François Truffaut’s films have never been particularly deep, and his black and white 1962 ‘masterpiece,’ Jules And Jim, is no exception to that claim. Obviously, the quotation marks around the term declare that, no, it’s not really a masterpiece, but in researching old criticism of the film it’s amazing how often this term was bandied about without any support for its claim. Having said that, and given the rather fallow and overrated ground that is the Truffaut soil, I can attest that, of the handful of films of his I have seen, Jules And Jim is the best of the lot. But, had he not first gnawed his teeth at the Cahiers Du Cinema rag, thus gaining fame there, I doubt that he could have made it as anything more than a competent director of B films. I state this while having great admiration for B film directors like Jacques Tourneur, Roger Corman, Ishirô Honda, Edward D. Wood Jr, and Edgar Ulmer, among others, and realizing that, truth be told, Truffaut simply was not a better filmmaker than some of the names I quoted- Tourneur and Ulmer, especially. And Jules And Jim is simply a film that occasionally breaches into high quality, only to be sucked under by an undertow of self-indulgence and preciousness.
Despite being titled after the two man male characters, Jules (Oskar Werner), an introverted Austrian writer and his French friend, the extroverted Jim (Henri Serre), the film is really about a woman, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who is an archetype for what is known as the artsy psycho-babe. Her filmic descendants are many, but the most famed one is her filmic namesake, that of author Catherine Trammel, played by Sharon Stone, in Basic Instinct. No, she’s not as obviously blackhearted, but she’s clearly off her rocker, and it’s interesting that, in scanning through dozens of film reviews for Jules and Jim, I never saw a single mention that Catherine is a murderer/murderess. And that’s telling, since the whole film is basically a paean to psychobitchery, deceit, and insincerity in women, yet the most heinous and self-defining thing the woman does, which is to annihilate herself and her bête noir, is almost wholly ignored, as insignificant a thing in her character vis-à-vis her supposed ‘free-spiritedness,’ or such.
The hour and forty-five minute long film opens in 1912, in Paris, as Jules and Jim’s friendship is sketched in semi-comic interludes and an annoying voiceover that tells far too much, thus leaving viewers with acting that, on the parts of the two male protagonists, is simply not good. It also does not help that the film makes extensive use of voiceovers, by Michel Subor, to cut narrative corners. While this might work in a truly epic film, that is not a term that can be applied to this film. In fact, the film never really gets good until the First World War hits. Then the film gets a bit meatier. But, before that, the duo meet Catherine, a woman who resembles a statue of a goddess they’d seen on an Adriatic isle, after a pilgrimage there, after they saw a slideshow of it, at a friend’s home. She takes up with Jules, then marries him, and the two move away when the war breaks out. Both men serve their countries and fret of accidentally killing the other. After the war, Jules and Catherine have a daughter, Sabine, and live in a villa in Austria. Jules visits as a correspondent for a French newspaper, filing reports on post-war Germany. Despite appearances, Jules tells Jim, and Catherine confirms, that she had numerous affairs on Jules, to punish him for imaginary ‘offences,’ to ‘even the score.’ Anyone who has ever dated a woman in the arts knows this score. But, to forestall losing her forever, Jules gives his blessing to Jim to be with Catherine, and he will divorce her quickly. But all she wants from Jim is another child, and when they cannot conceive, they break up, and Jim returns to Paris, to be with his on and off girlfriend, Gilberte (Vanna Urbino). Catherine then claims to be pregnant with Jim’s child, but miscarries, after getting him to want to return to her. Upon their reuniting, Catherine pulls a gun on Jim, but he takes it from her and leaves. Months pass, and he re-encounters her and Jules at a movie theater. They then meet for a picnic in a park, and Catherine wants to take Jim on a trip in her car. He agrees, and she drives off the end of a damaged bridge, plunging them and the car into the river. The voiceover tells of their death, as images of their cremation and interment are shown. It is said that Jules finally had peace of mind after Catherine’s death, although he missed Jim. The last lines of the film are of the narrator telling of Jules’ disappointment in not being able to scatter Catherine’s ashes, as she wanted, for it was against local regulations. The last shot is of a dejected Jules walking down a hilly road, away from the place where the two most important people in his life were interred.
