Reviews and notes
Based on a little-known autobiographical novel written by Henry-Pierre Roche when in his seventies, Jules et Jim
was Francois Truffaut's third film and is still the one by which he is most affectionately known. Endlessly inventive and unquenchably high-spirited, it is one of those rare films which, after no more than a single viewing, inspire virtually total recall. Even its soundtrack continues to possess a naggingly memorable life of its own, thanks to Jeanne Moreau's breathy giggle, Oskar Werner's softly accented French and, not least, Georges Delerue's haunting theme music, which over the years has become almost the signature tune of the nouvelle vague
Most astonishing of all, however, is the masterly ease with which, in this tale of an intermittently felicitous menage a trois
, Truffaut modulates between comedy (or rather, gaiety), drama and, ultimately, tragedy, while deploying a battery of perilously modish devices - jump cuts, freeze frames, nostalgic iris shots. His numerous imitators have managed only to hitch these techniques to the kind of broad comic romp of which Tony Richardson's Tom Jones
(1963) might be the prototype. Though the triangle formed by Jules, Jim and the flighty, elusive Catherine is, in its restlessly shifting sympathies, anything but eternal and too often overcast to be considered unreservedly idyllic, none of the film's more sombre elements ever succeeds in snuffing out its youthful exuberance.
For an example of how subtly it functions, one need look no further than Catherine herself, in Jeanne Moreau's enchanting and somehow 'definitive' performance. Rarely has the cinema invested one of its classic femmes fatales
with such generous helpings of humour, charm and tenderness. Yet fatale
she unquestionably is: figuratively, by the cavalier treatment which she metes out to her pair of suitors, capriciously switching her amorous attentions from one to the other and back again, even ditching both of them for the more immediately gratifying stimulation of an affair with a casual pick-up; and literally, at the end, when she nonchalantly drives Jim and herself headlong into the Seine. It is, above all, Catherine's mercurial femininity which has allowed the film to wear so much better than those sweatily explicit dramas of uncensored passion made during the same period (for instance, Jack Clayton's Room at the Top
, 1959). Sex here is fun, at least on occasion. If the three protagonists fail to arrive at a workable 'design for living' no moral condemnation is implied by Truffaut: less unconventional relationships prove equally doomed.
Prior to their relationship with Catherine, the two Bohemian young men are so bewitched by the placidly mysterious features of a Greek goddess on a lantern slide that they promptly set off for the Adriatic to catch a glimpse of the original sculpture. Catherine, too, is an 'ideal' woman (the most perfectly realized, perhaps, in Truffaut's extensive gallery of portraits), all things to both men, separately or together - and the tragedy of the final suicide is not only her own and Jim's death, but the inconsolable solitude of Jules.
The balance between tragedy and comedy, so miraculously maintained throughout, derives also from the fact that, as the characters never physically age (though at the end Moreau sports granny glasses, the face behind them is just as radiantly, mischievously beautiful), it is from outside that the passage of time comes abruptly and cruelly to impinge on their intimate universe. World War I, evoked in newsreel footage that is startlingly stretched out to the full dimensions of the CinemaScope screen, causes the two friends to fear that one might kill the other (his name notwithstanding, Jules is German).
Then, suddenly, it is already 1933, as in a cinema the trio watch more newsreel footage of book-burning in Nazi Germany. And the advancing years are more benignly telegraphed by the ubiquitous Picasso paintings, passing through several stages of the artist's evolution. From the very beginning, however, the film has ominously hinted at the impermanence of their happiness: Catherine's first whimsical leap into the Seine; her ritualized burning of letters from past lovers ('old flames'), which almost results in her self- immolation; and the spectre of jealousy in a Rhineland chalet, a striking crane shot encapsulating both a nervously pacing Jim downstairs and Catherine and Jules romping ecstatically in the upstairs bedroom.
Of all the nouvelle vague
directors, it is Truffaut alone who has carried on the tradition of French lyricism out of Vigo and Renoir despite once being its most vitriolic critic: in Jules et Jim
his feeling for the countryside, sensuously captured by Raoul Coutard's ravishing black-and-white photography, is worthy - as is the whole film - of Renoir's Une Partie de Campagne
(1936, A Day in the Country). And if Godard was without question the more revolutionary figure, it is surprisingly hard to imagine the course of contemporary cinema bereft of Truffaut's inimitable (though often imitated) delicacy and charm.
- Gilbert Adair, The Movie No. 59, Orbis 1981.
Weblink: Review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, June 20, 2004
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