Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre
Director: Francois Truffaut
Jules and Jim (1962) is a film about friendship, and it puts itself on similar terms with the viewer, buttonholing you with a gush of narrative, inviting you into an intimate circle and winking at you in a cheerful way with various postmodern tricks. Starting in 1912 and continuing into the early ’30s, it charts the bond between two very dissimilar men. Jim (Henri Serre) is French and a ladies’ man, Jules (Oskar Werner) is German and shy and withdrawn, but they both have a passion for art and writing. Their friendship survives World War One, but it is sorely tested by Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), the capricious and unpredictable woman who turns their existences upside down. Unexpectedly, it’s the passive Jules who gets the girl and strapping, handsome Jim who is left to gnaw his heart out, but can Jules hold onto the love of his life?
The film is only 1 hour, 41 minutes long, but it covers so much territory, it feels like a three-hour epic, sketching in the characters and their emotional entanglements with breakneck speed. The scene-setting is deft and brilliantly managed. Horseless carriages are swept away and replaced with Model T Fords, Catherine goes from being a Gibson girl with ruffled skirts to an ageing flapper in a cloche hat. The sharp-eyed can also spot the passage of time being marked by various Picasso paintings in the background, done in the artist’s changing styles (a game it would be easier to play if the film were in colour).
The sense of period, the ache of nostalgia, is so strong, it’s easy to confuse the film in your mind with the great French movies of the ’30s, and yet it’s packed with reminders that you are watching something with a very ’60s sensibility. Look, for example, at Truffaut’s handling of stock footage – rather than trying to make it blend in, he wittily draws attention to it with various framing devices, turning it into an elegant distancing device, like the sharp cutting that jolts the characters forward to impetuous modern rhythms. The result is one of the most unstuffy of all costume dramas. The first half is full of fresh air, a seductive shimmer of light, exhilarating highs. The scenes of the trio racing across a bridge and cycling down leafy lanes to the accompaniment of Georges Delerue’s marvellous score still sweep you up in an aura of enchantment.
They’re so wonderful, in fact, that it’s easy to forget just down desperately sad the second half of the film is as it charts the long downward slope of the friends’ relationship with Catherine. The pace slows, even the cinematography seems to become greyer, more monotone. It’s as if the film is mimicking Catherine’s manic-depressive mood swings. If Jules and Jim no longer features regularly, as it once did, in lists of the greatest movies ever, it’s perhaps because a modern audience detects more than of the hint of chauvinism in this portrayal of a woman as a human maelstrom, drawing unwitting menfolk to despair and destruction. But there’s no gainsaying the mesmerising force and charm of Moreau’s performance, especially later on, when she’s wearing granny specs and still able to assert a deadly allure (and it’s not her fault that Truffaut’s Paris seem so delightfully free-spirited that it’s hard to see what she’s rebelling against).
Besides, in a way issues of gender politics are beside the point. The latter part of the film concerns itself what happens when the very thing that makes life worthwhile turns to poison – in this case it’s a relationship, but it needn’t be. It’s a terribly bleak, pessimistic view of the world that Truffaut presents here, but even when it’s at its most spiritually deflating, the film is never less than aesthetically exciting and inspirational.
Raoul Coutard’s beautiful widescreen black and white images sparkle and glimmer on this flawless DVD transfer. The disc comes with an audio commentary by none other than the great Jeanne Moreau herself. Although a bit vague on facts and figures, she offers some trenchant views and interesting anecdotes. We learn, for instance, that she helped raise money for the film and lent the production her Rolls for moving around pieces of the set. She also explains that she was supposed to have a stunt double for her perilous jump into the Seine, but her stand-in got drunk and she had to do it herself. And the technically minded will be interested to learn that, like many of the key Nouvelle Vague films, Jules and Jim was shot entirely with post-synchronized sound (in other words, the dialogue wasn’t recorded live on location) – remarkable, given the movement’s reputation for spontaneity and freshness.