Friday, September 7, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.3: Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 98 (A)

There are plenty of films that feel like a breath of fresh air when they’re initially released. Jules and Jim is one of those rarities that still feels fresh and virtually unparalleled after fifty years. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, Jules and Jim is Truffaut’s most “mature” film up to this point, but it carries on the astonishing inventiveness and energy of Truffaut’s first two features. Jules and Jim remains the perfect French New Wave love story- a film about an unconventional group of people, their love for each other, and the sadness in the truth that it cannot last.

Jules (Oskar Werner) is an introverted Austrian writer vacationing in Paris. He befriends Jim (Henri Serre), a more outgoing Frenchman. The two spend their days together as Jim they share women. One day they’re both entranced by a gorgeous woman named Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). In a famous exchange, Jules tells Jim “Not this one, Jim”. Jules and Catherine fall in love, but Jim, who accompanies them everywhere, clearly has feelings for Catherine. Jules and Catherine marry in Austria shortly before World War I begins, and the two friends find themselves on opposite sides of the war. After the war ends, the three reunite, but they find themselves unable to recapture their lost youth.

Jules and Jim shows off nearly every French New Wave trick in the bag: jump cuts, photographic stills, heavy use of narration, a mix between realism and formalism, newsreel footage, and spectacular little sidetracks from the main story. The film opens with a boundless energy and playfulness that doesn’t let up so much as it takes abrupt, jarring, often exhilarating shifts in rhythm. The film is filled with some of Truffaut’s finest sequences- a series of jump cuts when the two first see Catherine; a race on a bridge, beautifully photographed by hand-held cameras; a jaunt through the forest where the three delight in finding scattered objects left behind; freeze frames on Catherine’s face showing the difference between her sadness and her happiness; an impressionistic look at a Europe devastated by war when Jim walks through a graveyard; and Catherine’s famous song “Le Tourbillon”, or “The Whirlwind” which perfectly describes the relationship between the three.

Jules and Jim shares Truffaut mentor Andre Bazin’s ideal of “personal cinema” just as The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player did. Much of the handheld work has the feel of Italian neorealism, but there’s a swooning romanticism to the film. Part of it comes from George Delerue’s exquisite, romantic score and the lived-in feeling of the relationships of the characters. Above all else Jules and Jim shows a director drunk off the pleasures of cinema. From the formalistic bravura of Orson Welles (newsreels, spectacular photography, coverage of a person’s entire life) to the Jean Renoir-like humanism (the absurdity of war, the complexity of humanity) to the Alfred Hitchcock-like sustained tension (including a few shots highly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo), Truffaut runs through a gamut of classic film masters, blending his disparate influences into a wholly unique sensibility.

Truffaut would later clash with Oskar Werner on his only English-language film, Fahrenheit 451, but the actor is perfect here as a generous, kind-hearted, wholly vulnerable man; Henri Serre is nearly as good as the more brashly romantic Jim. The real spirit to the film, of course, is Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine, a completely unpredictable presence who’s both sexy and naturally beautiful, both intelligent and wild, both enchanting and slightly dangerous. Done wrong, Catherine could just be another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, someone created to enchant the hearts of men without having her own purpose. If anything, she’s a precursor to Kate Winslet’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a highly unpredictable and impulsive woman who will sacrifice relationships for the sake of adventure.

Jules and Jim both look for love in all the wrong places, prostitutes included. Jim has his own relationship with fiancĂ©e Therese (well-played by Marie Dubois, the lead actress in Shoot the Piano Player), but he is stifled and unsatisfied and seeks out other women. Jules, on the other hand, is looking for the perfect girl, and he can’t seem to find her until he finds the enchanting Catherine. The two do fall in love, but love is a volatile thing, and he ultimately isn’t enough for her- married life cannot contain her. When Catherine does eventually gravitate towards Jim, Jules is so dependent on Catherine that he encourages Jim to stay with her, if only because he’ll still get to see her. But Jim can’t hold onto Catherine’s affection either. If anything, Jim’s more extroverted nature makes their relationship even more heated and unstable. In a cinematic world where portrayals of love were usually chaste, simple, or at very least filled with happy endings, Jules and Jim shows love in all of its complexities, wonders, and ugliness.

Jules and Jim is ultimately about lost promise. Catherine is practically a stand-in for Europe- all uncontrollable, fickle force. Jules, Jim, and Catherine are all at their best in the carefree years of their youth, living in an atmosphere of free love and hope. But Catherine wishes to be this way forever, whereas Jules and Jim are quickly shuffling towards a less natural, more societal impulse towards domesticity. They’re both possessive of Catherine, a force that cannot and will not be contained. A key scene shows the trio’s exit from a Strindberg play: Catherine admires the heroine’s free-spiritedness while Jules and Jim are critical of such an idea. Catherine leaps into the river as an act of defiance (like a more spirited version of Madeline’s jump in Vertigo). From there, the two should have known how impossible it was to hold onto her.

The cosmopolitan nature of Europe, and of their friendship, is upset by war, where the two friends fear killing each other. When the three reunite, they can only fleetingly recapture the heights of their past: Jules and Jim are changed men looking for something simple to hold onto; Catherine balks at this very idea. She wears society’s clothes of motherhood and wifehood, but they’re ill-fitting. She lives in an isolated countryside that contrasts to the more sprawling Paris. She picks petty fights on whether French wine or German beer is better. Catherine longs to be free and simple again- to go back to a more bohemian European ideal. But the world is changed, and the escalation of tension in Catherine’s relationships compliments the escalation of tension in Europe (newsreel footage of a Nazi book burning features prominently).

It all leads up to a catastrophic event- Catherine’s murder-suicide with Jim as she drives them off a bridge. There is no one rational explanation for her action. She seemed better, and while it wasn’t her first violent act (she tries to shoot Jim at one point), it doesn’t change how shocking it is. But nothing could possibly give a satisfactory answer to the “why?” of the situation. It’s a perfect parallel to the rise of war in Europe, and yet Truffaut doesn’t press the connection too hard, but rather lets the audience draw their own conclusion. As the two are cremated and ground up into ash in a sad and uneasy montage (possible Holocaust parallel?), there’s a final note of irony at Catherine’s death- “she wanted her ashes scattered to the wind, but it was against regulations”. Even after death, society keeps nature constricted, a feeling Truffaut understands too well. 

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