Movies are made for a lot of different reasons, not the least to turn a profit. But true artists are perhaps drawn to filmmaking to tell stories about their alternate selves; inadvertently revealing much more about ‘who’ they are as people. And arguably, we go to the movies to see those secret desires played out; our own voyeuristic nature exposed, either admiring or despising the daring acts of creative geniuses who dare to reveal what we already know about ourselves; the underlying sense of self-betrayal kept quietly under wraps in our daily lives as we recognize these foibles and failings projected onto that larger-than-life movie screen. If, in life we remain relatively untrue about the existence of these darker human perceptions and impulses welling up from within, then at the cinema we are allowed to quietly acknowledge them; the mirror un-flatteringly reflected back at us, and we to it with an internal wink and a nod.
In this regard, François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) is about characters truer to themselves than the rest of us; unafraid to be genuine and unapologetic about sucking the marrow out of life; to condemn and loath and trifle in the arts; to openly manipulate one another and, in turn, allow themselves to be manipulated; the hypocrisies stripped bare by wilful – and ultimately – tragic abandonment. These panoramic perceptions of humanity were very much a part of Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel Jules et Jim, written when the author was 73 years old; an elder statesman’s reflections on a young man’s freedoms to be foolish and live dangerously.
These insights were directly based on Roché’s own ménage à trois with Helen Grund, who had by this time become the wife of his best friend, Franz Hessel. The book was first published in 1953 and all but ignored by the critics of their day; discovered by Truffaut as a dusty paperback in a used bookstore shortly thereafter and immediately captivating his fancy. Truffaut was, of course, not a filmmaker then, but one of the more profound movie critics for the prominent French magazine, Cahiers du cinéma. But Truffault was compelled by the novel, first to make his introductions to Roché, whom he befriended almost immediately and until the end of his life; then after his own debut as a filmmaker to aspire to express the novel’s rather weighty philosophical critiques about life in general in visual terms.
Yet, Truffaut was incredibly intimidated by the novel at first; telling actress Jeanne Moreau about his aspirations to make the movie, but then retracting from any definite commitment to it until Moreau coaxed him loose from his apprehensions. He was, after all, only twenty-nine when he endeavored to make this movie; a mere enfant terrible in the eyes of his contemporaries. After all, what could he possibly know of the life expressed in the novel, yet to be lived in his own reality? Perhaps it was impossible for Truffaut to believe he could do justice to what he clearly regarded as a literary masterpiece.
But Roché’s death in 1959 seems to have spurred Truffaut on to reconsider. Moreover, it motivated Truffaut to invest himself heart and soul – along with screenwriter Jean Gruault – in the novel’s turbine de la vie; that varied and textured Bohemian utopia grounded in the basic rules of propriety, but an alternate moral code of ethics, constantly being rewritten by its two protagonists. These old friends, the émigré German, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Parisian playboy, Jim (Henri Serre) are forced into contemplation (though most refreshingly ironic, never into conflict) by the new woman in both their lives; Catherine (Jeanne Moreau exuding cerebral sensuality; curiously aloof, yet strangely calculating in all her sexual ambiguity).
The novel’s narrative timeline takes place roughly between the years 1900 and 1920; Truffaut briefly considering an update to the present for the film, before wisely encouraged by Gruault to maintain the dynamism in Roché’s own period. Indeed, vintage Bohemia plays an integral role; that ancient flower of laissez faire, often misperceived as a decided lack of scruples, though herein intelligently given over to questioning the rigidity of an ensconced moral code straight-jacketing one’s own sense of individualism for the sake of maintaining a false front. In this regard, Jules and Jim are perhaps little more than ‘merry Andrews’ before their chance meeting with Catherine – undeniably the freest spirit of them all; Jules contented in his artful cynicism, counterbalanced by Jim’s proclivity to drown his own personal dissatisfactions via a series of meaningless sexual affairs. Neither man is particularly keen on the past, nor invested in the future; their ‘here and now’ existence swayed, bent and finally broken by Catherine’s defiant intervention in their lives, but also by the onslaught of the First World War.
This effectively serves as the movie’s concrete division line between the lives Jules and Jim once led and those they discover almost by accident to be merely existing in thereafter. Following the montage of war there is a definite shift in Jules and Jim’s friendship; perhaps moderately encumbered by Jules’ marriage to Catherine; their crumbling domesticity further complicated after Jim begins to discover he also has feelings for his best friend’s wife. Raoul Coutard’s sumptuous B&W cinematography evokes this seismic shift; the film prone to a rather heavily stylized first act; 360 degree pans, masking parts of the screen in black to isolate characters; speeding up and/or freezing the action for split seconds to punctuate dramatic moments.
