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Jules et Jim: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // May 31, 2005
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted June 20, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Commitment – what a funny, baffling word. On the one hand, it can mean unswerving dedication, a desire to remain loyal no matter what the consequences or conditions. When individuals are involved in a deep and abiding relationship, we consider them as having entered into a commitment. When women bitch about the bastards they love, they comment on how commitment-phobic they are. The pages of the local lonely hearts are filled to bursting with individuals looking for that elusive promise while others scour the landscape for that pledge that will guarantee them everlasting happiness and direct, undeniable devotion.

But flip the facets, and suddenly commitment means something completely different. Insanity requires it, the fear for one's safety or that of others actually mandates it, and when someone voluntarily signs a set of said papers, they loose their freedom and infallibility. Indeed, commitment is what happens to the deranged and the disabled, people who find it impossible to cope with society – and/or visa versa. These committed creatures don't get the praise and the respect of the trustworthy husband, or the caring and faithful wife. Instead, they are condemned and confined. So free are they with their feelings, unable to focus them into productive, polite ideals, that the world sees no alternative but to lock them up. They can't commit to the rest of the populace, so the rest of the populace will just have to commit them.

In the character of Catherine, the unforgettable female at the center of François Truffaut's New Wave masterpiece, Jules et Jim, we see both levels of obligation. On the one hand, this devious vixen wants any and all men to bow to her every whim, to love her deeply and completely, without question and in total blind constancy. She, on the other hand, can do what she wants, free to make up her mind and change it within the blink of an eye - or a single misplaced sentiment. For her, the conventions of society are crazy. As for the world around her, they view Catherine and her companions as equally unhinged, rebels against the standards of sumptuous Belle Époque France. Commitment comes in many sizes in Jules et Jim – and it's Catherine whose holding all the interpersonal definitions, for both good and bad.

The DVD:
In turn of the century France, Jules and Jim become fast friends. Jules is from Germany, while Jim is a native. They share favored pastimes like poetry and pretty women. One day, they meet Catherine, a free spirited young woman who immediately captures their heart. While she teases both men, she eventually marries Jules. World War I breaks out, and the friends are forced to fight on opposite sides. When the conflict ends, Jim goes to visit Jules and Catherine. The couple has had a child which they've named Sabine, and all appears happy.

But Jules has bitter news. Catherine is unfaithful, and no longer loves him. Instead, she sees Jim as her latest, most desirable target for conquest. Hoping to keep his family together, Jules enters into an "arrangement" with Jim. If he is willing to have her, all three can live in the chalet with Sabine. Jules will make this sacrifice for the sake of his child, and his endearing love for his spouse. Jim initially agrees. But when Catherine's moods become even more unpredictable, he decides that she is not what he wants. Tragedy lies in wait for this troubled threesome, as Catherine's inability to determine what she truly desires is destined to destroy both Jules et Jim.

Conventional is not a word that describes François Truffaut's Jules et Jim. Everything about this film defies expectation, taunts tradition and redefines the language of cinema. Like all great experiments, it has its flaws. Like all tests of talent and tenacity, it's astounding. As much a defining moment in the French New Wave as the early works of Godard or Chabrol, Truffaut's mélange of narrative invention, directorial flare, acting supremacy and filmic rule breaking is absolutely electric. It is so visually vital and pulsating with life that you instantly get swept up in its nerve and audacity. As much of a challenge to an audience as an entertainment, there are very few films like Jules et Jim. It easily takes its place as one of the benchmarks of modern moviemaking.

Such films come around rarely, but when they do, they make their presence instantly known. Argue about its misplaced politics all you want, but D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation actually created the primer for proper modern motion picture protocol. All hideous racial slurring aside, the use of the camera in combination with the exploration of story and shoot selection makes it a decisive entry in the shaping of the art form. Nearly three decades later, Citizen Kane took the foundations of the format and tweaked them once again. With its reliance on deep focus, and manipulation of narrative ideals, combined with as many technological breakthroughs as the mad genius of Orson Welles could conceive of, it's no wonder many critics still consider this masterwork the greatest movie ever made.

