"I was most jealous of Truffaut — in a friendly way — with Jules and Jim. I said, 'It's so good! How I wish I'd made it.' Certain scenes had me dying of jealousy. I said, 'I should've done that, not him.'" — Jean Renoir
By Edward Copeland
From the first time I saw Jules and Jim in high school, the movie became a personal touchstone and remains one as we mark its 50th anniversary. Truthfully, I know the parallels my teen eyes recognized between myself and others in my life then didn't mirror the characters on screen as closely as my imagination wanted to believe, but as that fantasy faded away, I began to appreciate more of the artistry of a film that I already loved. In addition to what Jules and Jim contains within its frames, the movie also forged the connection I've always felt with François Truffaut.
If you discovered, probably early in your life, that your genetic makeup left you susceptible to artistic impulses of some kind — it needn't matter whether that creative bent took the form of movies, writing, art, music, whatever — the odds weighed heavily toward you falling for at least one Catherine in your lifetime. (Now, I'm speaking from the point-of-view of a straight male. I wouldn't dare presume straight female or gay perspectives, though I've witnessed similar dynamics secondhand.) As far as we go, the Catherines of the real world function like those purple-hued bug zappers hanging on summer porches and inevitably drawing us like moths to their pulsating light and our doom — and we wouldn't trade one goddamn miserable minute of it if it meant losing a single second of the joy. This isn't a new phenomenon: F. Scott had his Zelda and Tom had his Viv during the same era when Jules and Jim takes place. (A brief aside: I think Tom sent me a personal message from the past when he published The Waste Land in 1922 and penned those lines, "April is the cruellest month.") To casual and outside observers, proclaiming that Catherine must be crazy comes rather easily and mounting a counterargument against that assumption makes for a steep climb. Yes, our real world Catherines come with a fair amount of mental instability, as do we, but without our neuroses and idiosyncrasies, we probably wouldn't be drawn to these wild, wonderful, wounding women in the first place. Of course, Henri-Pierre Roché's novel and François Truffaut's film take the men's point-of-view, even when filtered through Michel Sobor's narration, so Jules and Jim aren't portrayed as being as unstable as Catherine. The closest the male friends come shows through Jules' fear and neediness at times. As for the Catherines of the real world, people do have the capacity for change, no matter what David Chase might believe, and can end up being vital parts of your life even as you become the one holding the monopoly on the madness in the friendship. It's a cliché, but it originates from truth: Most of the best art stems from suffering. Anyone remember Billy Joel during the years when he and Christie Brinkley were happily married? Jules and Jim, for me at least, represents a cinematic temple to that idea. Of course, it also begs the question that if misery breeds great art, why in the hell haven't I accomplished something of note?
Jules and Jim made its U.S. premiere April 23, 1962, the same year the film made its initial debut in France on Jan. 23. Though it marked Truffaut's third feature film as a director following The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim was only the second of his films to reach U.S. movie theaters. Shoot the Piano Player, though it opened elsewhere in 1960, wouldn't get its U.S. release until July 23, 1962. (Like Jules and Jim, The 400 Blows reached U.S. shores in the same year, 1959, that Truffaut's directing debut did elsewhere, just a few months later.) As I remind people as often as possible, all opinions about movies are subjective. Before beginning my lovesick tribute to what I think holds the title as the true masterpiece born of the French New Wave, I feel that I shouldn't pretend all critics agreed about Jules and Jim and I'd allow one to have his say before I got started. "With the years, I've sometimes felt the reputation of Jules and Jim is a bit exaggerated," this former critic said to Richard Roud, then-director of the New York Film Festival, in October 1977 on a television program called Camera Three. The ex-critic added, "and that I was too young when I made it." That appearance happened to be François Truffaut's first time on American television. I guess you can remove the man from the role of film critic but you can't take the critic out of the man. "I continue to re-read the book every year. It was one of my favorites. I've often felt that the film was too decorative, not cruel enough, that love was crueler that that," Truffaut went on to tell Roud. Now, François, don't be so hard on yourself. For those who haven't seen Jules and Jim, I'll be vague, I think you could call the film's dénouement fairly devastating. Besides, most recognize (or know from experience) that cruelty usually crosses love's path at some point. On top of that, the subject cuts too close to Truffaut for him to judge. Jules and Jim may speak to me in personal ways, but that isn't why the film rests among my 20 favorite films of all time. As John Houseman used to claim in TV commercials about how Smith Barney made money, Jules and Jim got that rank on my list "the old-fashioned way. It earned it."
