Jules et Jim

This is my idea of a holiday.  I have no meetings for a week, I don’t have to think about Futuristic Dystopias or Moby-Dick or The End of the World for a few days, so I can indulge myself and watch a movie like Jules et Jim.  It is especially gratifying to see this after watching the stiff, leaden Fahrenheit 451, made a scant three years later.  It couldn’t possibly be more different and could have used one-tenth of the energy or powers of observation that Jules et Jim has.

I was reading an interview with Woody Allen where he talks about Bullets Over Broadway and how he loved shooting Husbands and Wives with the hand-held shaky-cam jump-cut style but that you couldn’t do that with a period piece because people have a certain mindset about how the past should look on film.  But that’s exactly how Truffaut shoots the same time period in Jules et Jim, tossing in freeze-frames and wild pans and rushed zooms and a dozen other techniques that remind you that you’re watching a brand-new movie about events fifty years in the past.  The first act of the picture, where Jules and Jim meet Catherine and World War I hasn’t happened yet, is so breathlessly (pun not intended — at least I don’t think so) shot and edited and with such quicksilver energy that it takes a moment to realize that everyone is wearing funny clothes and driving vintage automobiles.  Truffaut cuts as often as Michael Bay; scenes and images fly by with the speedof fleeting memories.  How it was all shot I have no idea, all those shots of adventures glimpsed but not explained.  Did Truffaut board all those scenes (did he board anything)?  Were they scenes that once had dialogue but got cut out, except for those brief shots?  It seems like there are dozens of them.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, Jules and Jim are best friends living la vie Boheme in belle epoque Paris.  Jules meets Catherine and they fall in love.  Catherine is a capricious, complicated woman who also falls in love with Jim, but events conspire to put her together with Jules.  They get married and have a child, but Catherine is restless and inconstant and still wants Jim (among other men).  Instead of leaving Jules with the child, they invite Jim to live with them in the Rhine valley.  Everyone has the best intentions and is full of love, but they cannot keep from causing each other suffering as their complicated love story unfolds.

Catherine sounds like a handful, doesn’t she?  And yet, I once knew a woman a lot like her.  She was very beautiful and charismatic, loved whoever she wanted to whenever she wanted to for as long as she wanted to, and never gave a thought to how she might be living tomorrow; there would always, it seemed, be someone there to take care of her, give her whatever she needed, indulge whatever whim she might have.  I have no trouble buying that such an arrangement might arise between a woman and a pair of of men in Europe between the wars.  And such a story could be really pulpy and soapy (if something can be both pulpy and soapy) but Truffaut handles it all with a wonderful dry-eyed realism,  with a sympathetic camera and journalistic editing style, letting the story speak for itself.

Imagine my surprise when I learned, elsewhere on the Criterion edition (where else?) that the movie is based on the true story of a clutch of real bohemians in the real Europe of 1914-34 (or so).  After watching the thrilling, lyrical movie it’s great to watch the documentary included and hear the stories of the children of all these bohemians, who not only don’t have particularly bad memories of their parents’ unconventional lifestyles but actually mostly idolize them.  If they critcise them, it’s for their innocence, not their morality. 

Because morality is at the center of the story.  In the movie, Jules and Jim and Catherine make up their own rules for living from day to day.  Life, of course, imposes its own rules, as life will, and the conflict between the characters and the immutable laws of the universe forces a tragic end to their story.  It’s sort of a metaphor for the whole belle epoch lifestyle, legislating its own morality until the Nazis come along with their own vision of morality, one enforced at gunpoint.

In real life however, Jules’s and Jim’s and Catherine’s lives don’t end in 1934.  They all go on with their lives, raise children in various places around Europe, make livings in the margins of the literary world, have innumerable other affairs and complicated arrangements (Jim, for instance, after leaving Catherine and Jules, lived with three other women at once, promising to marry “whoever survived”), and live to ripe old ages (Catherine lived to be 96!).  Truffaut says that these arrangements must have caused great turmoil and suffering, but his movie is full of joy and life (the tone of which is apparently taken from the novel).  He didn’t make a cautionary tale, he made a love story.
hit counter html code


14 Responses to “Jules et Jim”
  1. craigjclark says:

    While you’re on vacation, I strongly recommend you follow this up with Shoot the Piano Player. That will likewise show you Truffaut at the absolute top of his form.

    And check out some Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le flambeur, Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge) while you’re at it.

    • Anonymous says:

      Jules et Jim has definitely put me in a Truffaut mood, and I look forward to seeing Shoot the Piano Player as soon as humanly possible. Jean-Pierre Melville I’m quite familiar with, since learning there was such a genre as French gangster movies. Speaking of which, have you seen any Jacques Becker?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Cautionary Love Tales

    Your consideration of the Criterion additions really helps me to understand what I missed in my ongoing ambivalence towards the film, at least upon viewing it ages ago. In text at least, it reads fantastic.

    I have always felt something almost corny in the the 60s French cinematic take on man-woman relationships-as-society, and I guess that is part of my ambivalence. So many movies heighten a kind of romanticism, in order to then (hopefully) play with the construction and conventions. Fine enough, but oddly, it doesnt seem to age well, it seems so old-fashioned compared to the statements being expressed by the film-method.

