“Deux garçons pour une fille”: Tracing a Timeless Story Across Art Forms

Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim). 1962. Directed by Francois ...
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Two boys for one girl

This is where it all begins

One figures this girl

Will manage to decide where her heart leans

“Deux garçons pour une fille” (1967)

Arlette Zola’s famous song from the year of 1967 opens with these lines. The tone is settled, the mood is fixed, and we immediately know what sort of story she is singing about. It is a classic narrative: a very young, attractive, playful, frivolous girl full of Joie de vivre becomes a love interest for two somewhat alike, yet very different, men – who are most likely friends, too. I believe we all agree that there are some stories that are timeless; stories written many, many, many times, stories that get the chance to be reborn if not every year, every decade. We, as listeners and viewers, love these stories and we thrive to get exposed to as many variations of them as possible. “Deux garçons pour une fille” is one of those stories. This catchy Yé-yé song joyfully tells the story of the “kindest of girls,” who just goes with a flow and watches from afar to see which one of her admirers will eventually win her heart. Her being so unstirred and outwardly bubbly is why two men, often subtly, compete to get her attention to the fullest. 

Last time I happened to listen to this song, I found myself thinking about what it all meant. Not like what happened to this unknown girl and where her heart leaned eventually, but what this story is in the broader understanding, what it truly means culture-wise. This is the story we all know, we all have heard about it at some point or another; in real life or in fiction; through music, or films, or theatre, or any other medium ambitious enough to create stories about people and their lives. So, as for what it means? It is a very, very, very blurry concept but I try to follow its magnetism all the way to the point where it might not even have an explanation of any kind.

The Wallace Collection houses a very interesting adaptation of this archetypical story – “The Swing” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The painting is momentary, the artist painted sparking joy of a given split second. “The Swing” is very brightly-coloured, radiant, and eye-catching, almost dazzlingly so. The central character is a woman – according to art historians, the mistress of Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien – who cheerfully lets herself to go with a flow. She is swinging towards a young man who is hiding behind bushes and is able to see up into her billowing dress; there is an older man, painted nearly as a shadow, in the far-right corner that propels the swing with ropes. The young lady throws her leg with so much dramatic force that she loses one of her pink shoes in the air. 

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing at the Wallace ...
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (circa 18th C.)

I have been ridiculed many, many times but I always referred to “The Swing” as “Jules and Jim from Rococo”. As mentioned, the painting is just a single fragment of an entire story; it is like a jigsaw puzzle piece that went missing in uncertain conditions and prevents a player from forming a full picture, nevertheless, for others, that piece might not make that big of a difference. However, everything we are able to observe on “The Swing” made me feel that way – the characters resemble Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), Jules (Oskar Werner), and Jim (Henri Serre) from François Truffaut’s 1962 film. Whatever this painting contains, the vibrant composition of fleeting desires and amorous feelings, becomes embodied on screen for nearly two hours.

I have been opposed lots of times that the only thing these two works have in common is a “one-girl-for-two-guys” cliché tale but I believe that similarities do not end at this point. The significance of “The Swing” lies in its dynamics and the swinging lady is completely in charge of them. For me, the same applies to Jules and Jim. In fact, the dynamic between the main characters was the first thing I noticed. When all three of them are present in a scene, Catherine is the primary focus of the camera; she is the reference point. After that, camera shifts, depending on dialogue pieces and Catherine’s swinging mood, either to Jules or Jim, periodically. With this manner of visual storytelling, Truffaut, hints on the character that drives the story. The titular characters are entirely part of Catherine’s narrative. Yes, they have more dialogues, we know a lot more about them, and they might have much more screen time, but they are the subjects of her life and story. Not vice versa, as it seemingly channels. Something very similar is portrayed on “The Swing.” Yes, the swing itself is propelled by an older shadowy man and, yes, it is the young man who lies on grass and gets all the pleasures and delights from whatever is happening right in front of him, however, it is the swinging girl whose story Fragonard painted. She drives it, she nurtures it, and she keeps it alive. 

“The Swing” is quintessential Rococo whereas Jules and Jim is quintessential French New Wave. This is the story that pretty much represents two very different decades. If Rococo art can be summarised into the charming lives of the upperclassmen full of colourful dresses, corsets, pink cheeks, picnics, strawberry cakes and grandiose ballrooms; French New Wave cinema can be a radically different outlook on life with its rule-breaking tendencies and style-defying narratives where artists mainly try to tell stories of ordinary people. Nevertheless, we can see how attractive and timeless the story of a one free-spirited girl and two boys can be. 

La Reine adolescente et le fusil chargé : ''Jules et Jim ...
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What Catherine and the swinging lady have in common? It is a tricky question, but certainly answerable one. These two do not love for the sake of living up to the expectations of loving someone. They love for the sake of loving; they get pleasure from loving. Two men often have trouble understanding the poise of a girl they are going after. These men, who are very rational, become dismantled by analysing the reasons of their love for her. Jules gives a brilliant speech in an attempt to understand Catherine: “She’s not especially beautiful or intelligent or sincere… but she is a real woman. And that is why we love her… and all men desire her.”

This quote is extraordinarily subversive. I think we all have the pressure to define characteristics of a person we might like someday and these characteristics are, often times, very similar for everyone. We happen to value person’s appearance, style, intelligence, sense of humour and more, however, Jules’ speech makes us think that sometimes person can have something very unexplainable that we fall for; and life is all about finding unexplainable beauty in people and start loving it immensely; more you try not to search for the reasons of your love and admiration, stronger and even more beautiful it gets.

