Monday, February 1, 2016

Film Review: Jules & Jim

"Jules & Jim"  *** (out of ****)

When I first saw Francois Truffaut's "Jules & Jim" (1962) I was teenager. I didn't particularly enjoy the movie and thought it was over-rated. It is generally considered one of Mr. Truffaut's most influential movies. Of course at that time I hadn't experienced love. I had never been in a serious relationship. I didn't know what it was to love someone and fear losing them. I hadn't faced the fragility and complications of love. I understand Mr. Truffaut's movie now. I see intelligence in its observations.

In 1960 American audiences had experienced their first French New Wave film, Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" (1960). For many the movie symbolized a new direction for cinema. It was like a hurricane. An entirely fresh, invigorating new way to tell stories. There is a sense of that excitement in "Jules & Jim".

The French New Wave was a rebellious, avant garde movement which attempted to break free from the traditional story narrative. It broke the fourth wall - bringing attention to itself that it is a movie. The films introduced the term jump cut - an edit which gave the impression of a jump in time. They featured long tracking shots as well and sometimes focused on existential themes.

"Jules & Jim" begins with an almost circus theme score playing over a montage of images as movie credits appear on-screen. The music may remind someone of what you would hear in a Federico Fellini movie. The music suggest a fast-paced comedy. Something lighthearted and exaggerated. However the music doesn't match the images. As we begin to watch the movie we will also notice, the music doesn't match the tone of the movie either.

The movie, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, published when he was 74, is set in Paris in 1912 and follows Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian writer living in France, and his friendship with Jim (Henri Serre). Despite their contradictions or maybe because of them, the two men compliment each other's personalities and are inseparable. Jules is shy whereas Jim is an extrovert. Jules is looking for love as Jim is a ladies man.

The two men lead an extremely carefree lifestyle. They often meet at a local pub to discuss writing and women but never mention money or getting 9 - 5 jobs. Such realities of life are of no concern to the men. They are primarily interested in women. One woman however, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) may cause a riff in their friendship and come between.

Catherine, like the two men, is a free spirit and not interested in a bourgeois lifestyle. As such both men are fascinated by her and would like to win her affection. The three are now inseparable. The "competition" among Jules and Jim for Catherine's heart never becomes vicious. There are no sneaky plans with each man trying to humiliate the other in front of Catherine. When Jules introduces Jim to Catherine he explicitly tells him "not this one", meaning, Catherine is mine. I have feelings for her. Don't try to steal her away.

In the end Catherine chooses Jules and the two agree to get married. As this happens war is declared. Jules fights in the Austrian army while Jim fights for France. Both are are afraid they might unknowingly kill the other on the battlefield since both men have lost contact with each other.

The war ends and Jules and Jim somehow are able to find one another. At this time Catherine and Jules have a daughter while Jim has never married. Jim visits the married couple in Austria. Catherine and Jules both reveal to Jim, separately, the marriage is in trouble. Catherine has a lover. She is bored with married life and with Jules. Jules however is still in love with her and can't let her go. Catherine is ready to get married to her lover and have a child. Jules gives Jim permission to seduce Catherine so at least Jules will be able to see Catherine now and then.

Feelings come and go. People say things and then wish they could take them back. Everyone thinks they understand their feelings but they don't. The one thing for certain though is Catherine doesn't love Jules anymore but is Jim the man for her?

This type of set-up would normally be the basis of a noir story. A woman who comes between two men, marries one of them and after being "domesticated" wants out of the marriage and tries to escape with another man. "Jules & Jim" isn't a noir story though. It is not a "happily ever after" love story either though it is a love story. What is interesting about it is the movie is named after the two men. The movie is just as much the story about the two men's friendship, their love for each other as it is about Catherine and either one of the men. The movie is about young love and facing the disappointment it brings. It is about friendship. It is about youth in general.

One problem some viewers may have is there is not really a likeable character. Catherine is somewhat likeable when first introduced and seems a perfect fit for the men but she never becomes a sympathetic figure. The audience feels for Jules. But the movie never pushes us too hard to really care of any one character in particular.

The performances by the three leads are good but honestly no one stands out. They are all essentially the same character. I could not say I enjoyed one performance more than another. When one character is happy all of them are happy. When one character is sad all are sad. There are very few moments when one actor is given a moment to individually shine in a scene. That is not a criticism of the actors as one must assume this was done deliberately by Mr. Truffaut.

What may distinguish "Jules & Jim" is the camerawork. The camera seems to flow and be as free-spirited as the characters. One of the most famous sequences involves a comparison between a Roman statute and Catherine's face. The camera breaks all conventional rules and photographys Catherine from her left and right side. It focuses on her lips and eyes. It is a duplicate shot of how a statute is captured. The sequence is meant to imply Catherine resembles the statue. A statute which both Jules and Jim became infatuated with.

Though I am able to appreciate "Jules & Jim" more now that I am older, as usual, I don't find myself in agreement with the general public. I would not agree this is one of Mr. Truffaut's best films. Of the movies released during this time in Mr. Truaffut's career I would have to say his debut film, "400 Blows" (1959) would be my favorite. I might even go as far as saying it is my all-time favorite of his movies.

"Jules & Jim" nevertheless is a movie worth watching. It has an important place in the history of cinema and those that consider themselves serious movie lovers should see the movie. If you chose to make this your first experience seeing a movie directed by Mr. Truffaut it may intrigue you to see what else he has directed. This is a smart movie about love and friendship.