All of these more technically proficient camera movements are generally abandoned in the movie after the advent of WWI; Coutard’s clever usage of aerial shots and tilt pans isolating the actors, or perhaps creating a more definite distance between the audience and the action taking place on the screen. Indeed, when viewing Jules and Jim today, one becomes more aware of Truffaut’s cyclical staging; the inevitable ‘grand wheel in life’s unforeseen journey’ spinning out of control during the final few moments of our story.
Truffaut was, in fact, fascinated by what he perceived as the cinema’s cliché about male/female love triangles up until that time; the movies usually siding with one couple, while casting the third party in the role of the interloper. The novel, however, made no judgment call on this matter, and neither does Truffaut with his movie, thereby breaking new ground. As the audience, we can implicitly understand exactly how these two men would come to fall in love with the same woman; even appreciate the evolution in their mutual understanding; Jules allowing Jim to become his wife’s lover in order to maintain the structure of his own family life, rather than sacrifice both Catherine and their child, Sabine, (Sabine Haudepin) to Catherine’s latest tryst with nearby musician, Albert (Serge Rezvani). More miraculous perhaps, is that Catherine is never painted broadly as the shrew of the piece. She is neither devious nor scheming and, although quite unapologetic about her many affairs, nevertheless loves her husband rather sincerely, even as she cannot maintain any lasting fidelity in their marriage.
“The most important thing in a relationship is the woman’s fidelity,” an inebriated Jules attempts to explain to Jim and Catherine after the trio has attended a night at the theater, and long before either the war or Catherine and Jules are married, “The husband’s comes second.”
Jules is, of course, quoting from Charles Pierre Baudelaire, the famed French poet, carrying his points to the extreme and ascribing their meaning as a precursor to all women in general.
“Woman is natural – therefore, abominable. Horror! Monster! Assassin of the arts! Little fool! Little slut! I am always astonished they allow women in churches. What could they possibly have to say to God?”
Begun as pure pontification, Jules sudden sincerity aligned with Baudelaire’s assumptions – or rather, his own interpretation of them – amuses, then disgusts Catherine, who expresses her displeasure with an impromptu leap from the embankment into the Seine; startling both Jules and Jim to come to her rescue.
This fatalist moment is, of course, Truffaut’s exquisitely ominous visual foreshadowing of the movie’s climax. But it is also further punctuated by the disembodied voice-over from our omnipotent narrator, marking the moment as seared into Jim’s mind and therefore foreshadowing his own desires toward Catherine (Truffaut’s reoccurring devise used to incorporate whole portions of text directly excised from Roché’s novel - also, at times, quelled from Jean Gruault’s clever aping of Roché’s style via dialogue – into his movie).
Truffaut once pointed out that people lose all judgment when they are watching movies. They implicitly accept what is on the screen as fact, however far-fetched. This suspended belief is, of course, what helps Jules and Jim attain its verisimilitude, despite Truffaut’s joyously clever interjections of visual absurdity to punctuate his reconstituted moments of life. For Truffaut, the image of life recreated and photographed through a lens, later to be projected on a screen larger than life, is far more satisfying than the realities of any life lived. Each day arguably has its own pleasurable moments. But in life these are interrupted – even thwarted, casually ignored or more commonly set aside to be later forgotten by long stretches of tedium.
For Truffaut, the cinema provided an escape from life through someone else’s interpretation of it with all the boring parts left on the cutting room floor. In Jules and Jim, Truffaut allows us to luxuriate in the not so obvious benefits of a ménage à trois – the act, itself certainly not without its reprisals for the characters on the screen – and yet, with Truffaut ascribing no morality or values to the act or the characters partaking of it, each flawed, generous, oddly confused and perhaps, even, strangely sad. These are not happy people leading uncomplicated lives and indulging willy-nilly in the occasional shared bump-and-grind. And yet, there is something very satisfying, hopeful, brimming with promises unfulfilled, and perhaps, even uncomplicated about their arranged predicament.
Our story begins in Chaplin-esque homage under the main titles - our central characters: Jules – the shy Austrian unaccustomed to, but enraptured by his newly adopted Bohemian lifestyle and Jim, the quintessential product reared by it. Jules openly admits he has no success with French girls, taking up with prostitutes to satisfy his sexual needs, while Jim is unabashedly a ladies man, courting various flighty and scatterbrained women like Thérèse (Marie Dubois) – whose list of male conquests is absurdly amusing, and, Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) – Jim’s lugubrious and long-suffering fiancée (never to be his wife). Arguably, the only real love affair for either man is the relationship they equally experience between themselves and their mutual affections for art and music. It’s a shamelessly vacuous existence, spurred by a moment’s infatuation with a stone statue first glimpsed during a slideshow at a friend’s house, then later by encountering the real thing – this hand-carved goddess with her serene – yet tempting - smile, isolated and moored near a sandy beach.