This character has very smoothly flowing grace and charm that is contained in film’s most famous sequence. Catherine, lighthearted and jovial, is pursued by Jules and Jim. She is dressed like a man, completely lacking the allure associated with her outward femaleness; however, these two men still try to chase after her. In reality, I always felt like they are just trying to keep up with her both physically and spiritually; they are constantly trying to see the world in her vision; they are subtly jealous of her unflinching desire not to outrun life with an excessive speed of planning and arranging things for the future. Catherine, swinging lady, and all the other variations of them, somehow, know how to live – with the truest, most authentic definition of this very word. For them, living means to be caught up in a moment; for them, it is all about feeling the minute of being alive entirely to their flesh and bones. They have an inherent gift for living.

So is Fragonard’s swinging lady whose identity is very vaguely documented, nevertheless, we, the spectators, can feel her; feel her much more than the rest of the characters painted next to her. She has the ability to revive all of our deceased joys and sparks, she can make us reflect on our own unhappiness and how faulty we are to feel that way. Catherine, character who pushed the spirit of the 1960s forward, and the spirited swinging lady, who caused too much ado on the morals of society in the 1760s, are just a grain of this immortal story. This character is a bag full of bliss and a glass full of heaven. 

Jules And Jim / The Dissolve
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In fact, it is not about a girl, really. It is more about the attitude, the passion for life she emits. It is her tenderness coupled with callousness; her softness that goes hand in hand with violence. Her duality is a real-life equation which can never be solved. She can never be calculated. That is the key part. Men who go after her love mind games and, most of all, they love resolving problems; but as soon as they meet this wavering young girl, they become mystified and even fearful of her. They have no idea what they are dealing with. She cannot be put into boxes; no natural science can reach the reasons for their fascination. She is the modern muse but, unlike the mythological understanding of this word, the modern muse inspires overly rational men to start living freely with an appreciation of momentary thrills.

In “The Swing” anything further than what actually takes place can be speculated, but in Jules and Jim we can see how this character is layered: the virtues that make her so exalted bring the worst out of her. She marries Jules and settles down with him in Austria. Neither being on the opposite ends of the war nor Catherine can really break their friendship. However, we can sense how much of a hollow their three-dimensional relationship is for Catherine. Once we see her married with a kid, we start detecting how her spirit and character gradually leaks out of her. If in the first act of the film, she muses upon the lives of titular characters, from the second act on we see how the “worst” that I mentioned starts kicking in. She hurts Jules with her polygamous escapades, but she also hurts Jim with distant and freezing intimacy. Her love, which I believe is sincere, becomes an aching echo. I think it happens because she is treated as this god-like figure who, in Jules’ and Jim’s belief, can save them from their own mourns and sorrows. They both fail to see that she is just a human being with very similar feelings and sentiments as pretty much anyone. The denial of her acceptance as an ordinary person results in her grief and, later, in her tragic ferocity.

There is a very absorbing and brilliant scene in film’s Parisian sequences where Catherine, Jules, and Jim are walking near Seine and Jules says that the most important thing for a relationship is woman’s fidelity and man is always secondary when it comes to maintaining a long-lasting romance. To finish his thoughts, he quotes Baudelaire: “”Woman is natural, therefore abominable?” After that, to our surprise, he continues:

“He spoke of women in general. What he says about a young girl is magnificent: “Horror, monster, assassin of the arts, little fool, little slut. The greatest idiocy combined with the greatest depravity.” Wait. I’m not finished. This is marvelous: “I’m always astonished they allow women inside churches. What could they possibly have to say to God?”

Jules und Jim | Film-Rezensionen.de
Cinédis

Even though, Jim disagrees to a certain extent, it seems to us, viewers, that neither one of them sees Catherine as a person in her own right. She is the exception to the rule. Unlike other ordinary women, she happens to be this free-spirited, unforeseeable, whimsical, mischievous woman who resembles the Greek statue with serene smile. When they first meet her, narrator explicitly draws our attention to that. Catherine personifies the soulless sculpture these two men are obsessed with. For them, she is the figurine that embodies their misguided ideals. Catherine is a reminiscent of older, more sublime days with her “nose, mouth, chin and forehead, bore the nobility of a province” but she is also a fragment from the future with her inability to be happy on this earth as “She’s a vision for all, perhaps not meant for any one man alone”.

The swinging lady has so much of Catherine’s untamed charisma. She is the performer adored by both of the men present on picture. She captures the joy of swaying carelessly as she gets the most out of the moment she lives in. She is not imprisoned by the fear of tomorrows.

This is the character full of assets that have to be in the world but, somehow, are missing; she is the abstraction of living to the fullest; she is the myth of cherishing beautiful moments of life. She is what we all need to reverse the concept of “Eros is sick”. She is the cure. She is the drive for life herself. As far as humanity remembers itself, we have all been searching for the meanings but, most importantly, an alternative that makes us forget about the answer for our existence and inspires us to just live. As simple as that. This character is the secret flavor of life but as soon as we overlook her human origins, she becomes the kiss of death.

“Whatever Catherine does, she does fully. She’s a force of nature that manifests in cataclysms. In every circumstance she lives in clarity and harmony, convinced of her own innocence.”

by Mariam Razmadze

Mariam is from the country of Georgia and currently pursues her undergraduate studies in Sociology. She dreams of becoming a film director someday.

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