What is broken can be mended

The film director Robert Benton, whose new film Nobody's Fool opened last week, talks to the psychotherapist Martin Lloyd-Elliott about Truffaut's Jules et Jim
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The Independent Culture
Martin Lloyd-Elliott: Are you analytical about exploring your own inner emotional world?

Robert Benton: Yes. I am almost obsessive in the way I analyse, perhaps over-analyse, my own processes.

Has that reflected itself in your work?

Probably. I seem to be much more interested in making films that are driven by character rather than plot; films that are personal in a direct sense.

Let's talk about "Jules et Jim". How did you come to see it?

I was living in New York at the time. I had been in love with a young woman and we had broken up. I was desolate. When I saw Jules et Jim for the first time it seemed to me to be a film about survival. I was not prepared for the extraordinary impact it had on me. I found that for the first time there was a complexity of character that seemed rich to me. The characters changed and developed in a way that I was not used to in most American films. I saw the movie 10 times within just a few weeks.

Later I realised that I had seen the film I needed to see. Jules et Jim was being projected on to the screen, but I was projecting on to Jules et Jim another movie - a movie about enduring. However, when you see a film as many times as I saw this, you begin to look at it more thoughtfully. I've done that with only four movies in my life: Singin' in the Rain, Rio Bravo, A Place in the Sun, and Jules et Jim. When you see a picture as often as that, you begin to notice the structure, the inner rhythms, the shifts in character that govern plot and so forth. I began by watching a movie about Jules - about a man who survives love. Next I fell in love with Catherine. And after a while I came to love all the characters. They have this extraordinary life, and Catherine was at the centre of it.

Had you ever been in love before?

Yes.

And do you think you understood love?

No, not at all. I don't think I understood love until I married. And until I had a child.

Did seeing "Jules et Jim" give you some new insight into love?

I was raised in a small town in Texas, in a fundamentalist, Prot-estant home. The world I grew up in was simple and direct. For instance, my father had two brothers, and both of them were murdered. One was killed because he was sleeping with a young girl in a small town he was passing through on a regular basis. One day the girl's father found my uncle and shot him dead and was never even brought to trial. So you can see ambiguity and reflection were not held in a very high regard where I came from. Consequently, the world of Jules et Jim was dramatically different from the world in which I grew up. Seeing this movie I suddenly realised that life was not what I thought it was. That life is more complex. More generous.

Do you think that you thought to yourself, "There are people like this who actually exist. I can imagine worlds where this is true"? Or did you think that, by the process of projection you could actually become Jules, and by taking on, through the power of imagination, that role, you could recognise the reality of who he was in yourself?

I think that, at the beginning, my identification was with Jules. To find out later that the film was about Catherine was absolutely staggering. To mis-see a movie and love it so much and discover that what I thought I had seen at the beginning was not the movie at all that Truffaut intended...

At what point did that realisation come?

After the initial 10 or 12 viewings I didn't see the film for five years. In that time I had met my wife and married. I had often talked to her about this film for it is one of the main reasons I am in movies. I became fascinated by Truffaut and the kind of person who could make such a movie. I began to read the critical writings of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer. From their writings I found myself re-examining the work of a number of American directors whom I had always dismissed as popular entertainers. I began to see that they were great artists as well. Which, in turn, caused me to rethink my ideas about the relationship between whatever we mean by art and whatever we mean by audience.

And your concept of yourself as an artist.

Yes.

Were you actually an artist?

I had gone to New York to go to graduate school to study painting. My real plan was to avoid the draft. I ran out of money, had to get a job, and ultimately got drafted. It was after the army, when I returned to New York, that I saw Jules et Jim for the first time. Its impact on me was extraordinary; my whole notion of art, my preconceptions were challenged. And as I talk to you I realise that perhaps I was affected in an even deeper way... Once I was able to see myself and my work in close connection with people, it made a staggering change in the way I saw my relationship to people.

It had a domino effect. I make movies today because I decided then that I wanted to make movies. The first screenplay I worked on was Bonnie and Clyde. My partner and I wrote it for Truffaut. It was Truffaut who first told Warren Beatty about the script. It was the intensity of my love for Jules et Jim that started so much in my life. There may be other Truffaut films that I have loved more, but never with the same intensity.

Can we talk about "Jules et Jim" with a view to understanding the film- maker that you are? How can we define that transformation you described earlier? It sounds as if you are saying that your self- perception was suddenly, radically changed. You recognised that you might have something artistic to say. Then you realised that the medium you could use to say it with was changing in your hands as you looked at it.

I can tell you that a major change in my life and my thinking came about because I saw this movie. I became obsessed, and began to find out everything about this director and then this style of movie-making. From that came a whole series of recognitions about my belief in community. For instance, in Rio Bravo, when John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan are holed up inside a jail with a gang of killers occupying the streets of the towns, they represent a family, albeit an eccentric one, standing firm against the chaos outside.

Are there scenes in "Jules et Jim" that illustrate this?

After the end of the war Jules and Catherine have a child when Jim comes to visit. He begins an affair with Catherine. Jules, who has seen his wife have other affairs before, accepts the situation and the three of them set up housekeeping together. Later in the film Jules is in his room and Catherine enters, they talk and she begins to tickle him. We see Jim downstairs listening, incredibly jealous. The beauty of that moment seems to me so humane. Your heart breaks for Jim and for Jules and for Catherine. You don't make any judgement of them. You simply love them all.

Is this what you also described earlier as the generosity of the film?

Yes. It would have been so easy for Truffaut to have moralised; to have found some easy reason to explain the situation or to find someone on our behalf to blame. But he didn't. He cares for all of them. They are Truffaut's equivalent of Howard Hawks's jail-house in Rio Bravo. They are a family, maybe an imperfect family, but a family none the less. When I realised this I was so moved.

Have you emulated this spirit of generosity in your own work?

I hope so. Go see Nobody's Fool.

Community obviously matters to you. You realise that your films can have an effect on community.

My films all seem to have families that have gone wrong, but who subsequently reform themselves in some eccentric way: whether Kramer, in which the woman leaves, and the husband has to reform the family with the woman downstairs as a friend, or in Places in the Heart, where a young woman is widowed and eventually reconstitutes another family for herself and her children, or Billy Bathgate, where a young boy finds a dark parody of a family in a gang. Nobody's Fool is a film about a family and a community. These people may be deeply flawed, but they still constitute a family. The message is the same; what is broken can be mended.

This is the message that really matters to you, because you need to know that it is true for you.

Yes. When you make a movie you are whistling in the dark, because you are telling yourself something that you need to hear. Like a child in the dark, I keep telling myself.

And perhaps, despite the tragedy of Jules et Jim, what they had was...

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