Jules and Jim first meet Thérèse, an anarchist fleeing her demonstrative lover in the streets. She impresses them with her ebullient devil-may-care abandonment and rather ludicrous impression of a locomotive – blowing smoke from a cigarette clutched between her teeth while racing around the bedroom. Jules, however, becomes engrossed by the erratic proto-feminist, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a dead ringer for the stone statue, first encountered during an innocuous gathering for tea in Jim’s garden with Gilberte; the foursome playing a silly little game of footsy that will, of course, lead to so much more.
Sometime later this mercurial female, accompanied by Jules and Jim, disguises herself as a prepubescent boy, complete with painted moustache, cigarette pants, and, checkered cap cocked off to the side. The trio makes a spirited race across one of the city’s suspension bridges, Catherine cheating to win, but thoroughly captivating Jules’ heart in the process. On a subsequent planned trip to the beach, Truffaut gives us our first ill-omened glimpse into Catherine when, in her attempt to burn old love letters (to illustrate for Jim her newfound fidelity to Jules) she inadvertently sets fire to her own floor-length nightgown; narrowly saved from being severely burned by Jim, who stomps out the flames.
Jules confides in Jim that he has fallen hopelessly under Catherine’s spell. He asks for Jim’s advice, and Jim inquires whether Jules believes Catherine could ever make a good wife and mother. The point is moot, perhaps, because Catherine exhibits neither wifely nor maternal instincts, but is rather impulsive and moody. These qualities are expressed most directly after Jules and Jim have accompanied Catherine to the theater; the play thoroughly enjoyed by Catherine, but utterly abhorred by Jules who has obviously had far too much to drink. He rather cruelly pontificates on what he perceives to be the flaws of both the play’s female protagonist and all women in general, spouting quotes from his favorite poet that cause Catherine to challenge his motives by leaping into the Seine. Her whimsical act of defiance startles both men who rush to pull her from the waters.
With the advent of war, Jules and Jim retreat to their respective armies; each fearing they will meet on the battlefield and be forced to kill one another for their country; Jules writing lurid tomes to Catherine where he expresses a passion he never could share with her face to face. After the armistice, Jules and Catherine are married. Some years pass and Jim is encouraged to come and stay at their isolated chalet. But only Catherine meets Jim at the station – accompanied by Sabine (their daughter). Jim’s arrival is welcomed with open arms, but he quickly realizes that all is not right in Catherine and Jules’ marriage. Jules confides in his old friend of his wife’s many lovers; her affairs neither spitefully indulged nor even meant to make him jealous; merely to satisfy Catherine’s own increasing boredom with married life.
Lately Catherine’s affections have begun to gravitate toward a mutual friend, Albert – who lives nearby and is a musician. Albert has, in fact, proposed to Catherine – even offering to take Sabine and rear the child as his own. Jules is strangely absent from this decision-making process; and remote and removed from even his own emotional responses to the prospect of losing his family. To preserve his marriage, Jules suggests Jim become Catherine’s new lover; acknowledging there has always been something between them he may wish to exploit now to avert Catherine leaving forever.
Jim reluctantly agrees, discovering almost as an afterthought that he is in love with Catherine. Arguably, Catherine is quite incapable of love – at least any genuine ever-lasting sort. She and Jim become lovers under Jules watchful eye. This newly inaugurated threesome live in Jules’ chalet, Catherine ping-ponging between bedrooms and slowly stirring both men to moderate distraction and jealousy. It’s an unusual moment in the film, as none of the participants, in what is so obviously a strained and fairly unhappy prospect for them all, deliberately blames the other two involved for their brewing discontentment. Plotting their not-so-rosy future together, it seems Catherine is unable to conceive Jim’s child. He retreats to Paris, taking up with the ever-faithful Gilberte yet again, but quickly grows tired of her and returns to Catherine and Jules after his brief summer respite, only to discover that Catherine became pregnant after his departure but has since miscarried.
In France again, Jim is reunited with Jules and Catherine, the latter making her brief and ineffectual last stab at a seduction, thwarted by Jim, who informs her he has decided to marry Gilberte instead. Enraged, Catherine pulls a pistol from under her pillow. But Jim wrestles the gun from her hands before departing. Later on, Jim encounters Jules and Catherine inside a darkened theater, encouraged by the couple to join them for a drink at an outdoor café. Catherine ask Jim to get into her car, playfully shouting for her husband to watch as she deliberately drives them both to their deaths over the steep edge of a broken bridge. In what is the penultimate moment of realization, we see a wounded Jules arrange for the funeral of his best friend and wife; Jim and Catherine’s coffins cremated, their ashes interned inside adjacent vaults in a nearby mausoleum; Jules’ voice over suggesting Catherine had always desired her ashes to be scattered into a nearby river – deemed unsanitary and thus banned by the local authorities.
