I first saw this 196os classic by French director Francois Truffaut while I was a member of a university film society but I musta been too impatient and/or lacked the life experience to fully appreciate it.
When I saw it on DVD at my local library in a restored 2-disc edition from The Criterion Collection I just had to check it out again.
Oskar Werner plays Jules. Henri Serre is Jim. The two friends are living la vie boheme in Paris in the early 1900s when they meet the elusive and free-spirited Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).
She will eventually become romantically involved with both men.
Problem is …
Although Jules is steady, reliable and utterly devoted he lacks passion and spontaneity. Jim is passionate and impulsive but he is also romantically attached to long-suffering girlfriend Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) and since Catherine has to be the center of attention in all her relationships her liaison with Jim fails to satisfy her complex emotional needs as well.
The film traces the course of the trio’s relationship over a period of 25 years. Ultimately Catherine will exercise the only option she feels is open to her.
What can I say ?
La Moreau is still a paragon of Old World femininity ……
and after watching The Spy Who Came In from the Cold recently on DVD I wondered anew why the late Mr. Werner didn’t have a more high profile film career.
Just on the basis on those two films alone the Austrian born actor should have been able to name his price for any film in any language he chose.
The three’s-no-crowd ethos that pervades Jules and Jim made for provocative viewing when it was first released in America and remains controversial decades later.
Truffaut is worshipped by critics, filmmakers and knowledgeable viewers. Adopted by many latter day directors, Truffaut’s use of camera pans, locations, freeze frames and other cinematic techniques were both startling and inspiring when first introduced as part of what became known as the French New Wave (or nouvelle vague).
Recent video interviews with Truffaut’s long time cinematographer Raoul Coutard and screenwriter Jean Grualt shed light on the master’s creative process. However, the extras I like the most are the clips featuring Truffaut himself. The Criterion folks have unearthed clips from 1960s interviews on French TV in which Truffaut talks about shooting Jules and Jim, working with La Moreau and his passion for Hitchcock films. (Truffaut conducted a book-length interview with the famed British director.) These (subtitled) interviews are personal, relaxed and intimate.
There is also a Q & A session from an American program in which Truffaut, speaking through a translator, explains (among other things) why he doesn’t feel the need to rehearse a scene before committing it to film.
Truffaut comes across as affable, warm and softspoken but I could sense a restless intelligence just behind the eyes, sparking with ideas and new ways to express them cinematically. Film-making was truly his raison d’etre. And it shows in these well chosen clips.
One thing I didn’t know before viewing the Criterion set is that Jules and Jim is based on an autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roche. A prominent member of the French arts community during the early years of the last century Roche was best friends with German scholar Franz Hessell and more than best friends with his wife Helen.The three principals of the relationship are long gone but Helen’s sons are still alive and in excerpts from the 1985 documentary The Key to Jules and Jim they talk about their mother and her unusual relationships with great fondness.
It is this attention to detail (as well as the impeccable restoration jobs that breathe vibrant new life into old films) that has endeared Criterion to gourmet film fans.
The Criterion website hails Jules and Jim as “one of the finest films ever made.” And if you still don’t know why after viewing the film and all the bonus features there is a 44 page booklet including, among other things, an essay by film critic John Powers.
However, I still maintain that enjoying a classic film is like listening to a piece of good jazz. One does not need to know all the intricacies of rhythm, pacing and technique to appreciate it: the important thing is making an emotional connection with the piece.
And with its themes of love, friendship, anger and disappointment, Jules and Jim is all about emotion, acted with charm and finesse by a wonderful cast and lensed with a kind of visual poetry by a master filmmaker.