Directed by: François Truffaut » Written by: François Truffaut & Jean Gruault » Based on the Novel by: Henri-Pierre Roché, 1962 » Region/Time: France, black & white, 105 minutes.
Starring: Jeanne Moreau as Catherine » Oskar Werner as Jules » Henri Serre as Jim » Michel Subor (voice) as The Narrator.
“You told me, ‘I love you,’ I told you, ‘Wait.’ I almost said, ‘Yes,’ you told me, ‘Go.’” – Catherine
In the mid 1950s, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (also starring Jeanne Moreau), Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Jules Dassin’s Rififi all signaled that something new was coming to French cinema. Instead of sanitized and carefully lit sets, these dark movies appeared to be taking place in the real world, with unexpected violence and frank sexuality. In response, La Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave cinema was an art movement started in 1959/1960 by filmmakers who wrote for Cahiers du cinéma as critics. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette revered English-language directors such as Ford and Hitchcock as well as Jean Renoir and Italian neorealists. On one hand, they believed that films should not pretend their artifice to be reality and would frequently use techniques that called attention to themselves. On the other hand, they believed it was not necessary to create elaborately constructed sets or tightly plotted scripts, and would instead use real-world settings and improvisation. The New Wave exploded on the international scene with 1959’s The 400 Blows and Breathless
François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim was his third film and his most financially successful. It is a fun and witty movie about a doomed love triangle. It opens with carousel music and a breathless narration, which continues throughout the movie, telling the story of two young men in Paris in 1912. Jim is French and Jules is Austrian, but they become inseparable friends: “They taught each other their languages; they translated poetry.”
The first half an hour of the movie is told in a headlong, frantic and exhilarating rush. Its influence can be felt in the opening ten minutes of The Royal Tenenbaums. Both Jules and Jim are notorious womanizers—Jules is engaged to three different women—but they meet their match with Catherine, who is the real star and centre of this movie. Jules and Jim are merely planets orbiting around her sun. She is impulsive and impetuous. Her playfulness is infectious and both Jules and Jim fall in love with her, but Jules wants her for himself, telling Jim “not this one, Jim. Ok?” giving us the sense that Jim often steals Jules’ girlfriends. At one point, having seen a play by Strindberg that Catherine enjoyed, but Jules did not, he quotes Baudelaire to Jim in a long monologue, unaware of how he is insulting Catherine: “I wonder why women are allowed to enter churches. What could they hope to say to God?” As a result, she jumps into the Seine. The narrator tells us that “Her jumps strikes Jim like lightning.”
At this point, World War I intervenes, with Jules fighting for the Austrians and Jim for the French. They are both terrified that they will shoot the other. After the war, Jules and Catherine are married with a daughter, Sabine. They invited Jim to visit them in Austria and it is clear that all is not happy between the couple. Jules tells Jim that Catherine is unhappy, that she has run away and had affairs. In order to keep her in his life, Jules suggests that Jim should have an affair with her. “If you love her, don’t think me an obstacle.” The love triangle is ultimately a tragic one, all the more so because we have witnessed the joyous and carefree beginnings. Catherine, however, is not a woman who can be tied down to a man’s ideal or life. She cannot come to terms with a life that limits her freedom.
Influenced by Orson Welles’ The Magnificant Ambersons and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the style of Jules and Jim was a revelation in the early ‘60s. The films spans 25 years or more in the lives of these characters, yet skips lightly through happy and unhappy times. The narrator shortens the film by telling us details of things we can’t or don’t need to see (see Adaptation). The camera is quick to move with many witty pans and handheld camera-work, avoiding the clichéd wide-set-up shot/close-up shot/reaction shot of so many other movies. It went on to influence Hollywood movies, such as A Hard Day’s Night and, especially, 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde, which led to the renaissance of Hollywood Cinema until the late seventies.
Jules and Jim never condescends to the audience, presenting information quickly and changing moods in a mercurial fashion. A foreshadowing of the 1960s decade just beginning, it is about three people sharing happiness and joie-de-vivre, unaware of the darkness and tragedy approaching.
Up Next in the Film Canon: Bugs Bunny, Hitchhiking and The Walls of Jericho.