Although unquestioningly named for its male protagonists, Catherine is undeniably the catalyst of both life and death in Jules and Jim; a vaporous creature of moral/sexual perplexity and the axis around which the entire plot rotates. It’s hardly an iconoclastic device in cinema – woman as influencer/instigator of a doomed lover’s triangle. The precepts of the traditional film noir have thrived on as much with minimal variations to the femme fatale. Certainly too, there are elements of the clichéd wicked woman in Jeanne Moreau’s depiction of Catherine; her large expressive eyes and pouty lips able to reveal considerable subtext beyond her outwardly superficial appeal.
Yet, Truffaut maintains Roché’s tender fidelity to this outwardly self-destructing/inwardly lost creature. She is not evil, although she commits terrible acts, but rather terribly troubled – haunted, really – by some untaught providence ultimately to conquer and devour all who believe she can be managed with understanding and kindness. On the surface, Jules and Jim’s naiveté still spells disaster. And yet, we never feel as though they have been taken advantage of, or are being brought to rack and ruin by this external force of nature. Their undoing, like their making, is their own. No one is entirely responsible, ergo – no one is blameless.
Raoul Coutard’s stunning cinematography and Georges Delerue’s regal underscore, including a telling song sung by Catherine and Albert - ‘Le Tourbillon’ (‘The Whirlwind’), foreshadow the ill-fated destiny of our three protagonists. It also generates that strangely elusive atmosphere that, at least in retrospect, typified the French New Wave’s own love affair with what philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre astutely coined as life’s evanescence – what has been long since distilled in the movies into the egregiously oversimplified catch phrase “it is what it is.”
Jules and Jim is arguably Truffaut’s greatest movie. Certainly, it remains the one his reputation as a filmmaker is most closely identified with today, and the only movie Truffaut remained immensely proud of until his untimely death at the age of fifty-two. Often, in viewing it on TV or at revivals, Truffaut would be prompted to telephone his old-time collaborator, screenwriter Jean Gruault, to remark with renewed satisfaction, and a modicum of amazement, that Jules and Jim “still worked!”
In some ways, Truffaut’s approach to filmmaking is much more geared toward early 20th century culture rather than movies being made in his own time – certainly, much more obvious when viewing his films from today’s vantage some fifty plus years removed from what was then considered trend-setting and cutting edge popular entertainment. If Jules and Jim seems much more of a time capsule now, rather than that ferocious departure from these time-honored precepts (as it must have appeared back in the sixties) it is only because our present day compost of disposable movie culture has made even the most startling and affected of human desires and/or emotions seem clandestine homages to some quaintly underground notions about life and love in general that, at least superficially, appear no longer to be true.
Yet, in Jules and Jim’s case what remains of the surface is merely that – a veneer; beneath it lurks the persistent reminder that in life the affairs of our hearts are mostly imperfect; perhaps even meant to mortally wound us in unexpected ways because we fail to see – or perhaps more astutely desire not to – the proverbial forest for the trees.
Criterion’s Blu-ray sports a 2K hi-def digital transfer that looks pretty sweet. The B&W elements are in exceptional shape and have been given the careful once over in digital clean up without the obviousness of overly applied DNR. The image is very solid, with expertly balanced contrast and a fine inclusion of film grain looking very natural. Occasionally, the image can appear softly focused, but this is more the result of conditions on location than any flaw in the mastering. Very good stuff here and sure to please. The mono PCM audio holds up very well under closer scrutiny.
For those who have never seen the movie before, dialogue is rattled off at a breakneck pace. You’ll have to watch the movie twice. Once to read what’s going on, then again to sit back and bask in Raoul Coutard’s exquisite cinematography – simply gorgeous. Prepare yourself for some truly exceptional extra features; including two separate audio commentaries – one by Jean Gruault, Suzanne Schiffman, Claudine Bouche and Annette Insdorf, the other featuring Truffaut’s biographer, Serge Toubiana and the film’s star, Jeanne Moreau. Both are exceptional in their own way, Moreau offering fascinating insights into working with Truffaut.
We also get excerpts from several vintage documentaries, including various French TV programs and Truffaut’s lecture delivered at the AFI, with rare interviews, too numerous to list herein. Truffaut was a captivating interviewee and herein we get some of his most astute observations on making movies, lovingly preserved for prosperity. The quality of these excerpts varies greatly. Criterion has, of course, made Jules and Jim available as a combo Blu-ray/DVD pack. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I just don’t get the point of combo packs. One either owns a DVD player or a Blu-ray player, and if a Blu-ray player will likely never watch the DVDs – so what’s the point?!? Bottom line: Jules and Jim is priceless entertainment. As Truffaut would say, “it still works!”
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)