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

Fahrenheit 451

WHAT DOES BIG BROTHER WANT?  Big Brother wants people to be happy, and books don’t make people happy.  They are filled with lies, made-up stories, silliness, sophistry and fake drama.  Why do so many people insist on being unhappy?

  Montag (Oskar Werner) burns books for a living.  He’s comfortable and respected, but he is also is bored and mopey.  He craves intellectual stimulus.  His wife, Julie Christie, is a babbling idiot and the TV is filled with political fiction, propaganda and nonsensical gibberish.  He finds his desired stimulus in the form of sexy neighbor Julie Christie (again with the sexy neighbor — if there were not attractive women in futuristic dystopias, there would never be any rebellion at all!) and, less cinematically, in the pages of Charles Dickens.  When that turns out to be asking too much, he wants to get out of town and keep the literary flame alive.

WHAT DOES THE REBEL GET?  A whole heap of trouble.

DOES THE SOCIETY CHANGE THROUGH THE ACTIONS OF THE REBEL?  Not to any measurable degree.  But the protagonist does find a way to rebel that has some positive effect and yet adheres to the letter of the law.  Wait — the rebels want to adhere to the letter of the law — and that’s their brilliant idea?  What the hell kind of movie is this?

NOTES: Handsomely produced and well-intentioned, it’s hard to get excited about this movie.  There is no drama or conflict to its argument, there is no “other side” to it — who would make a movie promoting the burning of books?  This is not to say that there should be an “other side” to a movie about totalitarianism, but even The Matrix allowed that there would be some people who would be happier living in pink goo with an electrode in their brain.

Wait a minute — why are some of the day’s leading cinematic lights making a movie that encourages people to spend their time reading books?  Obviously the position of film in the minds of the world’s teenagers was in a much more secure position at the time.

Truffaut (wait — this lumbering, earnest, dour, leaden, humorless, stilted movie is directed by Francois Truffaut? [author shakes head vigorously, Bugs-Bunny style]) itseems, made this movie about reading books in order to indict what he saw as a greater evil — not book-burning or totalitarian government but television.  One day, mark my words, there will be a video game about a society intent on destroying films.

The occasional sparks of cinematic interest, like subtle use of backwards-motion and the dead-end double-casting of Julie Christie as Idiot Harpy/Sparkling Intellectual don’t do much to raise the pulse of this movie.  Its heart is in the right place, it’s just not beating very strongly.

By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!) Montag’s wife has left him, he’s burned his supervisor alive and he’s on the run from the law.  He finds a commune in the woods (commune in the woods!) where the people memorize books in order to keep them alive until the dark ages lift.  I always liked that idea, a little community where each person’s job would be to memorize a book.  I always felt that if it came down to it, I would pick Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.
hit counter html code