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Jules and Jim: The Criterion Collection

Starring Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, and Henri Serre

Written by Jean Gruault and François Truffaut
Directed by François Truffaut

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

"You said to me: I love you. I said to you: wait. I was going to say: take me. You said to me: go away."

This cryptic exchange, spoken by a smoky, feminine voice over a dark screen at the outset of François Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962), is meaningless on first blush. Without the weight of the film behind it to offer explication, it's forgotten the moment Georges Delerue's rambunctious score roars to life over the opening credits.

But every time one returns to the film, which should be often now that The Criterion Collection has at last given Truffaut's early masterpiece the deluxe DVD treatment it so richly deserves, these lines, though still open to interpretation, sound a melancholy note, reminding the viewer that the buoyancy of the first act, so powerful and seemingly indefatigable the first time through, will be fleeting. War, marriage, infidelity and the simple, enervating passage of time will eventually grind the exuberance of the picture's three star-crossed lovers to dust.

Truffaut's ebullient craftsmanship, however, proves far more resilient throughout the darkening course of this strange love affair; in fact, even when tragedy inevitably strikes, the governing mood remains one of giddiness. That's because Truffaut, making his third feature film, following the early nouveau vague successes of The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, had seemingly all at once mastered, more through synthesis than his comparatively limited practice, every single aspect of the cinematic vocabulary. Gone is the borderline reckless swagger of those previous pictures, replaced by an astonishing fluency bred into him by a short, but intense period of rapt study in the hallowed hall of the Cinematheque Francais. Tackling a fiercely interior literary work by Henri-Pierre Roché, Truffaut tells his story in a mad collision of fast moving images and detached third-person narration, cramming three decades worth of incident into 105 minutes so effortlessly that the film plays as revelatory today as it must have at the time of its release (enrapturing young critics and enraging the old guard). He's a liberated filmmaker who knows what he wants to say, and seems to have no shortage of breathtakingly inventive ways to say it. And that is a rarity in any era.

That Roché's novel first captivated Truffaut at the age of 23, while he was still the enfant terrible railing against the vulgar state of French cinema for Cahiers du Cinema, isn't all that peculiar until one takes into account the author's advanced age at the time of the book's publication. For Roché, Jules and Jim was a late-in-life reflection on an ill-fated love affair from his youth, written as a means of distraction from pervasive ill-health. It is a novel of sage distance, winnowed down to terse sentences seeking to convey only the necessary as if time were of the essence.

Though Truffaut has confessed to being dazzled by this laconic quality, he most overwhelmingly responded to Roché's generosity with regards to his characters, particularly the female catalyst Catherine, the even-handed treatment of whom bears an unmistakable resemblance to the trademark humanism of Jean Renoir, one of Truffaut's most influential mentors. Though Truffaut would expend a great deal of his creative energies throughout his career in a succession of never entirely successful attempts to approximate a Hitchcock thriller, Jules and Jim was really — with the possible exception of Two English Girls — his only major, sustained riff on Renoir.

And it proves to be an auspicious point of entry into the love triangle, which begins innocently enough as nothing more than a platonic romance between two men, the French Jim (Henri Serre) and the Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner), who romp through pre-WWI Paris with nary a care. Theirs is a friendship forged in the familiar; as the narrator explains early in the film, it is the deep bond of kindred spirits who feel as if they are truly being heard for the first time in their lives. All that separates them is temperament: Jim's is confident, determined, while Jules suffers from a tendency toward accommodation.

This soft exterior is what initially attracts Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) to Jules, who's thus far had little luck with the fairer Parisian sex. A young woman of both aristocratic and common lineage, Catherine's arrival is presaged by a tranquil smile molded into a stone sculpture on an island in the Adriatic, which the boys view first in a slide presentation and, then, because they are so deeply moved by the image, in person. But Catherine's effect on their lives is invigorating rather than calming; the smitten Jules is quickly moved to propose marriage, while Jim, despite an undeniable attraction, suppresses his lust in response to his friend's explicit request for exclusivity ("Not this one, okay, Jim?").

For a time, though, they are a happy trio, racing memorably across a train overpass, and luxuriating at a house in the country, oblivious to the mounting tensions in the world around them that will lead to war. Interestingly, when this conflict finally manifests itself to separate the two best friends (who, obviously, fight on opposing sides), Truffaut treats it rather glancingly, sparing the viewer clichés about the horrors of war and, remarkably, rushing through the four year period in order to dramatize the peculiar manner in which it's complicated, but not ended, the relationship.

When the three are reunited, the schism between Jules and Catherine, who has since given birth to a daughter, is readily apparent before the former finally gets around to confiding in Jim, who long ago warned of Catherine's quicksilver disposition, declaring poetically, "She's a vision for all, perhaps not meant for any one man." Jim is right, but he is also a man, and soon lowers his defenses, allowing himself to tumble headlong into something very close to love, a madness he has sedulously and successfully avoided until now. Rather than betrayal, Jules expresses a sense of relief at Jim's incursion; after all, if he must renounce his wife and child to another, why not to the one he pretty clearly loves most in this world?

But this is not an ideal fit either. Whereas Jules's malleability dooms the first coupling, repelling the vivacious Catherine into the arms of others, it is Jim's independence that wrecks this second pairing. And it is Catherine's inability to ensnare Jim that ultimately sends her careening over the brink, preferring to end his life and maybe her own rather than live without his unswerving devotion.