    If Hollywood had its resolute determination for happy-ending fantasy, this period of French cinema also had something problematic within Truffaut and others resolute grip on speaking through “l’amour, l’amour”, that only a handful of films (Godard at times…) managed to creatively entangle within the larger picture. I mean, compare Truffaut handling of his self-character’s development in “700 blows” with any of his male-female relationship films.

    Perhaps in France of the 60s, it wasn’t the cinema where love, or relationships were being truly freed of conventions, but at least for a brief moment in time, within the Serge Gainsborough music productions. Those 3 minutes or so throw caution to the wind, synthesize a certain male-female, Romanticism with the 1960s modern logic to wind up in some provocative expression of pleasure as set in a perverse, consumerist ethos – and a string of hit singles.

    But what actually caused me to start writing you this time was your last sentence “He didn’t make a cautionary tale, he made a love story.” as it appeared in my browser almost directly above the photos you have of the Mick and Keith in the Stones concert. It fit. Really applies to The Stones story – It could be the byline for the movie trailer: “Not a cautionary tale, but a love story.”


    • Todd says:

      Re: Cautionary Love Tales

      I don’t know why but I don’t find Jules et Jim fantastical, corny or even sentimental. If anything I find it sober and clear-eyed about the complexities of romantic entanglements.

      Mick and Keith, I think, do represent a kind of love story. As much as they profess to dislike each other’s company, their talents do mesh surprisingly well. They seem destined to remain together. I’ve owned both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards solo albums, but I’ve eventually sold them all back. They are definitely stuck together, a true marriage, if not an especially happy one, and their chief marital aids (that would be Charlie and Ron) provide sufficient lubrication to make it seem a match made in heaven.

      But for heaven’s sake, go easy on the protagonist of Truffaut’s first film. He had a tough time of it, poor kid, but he only received 400 Blows, not 700.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Cautionary Love Tales

        oops – funny late-nite writing slip up, I placed the poor guy over in another club completely, 700 is most certainly not 400.

        As a coda to the Stones tale, I agree as to what Ron and Charlie are, but that’s at the expense of Brian and Bill. Perhaps there is a cautionary side after all.

        I recall when the Stone biopic of the Doors came out, Meg Ryan, doing press for it, said she realized during the filming Stone was making a cautionary tale of the 60s. It certainly wasn’t a love story.


        • Todd says:

          Re: Cautionary Love Tales

          Brian is the dead child who brought the parents closer.
          Mick Taylor was the child they adopted to take the place of the dead child, and therefore never really fit in. When they became pregnant with Ron, they turned their backs on their adopted child, further estranging him.
          Bill was the crazy uncle (who never talked) who they felt they owed something to. When he moved out of the house everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

  3. craigjclark says:

    Sadly, I have not. I know Criterion has put out Casque d’or, Touchez pas au grisbi and Le Trou, but I’m so behind on my Criterion viewing it’s ludicrous. More often than not, I’m dependent on what shows up on Turner Classic Movies and those have yet to appear on the channel (to the best of my knowledge).

    • Todd says:

      I’m sure you’ve seen Rififi, which was my entree into the genre, but it’s also worthwhile to watch the much earlier Renoir noir (hey! a pun! en francaise!), La Bete Humaine.

      • craigjclark says:

        The only Renoir films I’ve seen are Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game so yeah, he’s another director I need to get on the ball with. When I can afford Netflix and have the time to make it worth it, I’m going to plug in all of the Criterion films I can and just go through them one by one.

        And, for a change of pace, if you want to see a truly haunting French film, I wholeheartedly recommend Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Just don’t watch it — or Blood of the Beasts, the documentary short that accompanies it — on a full stomach.

        • Todd says:

          The only reason I bring up La Bete Noir is that it’s really uncharacteristic for Renoir. It’s got a femme fatale, a rich guy controlling her life, a middle-management type who mortgages his future for the sake of a pair of legs, and a working-class brute with a mean psychotic streak. In other words, it’s like an issue of Sin City, but from, like, 1936.

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    This film is full of life, yet what struck me most about it was how the protagonists were such embodiments of an intellectual’s view of intellectuals. But his vision of the life of the mind wasn’t stifling. That comes later, in “L’enfant sauvage”.

  5. toliverchap says:

    I saw a print of this movie projected and I still found it to be kind of boring. I guess I should check it out again unless I’ve become too ingrained by action/comedy (re: Venture Bros. and Indiana Jones) coolness to appreciate a good love story.

    • Todd says:

      I’ll confess this: I found it boring the first time I saw it, and it was only a couple of years ago. I don’t know what I thought I was expecting, but it seemed really long to me, although it is well under two hours. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have a standard Hollywood “plot,” with a predictable A to B to C story development, maybe because it takes a big jump in time at the end of Act 1 and then halts and jumps forward four or five times after that, I don’t know. I think sometimes one gets used to a certain vocabulary of presentation of story and character and when something different comes along it can seem alien and abstruse (well, they are called “foreign” films, after all). But I watched it for a second time the other night and it was the exact opposite of boring; it was breathtakingly exciting, I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. Truffaut’s character-on-the-fly observational skills and deft way with exposition and plot, where you’re being told all kinds of important things but you don’t realize you are, held me transfixed. This has happened a number of times before to me, where I just couldn’t get a movie (or any piece of art) one time around and then, suddenly, for whatever reason, some time later it clicks for me and I can see it for what it is. Obviously the movie doesn’t change, so it must be me.