Along the way there have been a handful of additional examples, movies that made a statement about the power of well-placed and juxtaposed images to influence and uncover reality. The most recent example, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, redefined the rhythm of cinema. It used the backbeat of an eccentric soundtrack mix, the borrowed bravado from a hundred other auteurs, and dialogue that crackled like a beachside bonfire to give film back its ability to move – both figuratively and literally. Until Pulp Fiction came along, movies were seen as passive, impartial purveyors of art and truth. In Tarnatino's talented hands, they took a far more proactive stance. Suddenly, the motion picture was slamming up against your sensibilities, rocking your thoughts of what made a movie down to the very core of their creation.

Oddly enough, Jules et Jim is a true combination of all their cinematic ideals, a real desire on director Truffaut's part to emulate the past while setting the standards for the future. The influence on contemporary moviemaking is obvious – even QT pays homage to it in Fiction (Jules valley buddy, the one he needs helps from to take care of his little 'dead' guy in the back seat' problem is named...Jim). By all accounts, Truffaut was heavily influenced by Kane, and other films from Hollywood's more artistic time. In a way, the famed French filmmaker was crafting his own version of Welles' wonder, a true work of art that played within the conventions of cinema while also alienating and arguing against certain staid traditions. As a character study, it is unclear and expressionistic. As a straightforward romance, it plays with the particulars of the man/woman dynamic. As a tragedy, it is far too light and airy. As a comedy of manners, it's too considered and correct. In essence, Jules et Jim is the thesis and antithesis of all formulaic motion picture ideals. It betrays the basics as readily as it relies on them, and just like the lead female in the film, it finds a way to be everything to everyone while answering to no one.

At first, it will be the quirks that attract the most attention. Truffaut wants to play with film, to see how far he can push it as well as how hard he can reel it back in. All throughout Jules et Jim, there are little asides, moments that instantly draw your attention to the man behind the lens. Instead of period sets and streets, Truffaut uses seamlessly intercut stock footage to suggest time and place. At the beginning of the story, as we are introduced to our male leads, the filmmaker relies of the rapid fire cinematic coding of the silent era. Visuals, meant to suggest depth and direction, are quickly tossed onto the screen as a consistent compliment to the narration.

Occasionally, lines of dialogue will appear as subtitles under the characters, acting as signposts for what is going on internally. At other moments, Truffaut uses freeze frame to suggest timelessness, or an element of photographic eternalness. Between the single sentences that twist our tale's timeline into years, the amazing WWI montage (perhaps the best capturing of a war ever in several select shots) and those 'blink and you'll miss them' moments (in one scene, Truffaut runs the action backwards in a manner almost unperceivable to the untrained eye) we are left with a lesson in imagination draped in one of the most densely packed mise-en-scenes of the present picture era.

In some ways, Truffaut is pulling out all the stops here. To him, Jules et Jim represents everything important about filmmaking from both an insular (character, story) and outer (style, staging) medium. The reason it resonates as revolutionary by today's standards is that most movies nowadays are merely illustrated stories. They take a plot, populate it with people, place it somewhere in a recognizable world, and let the drama/comedy/horror/action drip out in ordinary, understandable ways. For Truffaut and the rest of the New Wave, films needed to be more. They needed to be illustrated IDEAS, thoughts illuminated, the most esoteric concerns exemplified and explained. Finding the right combination of images, meshed to a manner of presentation that would compliment and supplement them was a high priority. And if the regular language of the cinema did not supply the proper prerequisites, it was time to invent some new narrative nouns and visual verbs.

That is why Jules et Jim is so disconcerting at first. It's like listening to a poem you're familiar with spoken in Esperanto. You recognize the cadence and the rhythm, but are hard pressed to find the same emotional core contained within. It is only after you begin to learn the new dialect, when the irregular choices become rote, that you begin to reestablish your connection to the content. And what Truffaut and his ilk hope you learn, besides a fresh way of looking at something sadly familiar, is how remarkable it can be when dressed in a new descriptive garb. Everyone has seen stories of lover's triangles, sad sagas of betrayal, obsession and passion. But Jules et Jim is unlike any ménage in movies. It offers up uncertain ciphers as its main characters, unclear individuals who, by the end of the story, we've come to understand better than ourselves. It is part of this film's genius that people this unpleasant, this lacking in identifiable humanity can still move us to tears and/or fears. It's no wonder Truffaut is considered a true auteur.