Whether Catherine's unhappiness is owing to an untenable, morally casual philosophy, or the fact that she has chosen to embrace such a lifestyle in an era when feminine liberation was still proscribed by society is the kind of dilemma that might be mundanely delineated were Jules and Jim to be made today. It's a scenario rich with the kind of pertinent themes that never fail to rile up most socially conscious filmmakers (it's hardly worth castigating just Hollywood nowadays since most independent movies traffic in likewise simplification). But the extent to which Truffaut teases them out is purely accidental. Though he's as obsessed with Catherine — and, furthermore, Moreau's enchanting embodiment of her — as every other man that comes into contact with her, Truffaut is drunk on the dramatic novelty and potential of the character, and the way he can use her to push the film into unusual cinematic territory.

One of the most haunting passages in the film finds Truffaut returning to the freeze-frame device he employed to epochal effect at the end of The 400 Blows, and using it to punctuate what Catherine contends is the favorable shift in her demeanor since she met Jules and Jim (never mind that this also represents a bit of playacting on her part, belying an inherent volatility that Jules has chosen at his peril to ignore). It's a devastatingly brilliant coup de cinema — each pause a thundering testament to the severe, untamed and damn near immortal nature of the character. Just as impressively, as Truffaut holds onto each pose, either a frown or a smile, for seven frames apiece, he makes the tonally intuitive decision to keep the sound running, so that Jules and Jim's delighted reactions register, ensuring that a potentially showy device does not overwhelm the delicate truth of the moment.

That's the offhanded emotional crux of the film, but it is only one of many visual masterstrokes pulled off by Truffaut. Jules and Jim brims with unforgettable flourishes; it's the kind of film so clearly made under a good sign that even the unplanned touches— for instance, Jim and Catherine's first kiss, captured in silhouette against a window pane where a moth, drawn to the backlight, scampers right through Catherine's pursed lips — come off as if by design.

Such happy accidents might be considered payoff for Truffaut and co-scenarist Jean Gruault's brisk, intricate plotting, which anticipates the director's striking visual shorthand with the aforementioned, and rather chatty, third-person narration, a device that not only communicates the inner feelings of the main characters, but also preserves the literary integrity of Roché's novel in much the same way Orson Welles retained Booth Tarkington's eloquent voice in The Magnificent Ambersons (itself an indubitable influence on Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terribles, which Truffaut cites as a direct influence in an interview included in this DVD). The resulting flood of information, sometimes sneakily contradictory, is impossible to fully appreciate on a first viewing, but the enthusiasm with which it's conveyed excites more than exhausts.

And then there are the contributions from two frequent Truffaut collaborators: composer Georges Delerue and cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Returning to black-and-white after his vibrant color work for Godard on A Woman is a Woman, Coutard gives his director a slightly unpolished look that nicely complements the film's frantic aesthetic. But this was not Coutard's time to shine (that would come a year later with Contempt); it was, however, yet another opportunity for Delerue to heighten a film's impact with an versatile and evocative score, and it's arguable that he never surpassed his rowdily sentimental work here.

The constantly shifting morality that dictates the main characters' often baffling actions makes Jules and Jim a hard film to pin down thematically, which may have been Truffaut's intent. Though pregnant with substantial issues and conflicting philosophies, the charged experience of watching the movie always winds up overpowering one's proclivity for deconstruction. The enjoyment is in watching Truffaut exert his full command over a medium that had been growing stagnant; his delight is the viewer's. If Jules and Jim is finally a young man's take on the world, a movie in which death is shrugged off as something too far away to be of much concern, then this is less a compromise than a miracle. It is a beguiling irreverence — a joyful vandalism.

*          *          *

The Criterion Collection presents Jules and Jim in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with crisp Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. This two-disc set is stuffed with extras, beginning on Disc One with two audio commentaries. The first is a solid holdover from the 1992 Laserdisc release featuring recollections from Gruault, Suzanne Schiffman, Claudine Bouche, Annette Insdorf, and Truffaut himself, but the second is the real deal: a scene-specific chat with Moreau that qualifies as a must-listen. Disc One also includes lengthy excerpts from The Key to Jules and Jim (31 min.), a documentary that explores the backstory of Roché's novel, and a brief interview with Truffaut on Bibliotheque de poche (7 min.).

Disc Two casts a much wider net, starting with a series of five separate interviews with Truffaut spanning three decades. The first is from a 1965 episode of "Cineastes de notre temps" (8 min.), and offers a nice primer on Truffaut's feelings for his work. The second interview catches up with the director in 1969 on "L'Invite du dimanche" (32 min.), a sort of French "This is Your Life," and, by virtue of its candid comments from Moreau and Renoir, is the highlight of the set. Third is a 1977 visit with New York Film Festival director Richard Roud (9 min.), in which Truffaut talks about falling out of favor in his homeland. Finally, there is an Insdorf-moderated Q&A from a 1979 AFI symposium (28 min.) and an audio chat conducted by Claude-Jean Philippe between 1980 and 1982.

Criterion has also rounded up a brand-new interview with Coutard (19 min.), an older, refreshingly unvarnished discussion with Gruault (20 min.), a conversation between film scholars Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew (23 min.), stills and a theatrical trailer. Finally, there is a well-selected 44-page booklet that includes a new essay by NPR critic John Powers, Truffaut's review of The Naked Dawn (an Edgar Ulmer-directed oater that convinced him Jules and Jim could work as a film), a pair of writings by the director, and Pauline Kael's beautiful review from I Lost It at the Movies.

— Clarence Beaks

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