Jules and Jim: New Wave At Its Warmest

A HYMN TO LIFE AND LOVE.

Fans of Martin Scorsese may recognize a thing or two. The director was a fan of François Truffaut’s. When Scorsese was making GoodFellas (1990), he looked to Jules and Jim for inspiration, borrowing its extensive narration, freeze-frame shots and quick cuts. The French New Wave techniques looked like a big ”fuck-you” sign to conventional filmmaking, and Scorsese wanted his movie to reflect that rebellious attitude.

After a colleague of mine denounced Jules and Jim as rubbish I had to take a second look, not having seen the movie for twenty years. I’m happy to report it remains one of the very best New Wave examples.

A lasting friendship
Shortly before the Great War, Jules (Oskar Werner) is a writer from Austria living in Paris. That’s where he meets Jim (Henri Serre) and strikes up a lasting friendship. The two men are different, but share an interest in a bohemian lifestyle and the arts. They both become fascinated with an ancient bust of a goddess, which they see on an island in the Adriatic Sea. Eventually, after much looking, they find a woman back home who resembles the bust. Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) turns out to be a kindred spirit and the two men grow very fond of her. In the end, she chooses Jules and moves with him to Austria. Then the war breaks out, with Jules and Jim fighting on opposite sides…

Based on personal experiences
Jules and Jim
became a huge international hit and turned Moreau into a big star, even if she had already made films like Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). Truffaut found Henri-Pierre Roché’s original novel in the mid-1950s and became fascinated with the story, which was based on the author’s personal experiences as a young man. Perhaps having three people fall in love with each other seemed much too queer back in the days of World War I, but the 1960s were ripe for the idea.

The film must have seemed like a breath of fresh air in cinemas, appealing to much bigger audiences than some of the earlier New Wave movies thanks to its romantic and tragic themes. Truffaut went all-in; together with his team, notably cinematographer Raoul Coutard and editor Claudine Boché, he employed virtually every trick in the book. Apart from freeze frames, narration (lending the film a literary quality) and quick cuts, there’s wipes, newsreel footage from the periods depicted in the film (which moves from World War I to the rise of Nazism in Germany) and tracking shots where the team came up with inventive ways to have a more mobile camera, like mounting them on bicycles. There’s always something going on in this film that captures one’s attention.

I can see why some in the audience may have a problem with the film, especially in the beginning. Jules, Jim and Catherine are borderline intolerable as they party all over Paris and their lack of responsibility continues to some degree even after the war that changes the world, after the marriage between Jules and Catherine, after the birth of their daughter Sabine. But we’re drawn into their lives and get to sample some of the intoxication that exists between them, and it’s hard to resist. There’s an undercurrent of tragedy present from the beginning, which reaches an unforgettable climax near the end, symbolic of where the world was headed at that time. The romantic aspects of the film are magnificently strengthened by Georges Delerue’s music score, one of his best.

Moreau is obviously great in her part, but the film also belongs in no lesser degree to Werner and Serre, especially the former who gives an intriguingly subdued performance as the Austrian who does what he can to keep his love for Catherine and Jim alive.

Jules and Jim 1962-France. 105 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced and directed by François Truffaut. Screenplay: François Truffaut, Jean Gruault. Novel: Henri-Pierre Roché. Cinematography: Raoul Coutard. Music: Georges Delerue. Editing: Claudine Boché. Cast: Jeanne Moreau (Catherine), Oskar Werner (Jules), Henri Serre (Jim), Marie Dubois, Vanna Urbino, Serge Rezvani. Narrated by Michel Subor.

Trivia: Original title: Jules et Jim. Remade in the U.S. as Willie & Phil (1980). 

Last word: “When I made ‘Jules and Jim’, I was at that age where one lives very egocentrically; I saw it as the chance of a lifetime. A chance to escape the ‘star’ style. I didn’t even really think ‘star’; I was thinking of the stereotypical cinematic style – lots of makeup and hair done just right, always being followed around by the hairdresser, makeup woman, costume fitter. All of a sudden we were filming in the street, with very little makeup, costumes you found yourself. No one was telling me anymore, ‘You have circles under your eyes, your face is lopsided.’ Makeup was done in ten minutes, your hair was washed, dried, and you were out the door.” (Moreau, Film Comment)

 

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