Jules (Oscar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are friends in a movie named after them, Jules and Jim. The meet a woman named Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), whom they both fall in love with. She carries a bottle of sulfuric acid around with her to throw in the eyes of men who lie to her.
Stop right there. There is no need to go any further. You now know everything there is to know about Catherine. She is psycho! Long after I have forgotten the rest of what happens in this movie, long after I have forgotten who starred in it, and long after I have forgotten the very title of this movie, I will remember that. And yet, strangely enough, it appears to be the one thing that everyone else has forgotten. I have searched through the reviews of many critics, professional and amateur, but this all-important fact about Catherine hardly ever gets mentioned, let alone treated as having any significance. The question is, Why do so many people who watch this movie seem to think that this business with the acid is too unimportant to mention?
Had I been Jim, as soon as I found out about that bottle of acid, I would have walked right out the door and never had anything to do with her again. In fact, for the next six months, I would have been peeking out of my apartment window to see if she was lurking about with that bottle of hers, just in case she was holding a grudge for my refusing to have anything to do with her again. Instead, Jim simply talks her into getting rid of it, figuring that will make everything all right. But that is like thinking that if you take the butcher knife away from Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), there is nothing to worry about anymore. Speaking of Psycho, the premise of a man-hating woman who carries around a bottle of sulfuric acid to splash into the eyes of any man who lies to her could be the basis of a pretty good horror movie, and maybe even become a cult film like Ms. 45 (1981), but that is not what we have here. In any event, with regret, saying, “I was really counting on using this bottle,” Catherine pours the acid into the sink. She does not bother to turn on the water so that the acid will be flushed out of the system, so we see the vapors rising as the acid eats into the sink as she and Jim walk out the door.
As I was saying, Jim is not worried, and Jules even marries her. In all fairness to Jules, he may not have known anything about that bottle of acid, because Jim seemed so unconcerned that he may not have bothered to tell him about it. Catherine cuckolds Jules again and again, but fortunately for her, he is a doormat, and not the kind of guy who would throw sulfuric acid in a woman’s eyes for cheating on him. Since she is having sex with other men, she naturally stops having sex with Jules, but the only thing he worries about is that she might leave him. In fact, he is so afraid of losing Catherine that he encourages Jim to have sex with her on condition that Jim will let Jules see her once in a while. Better than that, Jim moves right into their home and starts sleeping with her, so now Jules can see her all the time.
Catherine wants to leave Jules and marry Jim, but Jim gets fed up with her nonsense and refuses to marry her, so she pulls out a pistol and tries to shoot him. He manages to get away, but he still has not learned his lesson, which is to stay away from that nutcase, because when Catherine and Jules run into Jim some time later, all has been forgotten, and they are all best friends again. Catherine talks Jim into getting in a car with her, and then she purposely drives off a bridge and kills them both. Poor Jules, he probably feels all left out.
To return to my question as to why so many people seem to discount the bottle of acid, I think that it has something to do with the mindset of people who know they are watching a foreign film. In a Hollywood movie, something like that could never be ignored, and the audience would be horrified. But when it comes to watching a foreign film, people tend to think of everything as being symbolic, or as having some kind of deep, philosophical meaning, and so things like that are not really taken as having literal significance.