Jules et Jim (1962)

July 4th, 2016
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Francois Truffaut | Cast: Oskar Werner, Jeanne Moreau, Henri Serre | France

Of all the French Nouvelle Vague films JULES ET JIM has for me proved problematical.
I keep changing my mind on whether it fully works or not. I must have seen it three
or four times now. First time round I was completely captivated, being young and receptive to its youthful high spirits (especially in the film’s first half). It had a joy and spontaneity that accorded so well with the promise of the liberating politics happening round me (circa 1968, six years on from JULES ET JIM. Then I couldn’t recall an earlier British or American film that spoke of such personal freedom. And of course it very soon had a big influence on Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonny and Clyde (that Truffaut himself was once considered for directing).

But on subsequent viewings, doubts about the merits of JULES ET JIM have crept in. Is it not all surface charm? A Gallic case of style over substance? The film is gorgeously photographed by Raoul Coutard. It’s a wide screen charmer filmed in glistening black and white;  Coutards’s lyrical texture of light and shade proved so powerful that he convinced me – alongside the mid-summer photography of early Ingmar Begman films –  that the best really hot summers were only attainable in monochrome. Link that up with a great joyful film score by Georges Delerue and cineastes are well on the way to being won over. But as for Truffaut’s direction, the scripting and the performances?

It’s Paris 1912. Jules (Oskar Werner) a German writer strikes up a friendship with a French writer named Jim (Henri Serre). They enjoy a semi-bohemian existence; exploring the cultural life of the city and the pursuit of women. When they both meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) an intense love triangle ensues. Both are sexually attracted to her, yet it’s the more introvert Jules that Catherine decides to marry. She’s both strong and liberated, with a restless and capricious nature. An uncontrollable force, she oscillates her affection between the two men. After the rupture of the First World War they all appear to settle down together domestically, but cannot create a workable level of friendship/relationship. Such testing of the limits of freedom has dark and tragic consequences.

Occasionally Jules manages to engage my sympathy and interest. Jim hardly ever does. And Catherine intermittently succeeds. For me Truffaut keeps too great a distance from his characters. Many admirers of this film say that an emotional detachment was necessary so as to make them also work as archetypes. Fine,but I now find it hard to warm to this perplexed and rather narcissistic trio. Only Jeanne Moreau has her moments when she reveals a troubled vulnerability behind great strengths. Too often you feel that Truffaut is content to make everyone beautiful in beautifully self-conscious shots, or exuberant and melancholic in over-striking compositions. Such an excess of surface beauty in Jules et Jim makes it appear more like a pretty commercial for the New Wave, not the crest of the wave itself. Alan Price


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