Friday, June 08, 2012

Jules and Jim (1962)

Jules et Jim, France, 105 minutes
Director: Francois Truffaut
Writers: Henri-Pierre Roche, Francois Truffaut, Jean Gruault
Photography: Raoul Coutard
Music: Georges Delerue
Editor: Claudine Bouche
Cast: Oskar Werner, Jeanne Moreau, Henri Serre, Vanna Urbino, Boris Bassiak, Anny Nelsen

I had some plans here to complain some about Jules and Jim. I have been overexposed to it over the years, plain and simple—it seemed to be always a picture someone or other wanted to force on me, or that was around when I was with people in the mood for an art film. It has always been there. Its dour subject matter and grim resolution would appear to fly in the face of most of the conventions of French New Wave, which it bears in abundance, indeed in many ways stands in for as symbol. As with, say, Wild Strawberries—which I liked a good deal more at one point—it has suffered some from its position as Important Landmark of Film.

But a funny thing happened. One more viewing unexpectedly mellowed me some. Generally speaking, the problem I tend to have with Truffaut is inherent in what I also tend to like best about him and consider his strong suit—his humanity and his light-hearted and almost mischievous playfulness. But the playfulness can also veer toward the precious and at those times he is like the angel cherub currying favor with teacher, wrinkling his nose and dimpling his chin in order to acquire another tablespoon of kindergarten paste, which as likely as not he has been eating.

I know this is diametrically opposed to Truffaut's actual biography, the outlines of which of course are disclosed in The 400 Blows. And the impulse to charm and please certainly works in his favor when we are charmed and pleased, which I admit can be very often. Others have remarked on the eternal youthfulness of Truffaut, and I think that's absolutely right. It is one of his most enduring (and endearing) traits. It's what made his casting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind work so well, as one example. But it can also manifest in a kind of wrong, disturbing Dick Clark/Dorian Gray youthfulness at times.

Here it is dedicated to bathing painful relationships and mental illness in an aura of easy romance, as best friends Jules (played by Oskar Werner) and Jim (played by Henri Serre) fall in love with and share the same woman, Catherine (played by Jeanne Moreau), with sorry ends for all. It's quintessentially a small film, set in the early decades of the 20th century, concerned with the private affairs of three or four or five people, and it's arguably callow (children, let me recommend you don't even think about doing what the men and women here are doing).

Yet it can really open up big, as in the first hour when World War I comes along, in a sequence full of a powerful sense of history. And how often are you ever going to see a movie this good and this serious about polyamory, aka "open relationships," aka "free love," which bears the seeds of its own mockery? Whether polyamory deserves to have a movie made about it is another question, but moot considering we have had it for 50 years in the guise of a landmark of cinema.

In fact, the field of appeal here is actually remarkably narrow when you think about it, genuinely sympathetic to the unconventional and thus exceptionally bohemian in its own right. But the subject, examined seriously, turns out not to be that interesting, or anyway doesn't do well under the scrutiny. In the end the mechanics of a horrific denouement must serve to attempt to ground it in something more serious than quotidian pathetic narcissism, which appears in abundance in the second half.

There's a lot of formal energy to the way Jules and Jim is composed and shot and put together. If it stubbornly refuses to add up to more than the sum of its parts, the parts remain to be enjoyed for what they are, a lovely series of tiny victories that appear and recede again: the titles and the spirited music of Georges Delerue throughout ... Therese doing her steam engine—well, Therese herself ... Catherine as Thomas in the iconic footrace across a pedestrian bridge ... bicycling in sunshine ... the stop-motion character studies, notably of Catherine telling Jules and Jim how they have changed her ... the various tinkering manipulations of frame size ... Jules playing horse with Sabine ... the wandering in to the action of Johann Goethe's novel, Elective Affinities.

And more: It's a beautiful portrait of a friendship, as this lovely sentence from the voiceover narration early on encapsulates it (in translation): "Each taught the other his language and culture till the early hours." I particularly like the way World War I is inserted into the middle of it. Jules is Austrian; Jim is French. During the war they fight on opposite sides, each worrying that he will kill the other. I like that Catherine is basically unlikeable—it somehow makes it more believable. I like the powerful sense of dignity Jules bears, at once quiet, composed, and desperate.

Objectively speaking, Jules and Jim remains rather hard to like, with its massive tonal shifts, erratic momentum, and the cold terms of its story. But, yes, over time I distinguish its virtues better, such as Oskar Werner's tremendous and overwhelmingly sad, wounded performance, or how sneaky-good Jeanne Moreau is as the girlfriend everyone wants and then wishes they never had. The only semi-practical thing I would say is to recommend saving Jules and Jim for later—see a few others by Truffaut first, especially starting with his first, The 400 Blows.

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