General critical consensus suggests that Jules et Jim is the film that jumpstarted the '60s, the call to counterculture arms a generation of disaffected youth were primed and prepared for. The title characters are two freewheeling and free-living artist types, each one unattached to the responsibilities of daily life. We never see Jules or Jim truly working. Instead, there is mentions of assignments, idea and enterprises that both are attached to, yet not a slave for. Indeed, most of their time in spent in contemplation and companionship, tasting all elements of existence with a sensitive and cultured pallet. As they age, and as love intertwines and interferes with their relationship, they still remain the title pair, a mirror image of each other cast out of loneliness, longing and a deep, dividing desire to experience physical and spiritual affection with a woman who can match their mentality.

Naturally, this leads us to the karma chameleon known as Catherine. Perhaps the most troubling character for most contemporary audiences, she also just so happens to be the most celebrated person in the film's famed history. Though she is presented as a symbol of liberation and sexual expression, Catherine can also come across as an indecisive shrew, playing people against each other for her own private, perplexing reasons. Though many see her standing as an icon to a woman's right to be as free and as forward as a man, Catherine's manner is more mystifying than politically correct or direct. Like most of the dualism in the film, she is attracted to and repulsed by each of the men she desires. About the only lover who seems immune from this love/hate principle is the artist, Albert, who she often returns to like an oasis in her displaced life.

Catherine's connections are important in Jules et Jim, since they signify the majority of what Truffaut wants to take from Henri-Pierre Roché's novel. Jules and Jim are seen as two parts of the same amorous entity, the perfect examples of the cerebral vs. the corporeal for Catherine to explore and exploit. Jules represents the mind, a man who longs for the physical passions of his wife, but can only seem to satisfy her on an intellectual, disconnected level. In the amazing performance by Oskar Werner, we get an excellent embodiment of such a model. Jules is never viewed as overtly masculine. Werner plays him as a combination of closed off, self-contained troubles. He seems awkward and unsure of himself, as if locked in a body that constantly betrays him. When speaking or sparring, Jules is all wit and rejoinder, a man more than capable of holding his scholarly own. But in the presence of the woman he lusts after and adores, he is unsteady and almost emasculated.

Jim is the exact opposite. He is a quite, almost sullen figure, careful with his words, when he chooses to speak at all. To Catherine, he represents something less needy, less linked to her emotional core. Jim is physicality and carnality, an object of pure passion for the unhappy lady of the house. As embodied by Henri Serre, Jim is all vertical lines and svelte sexuality. While Jules spends desperate moments in Catherine's embrace, Jim is always viewed as a distant, demanding lover, someone who appreciates the attention, but doesn't necessarily abide by the reasons behind it. When viewed through these bi-fold facets, Jules et Jim easily becomes a story revolving around people and feelings in flux. All three individuals here are trying to achieve a kind of equilibrium, to bring balance and order to the philosophical and emotional state of their lives. On the rare occasions where such symmetry is achieved, everything is fine. But when it becomes unstable or uneven, then tragedy can find a way into the turmoil. And by the end, we see the specter of doom looming over almost every facet of this temperamental trio.

As the catalyst for all this confusion, French film diva Jeanne Moreau is absolutely perfect. Her casting is critical, since Catherine must be desirable as well as slightly detestable, completely convincing as an object of longing while filled with her own suppressed evils as well. All of this is captured in passive-aggressive perfection in Moreau's face and eyes. Here is an actress working completely from the neck up, not really using her curves or her allure to control the situations. Instead, Moreau's Catherine can stop a room with a look or express volumes of vital information with just the slightest smile from the corner of her lips.

The reason this character appealed to an early '60s audience had less to do with the free love aspects of her nature, or her desire to be free to choose for herself. Instead, it's the sudden acknowledgement that all fictional women aren't simplistic paramours. For decades, movie ladies fell in love as easily as they lit a cigarette. Moreau's performance gave depth and nuance to the notion of women in love, making them as complicated and confused as the leading men they inspire. The equalizing element here is not the desire for sex, but the complicated issues surrounding said ardor. While most physical love on the silver screen was primal and basic, Jules et Jim confounded the formula by making it an extension of self – both pragmatic and otherworldly. That Moreau's Catherine shared this personality trait (in essence, she defines it) makes her a perfect proto postmodern heroine.

