I have always envied that: going to a theater and watching a classic on the big screen. It doesn’t happen much where I am from.
Until recently, that is. One of the city’s major theaters began showing the newly mastered version of Carol Reed’s 1939 thriller The Third Man, and another theater was screening Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. I saw The Third Man earlier in the summer (which, by the way, is the first film I ever recorded on VHS, a long time ago when the local PBS was airing classic films at midnight.)
This past weekend, I saw Jules et Jim for the first time.Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is a primer for anyone wanting to understand the French Nouvelle Vague that blossomed in the 50s and 60s. The loose and fluid camera work, the montages, the freeze frames, the newsreels, the voice overs, the simple location sets (allowing for the breezy filming), these are the defining attributes of the New Wave, and they are used masterfully in this 1962 film.
And, as much as technical innovations defined the moment, so did the narratives. The films focused on youth, on iconoclastic characters outside the mainstream, and on ambiguity. One is never sure what to think at the end–and that is intentional.
Jules et Jim is basically the story of a love triangle. The film opens with a frenetic piece showing the carefree life of two friends, the French Jim and the Austrian, Jim. Jules is overly shy. Jim is a comfortable and adept womanizer.Their friendship is intense and true.
One day, another friend Albert introduces them to Catherine, a woman with a captivating smile and quirky personality.
When the normally shy Jules sees Catherine, he famously says to his playboy friend “Pas celle-là, Jim” (“Not this one, Jim”), asking that Jim does not use his charm to sweep this one away.For this is the woman for him. And Jim, who is equally as attracted to her, acquiesces. The three have rollicking adventures together in the countryside, around Paris, and at the beach and they thoroughly enjoy each other’s company.
Soon after, Jules and Catherine marry, but then World War I breaks out. Jules and Jim find themselves in opposing armies and pray that they don’t kill each other.
But Truffaut focuses on more personal conflicts than the global cataclysm of World War I. After the war, Catherine is quite unhappy in her marriage and in her motherhood. She has several affairs, one of which is with Albert who originally introduced her to Jules and Jim and who now is recuperating in the village below. (There is a hint that her child is actually his and not Jules’)
When Jim comes to visit them, she seduces him (he is an easy seduction since he too is in love with her) and ultimately they plan to marry and have children. Jules is okay with this–he loves both Jim and Catherine– and the three live together in an odd but comfortable arrangement.
That the arrangement and the plans fail is the descending path of Truffaut’s narrative arc. How they fail–spectacularly–is the thrill of the movie (and which I won’t reveal here.) Nevertheless, I can say that Jeanne Moreau as Catherine is wonderful and is the anchor of the film. Oddly, a young Oscar Werner resembles a young William F. Buckley, though his shyness and awkwardness is painful to watch. And Henri Serre makes a charming partner–both for Jules and for Catherine.
* * * * *In the first paragraph of this post, I mentioned Woody Allen’s films, Bergman’s films, Wilder’s films. It is largely because of Truffaut that we identify films in this way. Before he directed films, Truffaut was a writer–and then editor–for the famous Cahiers du cinema (“Notebooks on Cinema”), a seminal journal that helped bring film into the realm of serious study. In the journal, Truffaut often argued his point that a director is the true author of the film, as much as a Picasso or a Hemingway is the creator of his work.
It is only fitting then that when discussing the classics of twentieth century cinema, the phrase “a Truffaut film” is a necessary component of the conversation.