By 1991, director Ridley Scott was well accustomed to taking risks and yet, even for him, the finale of Thelma & Louise proved to be an outlandish proposition so immediate and surprising that its cultural impact can still be viewed today. The image of two women screaming jovially in the front seats of a convertible as they freefall off a cliff is an unforgettable one. At the time, this ending was a huge risk but it payed off considerably as Thelma & Louise became one of Scott’s biggest critical successes, earning him his first Oscar nomination for Best Director. It has also cemented Thelma and Louise’s place as cultural icons of feminist cinema.
Yet, little attention has been given to the possible cinematic influences which helped to shape the demise of these two titular protagonists. Almost thirty years earlier in 1962, innovative French new wave director, François Truffaut, had just finished a film which ends in a very similar fashion to Thelma & Louise. It was called Jules et Jim and it brilliantly examined the relationship of two best friends (conveniently called Jules and Jim) who fall into a love triangle with the manipulative yet seductive Catherine.
Already there are parallels between the hopeless struggles of these two men to escape Catherine and the journey Thelma and Louise embark on to fundamentally escape their absent or possessive partners. A sense of liberation runs deep in both films, albeit Jules and Jim never fully manage to actualise a sense of complete freedom and autonomy. Only Thelma and Louise manage to truly free themselves as they defy the police, rob stores and lie to their partners.
The parallels do not stop there as the title of Thelma & Louise mirrors Jules et Jim, with both referencing their central characters. This in itself seems to imply Scott’s underlying indebtedness to Truffaut’s masterpiece. However, it is the end of Jules et Jim which affirms the spiritual link between the two – Jim takes a ride with Catherine, only for her to send them both to their demise by driving the car off a bridge. The image of the black motorcar slowly crashing into a river is very similar to that of Louise’s convertible flying off a cliff. Both are shot from the left with the camera tilted towards the cars to make the fall seem almost operatic.
Unquestionably, both moments are driven by a sense of liberation, but Scott plays around with this as his ending is supposed to shock but not haunt. It is a final middle finger to the world that has made Thelma and Louise so helpless. Conversely, Truffaut imbues a sense of liberation in his ending through Catherine, as she finally manages to prevent Jim from seeing other women, although sacrificing herself in the process. Clearly, Truffaut’s finale is much more sombre and mournful that Scott’s as, in the last scene, we see Jules staring at the graves of his wife and best friend – a sense of emptiness swelling over him. Conversely, Thelma & Louise finishes with a freeze frame of the titular figures suspended in mid-air, never falling to their death.
Evidently, Scott has taken Truffaut’s finale to aid his own narrative, making sure (like any good filmmaker should) he manipulates rather than copies the shocking suicide. By doing so, Thelma & Louise ends on a different emotional note from Jules et Jim, but it could be argued that both still harbour a strong element of surprise.
When Thelma & Louise was released, it shocked and entertained in equal measure. So much so that its cultural impact still lives on today – one such example is a bizarre Easter egg in the videogame Grand Theft Auto V where, at certain times of the day, one can see Thelma and Louise driving off a cliff in the games’ open world. However, although the scene has remained iconic, few people appreciate the influence Jules et Jim had upon the finale. Cinematic influences are boundless and while they sometimes may be hard to see, they are crucial nonetheless to our intake and appreciation of cinema.
Giph Source: Giphy