As the final piece of the puzzle, there is Truffaut. Outside of his autobiographical films, Jules et Jim is perhaps his best loved. It certainly displays the most audacity, like a young tough taking on the traditions he's been told to acquiesce to. So much about this movie is daring, from its constantly shifting aspect ratios to its combination of conventional and unconventional cinematic elements that it bears no resemblance to any other film. From the very first frames, Truffaut fills the screen with memorable set pieces – the race across the train tracks, Moreau made up (rather poorly, one might add) as a man; the moment Catherine burns her love letters – and almost catches fire herself; the jump into the Seine; the startling shot of the house by the beach, and the threesome emerging from separate windows to bid 'good morning'; Jim and Catherine's confessional walk through the wilderness; the look on Jules face as the other part of the triangle drives off into tragedy.

But more than just the visual is revitalized here. Truffaut does to Jules et Jim what Welles did to Kane and Tarantino did to Fiction. He realizes that he is not really saying anything new in the genre he's invoked (Welles – biography, Tarantino – crime thriller, Truffaut – romance). So instead, he is out to rejuvenate the processes relied on to deliver the dramatics. In less capable hands (and there have been many over the years) such a desire to defy the rules can lead to the aggravating experiences of motion picture Onanism – movies serving no other purpose than to satisfy the filmmakers own egotistical sense of self. But Truffaut understood that experimentation needed to entertain as well. The result is something influential, a movie as a moment in time, a testament to an entire cultural genre taking a trip into the unknown. There will be some who don't connect with Jules et Jim, people who will only see it as art for art's sake. But they will be missing the point. There is new beauty in what Truffaut is trying to show us, an exquisiteness that will forever alter the face of cinema. Those who choose to ignore it will be missing something seminal...and sensational.

The Video:
On its long journey from formative part of the French New Wave to reconsidered classic, Jules et Jim has seen some hard cinematic times. Criterion does the movie a positively proper turn with what has to be a definitive, defining DVD transfer. The 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is black and white artistry at its most refined. While we are not talking about crisp, concrete monochrome here (there are more grays than any other gradient in Truffaut's color palette) this is still a sensational looking film, made all the better by Criterion's attention to detail. There is some slight flicker in the darker scenes, obvious stock elements left over from when the film was originally produced and processed. But this is a minor quibble when compared to the rest of the restoration. Supervised by the film's director of photography, Raoul Coutard, this is an amazingly sharp, aesthetically pleasing print that should make purists and film fans extremely happy.

The Audio:
As part of his convoluting of convention, Truffaut decided to use almost no natural sound in Jules et Jim. Instead, each actor rerecorded their dialogue, and effects were layered in afterward. This can make for a very obtuse listening experience, especially for foreign films which are often dubbed into other languages from the beginning. To hear said sonics in their native tongue is just plain odd. Still, the Dolby Digital Mono mix offered by Criterion is crystalline, and free from all major decibel defects. So flawless are the aural elements that, when Truffaut suddenly switches to natural noises (he recorded Moreau's song "live"), it's as jarring as the director intended it to be.

The Extras:
Criterion has created what has to be the definitive DVD version of Jules et Jim. Part primer for the film itself, part lesson on Truffaut and his impact on cinema, this two disc set is just amazing. It is the kind of digital package one can get lost in, spending untold hours revisiting interview material, poking through particular featurettes, and absorbing the insights provided by scholars and film thinkers. Disc 1 is where you will find two scene specific commentaries, excerpts from a documentary on the real story behind Jules et Jim, as well as a brief interview with filmmaker François Truffaut about adapting Roché. Disc 2 begins with a couple of comprehensive interviews. DP Raoul Coutard discusses his part in Jules et Jim's legacy, while co-writer Jean Gruault talks about his collaboration - or lack thereof – while co-writing the script. A pair of film scholars – Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew – offer up a 23 minute dissection of the main themes and ideas in the film, while the section 'Truffaut on Truffaut' gives the director five different featurettes, from 1965 until 1980, to discuss Jules et Jim, and his career in general.

