François Truffaut’s French New Wave masterpiece Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim, 1962) provides a great primer for those curious viewers trying to unravel the complexities and beauty of the film movement. To provide a bit of context, the movement lasted from roughly 1956-1964 (according to scholar Jean Douchet) and was not only defined via innovations in film style (jump cuts, freeze frames) and narrative tropes (ambiguity, existentialism) but through film criticism as well. While the movement never inspired a fully realized manifesto, the criticism lining the pages of the Cahiers du Cinéma provide the closest form of artistic mission statement that can define the New Wave (Note to Kevin Smith: Criticism and filmmaking can go hand in hand), particularly in the form of Truffaut’s own essay, “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” (published in January of 1954).
Truffaut’s polemical essay is famous for its denouncement of the French tradition of quality (mainly films based around literary adaptations) in favor of a purely cinematic cinema that moved beyond the director as merely a craftsman who essentially just filmed a novel or screenplay. This polemic led to the beginnings of the politique des auteurs or “auteur policy” which sought to place the role of cinematic authorship within the realm of the director rather than the screenwriter or literary author (both of which were commonly considered the source of the film). As an alternative, Truffaut posited an approach to the “film of tomorrow” which would “resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportionate to the number of friends the filmmaker has.” The auteur policy as a means of reacting against the tradition of quality became not only the Cahiers critics’ written battle cry but a tenet of their upcoming film practice as well. Yet, the odd thing about Jules and Jim is that the film, like Truffaut’s previous feature Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste, 1960), was based on the novel. While some may consider Truffaut (and I should note that other New Wave filmmakers adapted novels) a hypocrite for his actions, that would overlook Truffaut’s gift for turning the literary into the cinematic, producing the beautiful, melodramatic gravity of Jules and Jim.
Truffaut’s film, banned by the Legion of Decency when it appeared on American soil, follows what was at the time considered a morally objectionable form of interaction: a ménage à trois between two writers, the Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the French Jim (Henri Serre), and the object of their affection, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). As the film begins in the free-spirited Bohemianism of pre-World War I Paris, Jules and Jim are inseparable friends, translating one another’s writing while frequenting cafés. The duo is transfixed by the arts, sketching chalk drawings on tabletops and attending talks on ancient sculpture. When they encounter Catherine, who strikingly resembles a sculpture of a Goddess that the two hold dear to their hearts, they form an immediate bond, transfixed by both her beauty and proto-feminist impulses. Jules asks Catherine to marry and the threesome is separated by events of World War I. When Jim encounters the couple after the armistice, he discovers a Catherine who views domesticity as a prison and a Jules who is willing to permit him to embark on an extramarital affair with Catherine in order to keep her from leaving. However, the romantic experiment has tragic consequences, pushing Jim to reflect that “We played with life and lost.”
There are two aspects of Jules and Jim that have continually inspired me to return to the film, the first being the character of Catherine. While the film may take its name from the relationship between Jules and Jim, Catherine’s character and Moreau’s performance are electric and provide the film with the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach test. When I watched the film for the first time in 2004, I thought Catherine was selfish in her insistence that she be able to carry on affairs while Jules and Jim remain faithful. Watching it again in 2005 and, most recently, 2010, my views of her character have drastically changed. Catherine is a woman trapped in the transition between a traditional society valuing traditional gender roles and a modern society acknowledging the ecstasy of sex (no wonder Truffaut was originally offered the chance to direct Bonnie and Clyde). In this light, Catherine’s almost schizophrenic attitude towards sexuality can be viewed as a reaction towards the tension demanding that she be both a wife and a lover. Is she selfish? Perhaps, but so are Jules and Jim.
The second characteristic of the film that continues to draw me back into the arms of the film brings me back to my introduction: the cinematic flair that Truffaut brings to a literary adaptation. While Truffaut does rely on the literary crutch of an omniscient narrator to provide a voice-over account of the trio’s relations, he also forces his camera to do much of the heavy lifting. The shift in tone between the freedom of the pre-war Paris and the cold domesticity following is highlighted by the progression from freeze frames and mobile camera work to anchored, contemplative framing. Take, for instance, the difference in the aesthetic taken by these two scenes, the first being the famous race early in the film and the second being a conversation regarding the effects of the war. The hand-held camera in the first scene captures an unrepressed energy in the Bohemian atmosphere while the second scene utilizes an almost completely static, long take. Truffaut’s film form relays to us the revelation that the trio will take the entire second-half to acknowledge: the freedom promised in this ménage à trois is an illusion because there is no “I” in threesome.
A newly issued “upgrade” title from Criterion, the Jules and Jim Blu-Ray includes all of the bonus features from the stacked 2-disc DVD set from almost a decade ago. We get the two commentary tracks (one with a bunch of Truffaut’s collaborators including his editor, screenwriting partner, and his assistant and a second – in French – with star Jeanne Moreau) that give us insight into both the film and Truffaut’s larger creative processes (he was allegedly not as concerned with editing as his colleague Jean-Luc Godard was). There is also an excerpt from a documentary on the real figures who informed the story (including their children!) that is incredibly rich. Also included in the package are a range of interviews with Truffaut (from 1965-1980) and an incredible conversation between film scholars Bob Stam and Dudley Andrew (amongst other features!). The only missing bonus feature – I think – is Pauline Kael’s original review of the film, which was reprinted in the 2005 DVD but now seems to have gotten cut. More significantly, the HD upgrade is gorgeous. It’s clean, yet naturally grainy. Despite having seen a 35mm print a few years back, I can safely say this is the best I’ve seen the film look or sound. Normally, I’m ambivalent about plopping down another $30-40 to upgrade one of my Criterion DVDs to Blu-Ray (the set is Dual-Format, so it also comes with a DVD copy if you’re a first time buyer!). If you share my concern, you won’t be disappointed with Jules and Jim. I give it my highest recommendation.