The film entertains but it never really enlightens. Many critics have tried to claim that Catherine is a daring character, or that she is deep, or that she challenges social mores, or that she is whimsical, etc. The reality is that, like many mentally disturbed people, she merely senses things deeply and when those sensitivities are unmet she lashes out like a petulant child. Her misfortune is that she happens to be a beautiful woman who can easily lure men, thus delay her need to grow up. This is not whimsy; in fact it’s the very opposite- it’s calculation. And she certainly is not mysterious- it’s obvious from the beginning, when she burns a letter on her apartment floor, and ‘accidentally’ burns her dress, that she knows what she does and is immanently self-destructive. Any male involved in the arts has seen this behavior a mile away, although, like the film’s protagonists, this does not mean he would stay away. Simply put, she’s a classic nutcase, whose hysteria is not even contained. Compared with Moreau’s performance, the prior year, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, which had subtley, depth, and grace, this performance is all surface. And her character is not one to be admired nor emulated. She’s a violent, abusive user, who ends up a murderess. And while the two male characters are not blameless, they are certainly more admirable, however flawed, they are, than Catherine, who is utterly peregrine to love.
Of course, this good sense take on the narrative of the tale is rejected by many devotees of the French New Wave cinema, of which Jules And Jim is a premier example. Instead they’ll fetishize over the technical tricks that abound in this film- stock footage (from World War One), photographic stills, freeze frames, pans, wipes, dolly shots, etc. But, aside from a few freeze frames, the film makes little good use of these techniques. They almost all stand out as attention grabbing gimmicks, rather than serving any purpose such as narrative thrust nor character exposition. Raoul Cotard, the cinematographer, is well regarded in many circles, but in the films that I’ve seen that he has lensed, I can state that Sven Nykvist and Gordon Willis have little to fear, in terms of competition. The screenplay, by Truffaut and Jean Gruault, picks up pace in the middle of the film, but the film sags at its start and end. The lone element of the film that can be argued as truly top notch is the musical score by Georges Delerue, as it is evocative on its own and only heightens the film, rarely tipping an emotional hand, and always crafting more out of a moment that may not be that well written or acted.
The Criterion Collection two disk DVD presents Jules And Jim in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has many extras. Disk One has the film, the original theatrical trailer, a clip of Truffaut on a French television program, speaking of Henri-Pierre Roche, the author of the novel the film was based on, excerpts from a documentary on Roche, and two audio commentaries, neither of which is top notch. The first is a carryover from a 1992 laserdisc version of the film, and it features comments from screenwriter Jean Gruault, Truffaut employee Suzanne Schiffman, film editor Claudine Bouche, and film historian Annette Insdorf. Anyone who has heard the anomic commentaries that Insdorf has done, herself, should not expect much- her brief comments are perfunctory, at best, and nauseatingly PC and saccharine, at worst. The rest of the commenters say absolutely nothing of depth, and the mish-mash of ideas and idiocy is horrendous. It is also filled with monstrously long sound gaps. The second commentary is also filled with silences, and is basically an interview of Moreau by Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana. It has a few moments where Moreau makes an observation of note, but it is basically a cipher. Disk Two has interviews with Coutard and Gruault, and a conversation between film scholars Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew, a clip from a 1965 episode of Cineastes De Notre Temps, a 1969 interview with Truffaut from L’Invite Du Dimanche, a 1977 American television interview with Truffaut by New York Film Festival director Richard Roud, a Q&A session with Insdorf and Truffaut, from 1979, and an audio interview with Claude-Jean Philippe. There is also a 44 page insert booklet filled with mediocre essays. Unfortunately, as in almost all Criterion releases, there is no audio dubbing into English, and, to make matters worse, the black and white film has the usual white subtitles, with no way to distinguish it against the whitest backgrounds.
Jules And Jim is not a great film, but in its best (rare) moments, it is good and enjoyable. And there are some moments that are beyond wonderful, such as when Jim and Catherine first kiss, in classic romantic profile, and a bug is seen crawling on the windowscreen. Whether or not this was done purposely or was the result of synchronicity, matters not. It’s the best subversion of the faux love the film portrays as subverting the faux romances other films portray, thus getting an incidental meta-comment on its own attempt and failure to meaningfully comment on ‘straight’ love scenes. But, aside from these ‘slips,’ this, as all Truffaut films seem to be, is a bit too safe, not too deep, and nowhere near great. Unevenness may not be a desirable thing, but when contrasted with the maw of the overrated hackery that infected so much of the French New Wave, even the undesired thing gains a smidgen of longing, if never the full sheen.