"I have always preferred the reflect of the life to life itself"- Francois Truffaut
Director: Francois Truffaut
"I've always wanted to see that film, but I haven't yet come around to it."
I think we all have said that once or twice before. That was the case with Jules et Jim I've wanted to see it for years. Actually, when it comes to the French New Wave I've only seen one example of that before, and that was Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) by Jean-Luc Godard. And I loved it. And that was years ago. So shame on me for not having followed it up until now.
I think all of us that has heard about this film knows that the story is about two men falling in love with the same woman. It sounds simple, doesn't it? But just writing a synopsis of Jules et Jim wouldn't do it justice, so I will start from the beginning with a brief summary of the expression "the French New Wave". (Or "La Nouvelle Vague", for the real nerds.)
Jean-Luc Godard inspecting a film strip with a cigarette in his mouth.
Francois Truffaut making film with a cigarette in his mouth.
The French New Wave
Toward the end of the 1950's, a group of filmmakers in France started to protest against the mainstream films of the day. They were bored with the the absence of innovative filmmaking, the classical filming style at the era being an anonymous camera depicting human life as through a window, the classic film plot being (citing Wikipedia)
"A heterosexual romance intertwined with a more generic one such as business or, in the case of Alfred Hitchcock films, solving a crime."
You get the picture.
This group of filmmakers started to experiment with all the possibilities there is with a film camera; they made the camera noticable. The camera became an actor in itself. Examples:
- A narrator, voice or text.
- Putting the camera in motion (with the use of trolleys, rotation devices, bicycles etc.)
- Experimenting with transitions ("wipes"), slow-motion and freezed frames.
- Multiple exposure.
- Short takes, multiple cuts.
To take a few examples. And you can find all these in Jules et Jim.
Trailer: A really nice trailer to a very special film experience.
Two front figures of the French New Wave movement were friends and co-workers Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. (Godard made his, Truffaut had his first great success with The 400 Blows in 1959.)
They were not only directors, but also actors, writers and a bit of everything else. That was the opinion of the movement - the director of a film should participate in all the aspects of filmmaking - the so-called auteur policy. ("Politique des auteurs" for the really nerdy nerds.)
And who developed this policy, if not our man - our auteur - Francois Truffaut. He meant that a director following the auteur policy could be regarded as the creator of a work in the same sense as a painter or a writer.
This philosophy is, as you can understand, a totally opposite pole to the collaborative filmmaking in studio Hollywood in its Golden Era.
I should also add that "the movement" was not a group of directors in a mystic sect dressed in dark robes - they were individual directors who just reacted on the same film conventions at the same time. They worked a lot together, yes. But they also fought a lot, stepping on each other to become the most prominent Nouvelle Vague director of the time. (That is at least what Truffaut once accused Godard of doing when they had a fight.)
L-R: Jim in his pretty moustache, Catherine and Jules.
(Don't remember the fourth person.)
Jules et Jim
Now to Jules et Jim.
We are introduced to two inseparable friends in pre-WWI France: Jules (Oskar Werner), a shy writer from Austria, and Jim (Henri Serre), a more outgoing chap who also writes. The friends are both interested in art and poetry, and early in the film they get enchanted by a statue of a mysterious woman with a mocking smile. After several encounters with women, they meet and befriend the charming bon vivant Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who is an incarnation of the statue. The three of them share a lot of fun together in a bohemian lifestyle.
A few days before the Great War arrives the conflicts start to appear. Even though both Jules and Jim has a crush on the vivacious Catherine, she and Jules go to Austria to get married. Then the friends has to go into war, fighting on opposite sides. Their worries about accidentily killing each others is imminent. They do both survive, however, and re-unite after a while in Jules and Catherine's villa in Austria.
Now the couple has a daughter, Sabine. The three friends have a good time together, but Jim suspects that the marriage is strained. Catherine has difficulties with commitment, never feeling satisfied with a secure family life. Jules later tells Jim that Catherine has left the family a couple of times, once for a period of six months. She is constantly unfaithful, but Jules has learned to accept that in his fear of loosing her entirely.
More intrigues gets in to the household when Catherine starts showing her affection to Jim, who still is in love with her. The three tries to get the ménage a trois to work out, and Jules gives Jim his blessing to marry Catherine just to be able to still have her around.
The relations gets more and more turbulent when Jim and Catherine fails to get a child of their own. Jim goes back to France to live with his former mistress Gilberte. (Probably a more suiting choice for a relationship than Catherine, but she just hasn't got it that Catherine has.)
No, I won't reveal the ending. You have probably gotten the idea of the plot a long time ago now.
Characters and depiction
The first thought that probably enters your mind when hearing about all this innovative French filmmaking is that it must have resulted in a total mess of a film. I mean, cramming all this double exposures, narratives, freeze framing etc. etc. into one single film must feel forced?
But that's just the beauty of Truffaut, obviously. There isn't one second of the film that takes away the focus from the characters depicted. The visual language is in its perfection - all these extra tricks and finesses are used to make the characters unavoidable to the viewer. When Catherine runs away from Jules et Jim, with a painted-on moustache, we run beside her. By zooming out from a window - down and out to the garden - in the same take, the bizarre contrast with Catherine seducing Jim upstairs, and the miserable Jules chopping wood with their daughter outside, is inevitable.
By trying out new uses of the camera and an innovative story telling, Truffaut has created a dramatic masterpiece that few, if any, filmmakers will be able to emulate. The dialogue is also wonderful. The characters has everyday philosophical discussions about life, death and everything between - and it never feels forced. It's poetic and natural, at the same time.
Even though when describing Catherine's character, you can believe that you won't like her at all - but that's not true. Truffaut manages to make the constanly unfaithful, unhappy Catherine who brings misery and madness into Jules' and Jim's lives, at the same time appear lovable and, sympathetic and tragic. You can tell that by the way Jeanne Moreau lights up every scene she is in, that Truffaut in fact was in love with the actress.
Scene: Le Tourbillon, sung by Jeanne Moreau. Notice how the character, at this time in the film very unhappy, finds some happiness in the song at about 1:30. That brought tears to my eyes.
Three favourite parts of Jules et Jim:
- Jeanne Moreau singing Le Tourbillon ("The Whirlwind"). That scene made me want to go back to my 38 questions-questionnaire post and change the answer for question 36. The song illustrates the turbulent life they live, and it became a huge hit.
- Jules, Jim and another character named Albert sitting in the grass talking. Jim (my favourite character) talks about a soldier from the war, writing more and more erotic letters to his fiancée at home, and concludes that (paraphrasing) "you have to experience the collective madness created by being surrounded by death" to be able to understand that kind of behaviour.
- Marie Dubois as one of Jules and Jim's first female encounters, Thérèse. I love when she does the locomotive with the cigarette.
- Oh, and Jim's moustache in the beginning of the film. That's three, right?