; then under the shooting stars, invited him to dance; Roche is ready. He never refused anything. He writes with amiable impartiality about James Joyce, Picasso, Duchamp, Satie, Matisse, Picabia, Leger, Colette, and Truffaut, who met Roche when the latter was seventy-eight, and noted his pliant passion for the sweet life. Roche knew everybody and introduced everyone to everybody, according to Gertrude Stein. Roche is engaging, raged Picasso, but he’s only a translation.
The secretary Truffaut hired to transcribe the diary quit, scandalized by that sweet polygamy, which she thought was simply cruelty.
Meanwhile, Roche wants to stabilize his passion for Helen: he wants a child and a book from her. He wants Helen to write a diary; he wants a love described for the first time from two viewpoints. Helen’s Diary is a marvel of harshness, violent, a profusion of senses. Roche addresses the principles of amorous gestures, Helen the heat. “I clearly felt the margins of my heart,” she writes. In pain after discovering that Roche had just possessed her sister, Helen notes the need “to touch something I love with my finger. The letters of Rilke,” whom she knew. Then Roche violates her, and love is rekindled. To read both diaries together is a revelation, like the 1933 love stories by Leautaud and Marie Dormoy, orderly divided between bookkeeping and the maudlin.
In 1955, Francois Truffaut discovered Jules and Jim among a stall’s used books, and noticed that it was the first novel of a seventy-year-old. He understood that the lightness and grace of that burning story could have come only after a very long decanting, one that went on for half a century, and from the magic of the “telegraphic style of a poet who forgot his culture and lined up the words like a laconic, stolid peasant,” from whence the serial, limpid rhythm of the film. But at times Truffaut stopped a frame, transforming it into a photograph, to show that for all that vitality and spicy dash, we’re seeing memories. As happens to Truffaut at other times, he begins a film believing that it will be amusing, “and along the way I notice that only sadness can save it.”
Helen’s love ends when Roche reveals that he is married, and has children from two other women. Helen shoots him; but both will live very long lives; Hessel dies earlier, in 1941, in a French concentration camp. Perhaps because of this, in the novel and the film, we watch Helen and Franz die in a plunging automobile. Out of tenderness, Roche wanted, perhaps, to offer them revenge.
Actually, we possess a third point of view of the twentieth century’s most famous triangle, that of the distraught Pierrot, Franz Hessel. At the outbreak of World War I, Pierre went to America to weave his artistic and amatory dramas, while Franz, although exempt, volunteered in the German army. In the midst of the Great War’s massacres, he dreams of Paris, his elected city and country, which is the contemptuous object of war propaganda. His short novel (96 pages) is a romance (Paris Romance); it’s a rapt, gentle evocation that transforms the indomitable Helen into a quiet, swelling dissolve.
Whoever reads it — Roche will be astonished — can’t count how many kisses there are. Helen appears miraculously as a masked man at a festival, and when, at the end, she leaves, her face is marked with a smile that “is conventionally called archaic,” a smile that is imprinted on the face of the first Greek divinities, and on Leonardo’s Beato Angelico. In the novel — in the form of a letter to a friend, who is always Pierre — life dissolves into the memory of a dream; happiness is at a remove. Franz talks of Helen and Paris as if he must not see either again, although Helen is his wife and he will see her again in Paris in 1933 when he is forced to leave Germany.
In fact, he will write another book about his beloved city, about the years in which he translates Proust with Benjamin, who is writing about Paris in his Parisian (Passages, Alleys). Franz, too, writes about Paris (Parisian Diary), but in this love for the city, as for Helen, he writes as a disinterested observer, as a flaneur, a strolling idler, who gets lost in the modern city’s streets. It is Franz who spots the flaneur’s secret: “We see only what observes us. We become acquainted only with what we haven’t tried to know.”
The last Jules and Jim was not rediscovered: Le dernier voyage (The Last Tour). Franz Hessel wrote it during his years in exile and in the concentration camp. He is aged, light years away by now, recalling the cyclone of that mythical love triangle that “expanded the habitual scope of friendship and love.”
When, as giddy precursors, even before the ‘twenties, Hessel’s friends were “doing Freud” (merciless sets of questions, which were answered with an association of ideas), Helen objected: “But does everything lead back to sex?”
Note: Reprinted from la Repubblica, July 9, 1997. Translation copyright © A. K. Bierman.