The most immediately accessible material will be the commentaries. The first one features star Jeanne Moreau, reacting and responding to questions about the film by Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana. Passionate about her performance while also more than happy to gossip a little about the rest of the cast (she condemns Oskar Werner's love of the bottle), Moreau is mesmerizing to listen to. She has very tangible ideas about this film, and the character she plays, and is not afraid to state them. She is especially protective of the maternal aspect of Catherine, something she feels gets lost in most critical discussions.

Equally compelling, but in a much more factual and detailed dissertation, co-writer Jean Gruault, collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, editor Claudine Bouché and film scholar Annette Insdorf turn Jules et Jim into a lesson on the art of filmmaking. While Insdorf discusses meaning, Gruault addresses adaptation. Bouché has some very enthralling things to say about her work with Truffaut (he would occasionally give her the film elements and let her cut the scene, giving the director a chance to see his efforts through the eyes of others) and Schiffman is a wealth of data and description. Together, these alternate narratives help us with our comprehension of a complex, and contradictory motion picture.

The final facet of Disc 1 is also quite winning, since it gives us the backstory that formed the basis of Jean-Pierre Roché's memoir. After a 7 minute set up from Truffaut, we experience selected segments from The Key to Jules et Jim, a documentary on the real life people who made up the fictional triangle. Using Q&As with the relatives of Helen and Franz Hessell as well as conversations with individuals familiar with the story, we begin to see the facts, and the fiction, in this real life romantic entanglement. Along with the theatrical trailer and the film itself, the first disc of this DVD would be enough for even the most ardent fan.

But Criterion ups the ante by offering another whole disc about Truffuat and his amazing body of work. All the interviews in the 'Truffaut on Truffaut' section are fascinating. The director started out as a writer and critic, and his ability to analyze and explain his muses and motivations makes for fresh and invigorating interviews. Truffaut is never at a loss for words, whether he's discussing Jules et Jim specifically, or his career overall. Another couple of characters clearly able to fend for themselves are Coutard and Gruault. Both of their discussions are dotted with little digs at their famed associate, yet each one is also steadfast and loyal about the art they made together. Perhaps the one contextual bonus offered here that modern audiences will enjoy the most is the scholarly "debate" between Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew. Both men provide piercing insights into Jules et Jim, drawing out dynamics that definitely go unnoticed upon a first viewing. Though they tend to use technical jargon when addressing certain subjects, they still manage to convey a proper contextual and artistic examination. Along with another stellar booklet loaded with essays and articles, we have the kind of production that Criterion does best – especially appreciated with a title as tantamount to the classicism of Jules et Jim.

Final Thoughts:
While it may seem initially harsh to say it, Catherine, and both Jules and Jim for that matter, are crazy. But just like the concept of commitment that she is channeling and challenging, crazy also has several definitions and connotations. There is the standard, simplistic version, the one that has the individual babbling mindlessly and requiring the services of an asylum. Within this implication, crazy means insane or nutty. But crazy can also mean obsessive, or passionate, pulsating with emotion too extreme or intense to be viewed as normal. When we say that someone is crazy about their significant other, we aren't suggesting they be committed – or maybe, in all honesty, we are. Since both words parallel and compliment each other, it is easy to see the confusion. Those who are crazy should be committed, while those in a committed relationship are crazy about one another.

This dichotomy drives and derails the characters in Jules et Jim, leading to circumstances both telling and tragic. Some can argue that if Catherine could only make up her mind, if she could direct her dementia into a clear, concrete choice between Jules intellectual warmth or Jim's animal machismo, she'd have found her way in life a lot simpler – and saner. But unlike the element she makes others live by, Catherine just cannot commit. Something inside her just won't let her settle down. Call it passion, or ardor, craziness or corruption, but this is a woman for whom the world holds no bonds. She is destined to live outside of its restrictions and rules, to never let it win or control her and simply exist within her own reality. Sadly, she seems to choose a plane far more ethereal than earthly in which to dwell.

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