Judge Steve Evans revisits this classic of French New Wave cinema and concludes: c'est merveilleux.
"We played with life and lost."
A masterpiece of the French New Wave, this sensuous, enigmatic film spans 30 years of friendship and love in a doomed ménage à trois.
Facts of the Case
Best friends Jules and Jim (Oskar Werner, Fahrenheit 451, and Henri Serre, La Révolution Française) enjoy the carefree life of affluent intellectuals, indulging in the pleasures of pre–World War I Paris. Austrian biologist Jules embraces the city as he would a lover, if he could find the right girl. He takes occasional comfort in the company of "professionals," although Jules tells Jim he grows weary of meaningless liaisons, the empty exchange of francs. Women glide into bed with the introspective Jim, a writer who remains too detached, too doggedly independent to form any lasting relationship.
A love triangle develops when they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau, La Notte), a passionate, impulsive, and intensely desirable woman whose lust for life burns like a supernova. The attraction between them is immediate. Although the men have shared women before, Jules implores Jim to stand aside; "Not this one," he tells his friend.
Catherine and Jules begin a joyous romance and marry in the days before the long shadow of World War I casts Europe into darkness. Jules is called to duty by the Austrian Army; Jim enlists with the French. Although they fight on opposing sides, their friendship endures. Jules writes impassioned letters to Catherine, but the distance between them soon involves more than geography.
Reunited years later in Paris, the friends take up residence in a mountain chateau nestled in the French countryside, where Catherine has grown dissatisfied with the passive Jules. Realizing this, his pain manifests itself in quiet glances, small gestures, and thinly veiled pleas for advice from the worldly Jim. Now callous and contemptuous, Catherine seduces Jim into an uneasy affair. Jules remains so devoted to both that he cannot bear to leave.
The years and the war have altered the carefree dynamic that once existed between the men and especially their muse. Catherine's spontaneity erodes into melancholy. Dark impulses bleed through her once-inscrutable demeanor. Jules wonders whether he could ever hold on to her heart. Jim wonders if any man could.
Gloriously alive and still potent after 40-odd years, François Truffaut's third film is a love letter to the cinema and an astonishingly mature work of art (he was 29 when principal photography began in 1961). In its multilayered exploration of life, love, and doomed romance, this is truly a film where the significance of the journey exceeds the importance of the destination, which is inevitable.
An omniscient narrator speaks neutrally about what has passed. His voice echoes how Jules and Jim and Catherine feel, as his words supply the occasional hint of what is to come. Timeless themes of friendship, love, and the joy of living are burned into the early frames of this film, just as sexual obsession, disillusionment, and despair dominate the final act. It's as though Truffaut did not so much conceive a masterwork as he channeled artistic genius from the sum total of European experience in the first half of the 20th century. There are scenes so achingly beautiful, their essential truths so profound, that viewers might wonder: Was the French auteur a mere alchemist, weaving gold from history lessons and experience, or was he some modern Prometheus—breathing life into the film, evoking universal feelings and ideas in such a bold and electrifying manner that film lovers four decades later still gasp at the scope and depth of human experience captured in these flickering images?
Yes, this is high praise. Truffaut and his collaborators deserve every accolade.
Admiration for technique and craftsmanship deepens on subsequent viewings. This may be one of the most carefully constructed films in all cinema, as Truffaut alters the editing rhythms to reflect his characters' evolving situations and, with brilliant results, to evoke even their inner desires. Look again at one of the iconographic images of world cinema: When Jules and Jim marvel quietly at Catherine's beauty, Truffaut famously freeze-frames on her smiling face at three distinct points—like a fashion photographer—as though the men desperately want to preserve this fleeting moment in time. At first kinetic—all zooms and flash cuts and spiraling dolly shots—the flashy camera work gradually evaporates, like Catherine's state of mind, as her marriage to Jules disintegrates.
The performances are staggering, especially the work of Moreau, whose effervescence turns to gloom as Europe darkens and goes to war. As Jules, Werner demonstrates the psychological devastation of a man who loves with all his heart and soul, realizing too late that nothing he can offer will ever be enough for a woman who repays love with cruelty. Serre plays blasé with brilliance as Jim, who sees Catherine as a rambunctious, sexually liberated lover, yet he cannot bring himself to hold her at bay for the sake of his friendship with Jim. Because Catherine cannot choose between these men—indeed, she cannot embrace a single, dominant personality of her own—she dooms them both.
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, who was in his seventies when he wrote the book, this story—and especially Catherine's character—must have touched Truffaut at some fundamental level. He was not alone. Note the trace elements of this film that director Cameron Crowe lifted for Vanilla Sky.
Criterion bestows reverential treatment on a modern classic, this little miracle of the cinema that enriches our appreciation of life with each viewing. Surpassing its own considerable reputation for quality, Criterion offers a restored high-definition transfer, supervised by director of photography Raoul Coutard, that shimmers in satin shades of black and white. Video and audio are impeccable. The bonus material spread across two discs seems nothing less than comprehensive: Two audio commentaries, the best featuring Moreau herself. Video interviews and retrospectives, including a 1977 Q&A with Truffaut made five years before a brain tumor would take his life. Rare images of the original shooting script with Truffaut's hand-written annotations. A 42-page booklet of essays and stills from the film. And these are merely the highlights of a beautiful package: from the provocative choice of cover art, to the telling music that plays over the menu selections. For the discriminating collector, what could be more delightful than acquiring the DVD of a beloved film, meticulously packaged by people who truly understand its beauty and its significance? Criterion remains the absolute reference standard for DVD excellence. Bravo.
Impassioned and exhilarating, Jules and Jim sears itself into the memory like an endless summer kiss that begins, eyes closed, in the fleeting moment before the thunder of an approaching storm.
Own? Yes. Now.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Cowriter Jean Grault, Truffaut Collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, Editor Claudine Bouche, and Truffaut Scholar Annette Insdorf
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