While I knew that Jules and Jim originated as a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, it wasn't until I obtained the Criterion edition that I learned that Roché loosely based it on his relationship with Franz Hessel, a German writer who translated Proust into German (as Jim does in the film) and Helen Grund, who became Hessel's wife and herself translated Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita into German. Legend has it that Roché also introduced Gertrude Stein to Pablo Picasso through his original career as an art dealer and art collector. Though the circles that Roché circulated in preceded the time period of Woody Allen's recent Midnight in Paris, he did know many of the literary and artistic figures depicted in Allen's fantasy. The real-life coincidences that brought Truffaut and Roché together border on the extraordinary. Truffaut stumbled upon the novel in a secondhand bookstore and it led to a letter-writing relationship between himself and Roché where the young critic Truffaut promised that if he ever made movies, he would bring Jules and Jim to the screen. Jules and Jim was the first novel that Roché ever wrote — which he did at the age of 74. His second novel, also autobiographical, Two English Girls and the Continent, eventually became the source material of a later Truffaut film, Two English Girls. Two English Girls, sort of the inverse of Jules and Jim with two women pining for the same man, marks its 40th anniversary this year but unfortunately, like too many other great films I'd like to write about this year, no proper DVD copy has been made for rental or at a reasonable price, the same situation that in the past two years has befallen other films such as Steven Soderbergh's Kafka, Barbet Schroeder's Barfly with its great performances by Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway and two of John Sayles' very best films — City of Hope and Matewan. Who said only old classics become lost films? With the constant format changes, some never made the leap from pan-and-scanned VHS. A true travesty, but I've digressed from the subject at hand. Roché didn't live long enough to see the movie of his first novel, but the film version brought best-seller status to his book that it never saw in his lifetime. One aspect that didn't occur to me until I re-watched the movie for this tribute: Not only has the film reached its 50th anniversary this year, 2012 also means a full century has passed from where its story begins in 1912.
The film starts in blackness — literally if you were in a French-speaking country or watching without subtitles. You hear a voice (Jeanne Moreau's as Catherine, though we wouldn't know that yet) say, "You said, 'I love you.' I said, 'Wait.' I was about to say, 'Take me.' You said, 'Go.'" Then, quite abruptly, Truffaut launches us into the film's imagery with a bouncy spirit, playing music beneath the credits that seems to herald that a carnival lies ahead courtesy of prolific film composer Georges Delerue, who scores the entire film, though it won't all sound like this energetic romp which accompanies clips, some of scenes that will arrive later in the film, others that just fit the tone of the piece — such as Jules and Jim jokingly fencing with brooms. As with many others, Delerue would collaborate with Truffaut on nearly all of his films, having first worked on Shoot the Piano Player. We'll also get a glimpse of an hourglass, its sand pouring through to clue us in advance of the importance the passage of time serves in the story. We see our first swift sightings of Moreau as Catherine, though her actual entrance into the film doesn't occur immediately. While Catherine certainly acts as the catalyst for most events in Jules and Jim, her name isn't in the title for a reason. At its heart, Jules and Jim spins a story of friendship between two men. Oskar Werner's Jules acts as the outsider, the Austrian in Paris, until Henri Serre's Jim takes him beneath his wing, acting, quite literally, in the early days of their acquaintance as Jules' wingman. As with many Truffaut films, Jules and Jim employs a narrator (Michel Subor) not only to for exposition purposes but because Truffaut wanted to maintain as much of Roché's prose as possible in the adaptation he co-wrote with Jean Gruault. Jules and Jim's friendship begins when Jules, the foreigner in Paris, approaches Jim blindly to see if the Frenchman might wrangle him an invitation to the Quatres Arts Ball. Jim succeeds and a friendship blossoms as they search for a slave costume for Jules to wear to the event. From that, the men began to teach one another the other's language and culture and shared their poems, which they'd translate into the other's native tongue. Before long, the men saw each other every day, talking endlessly, finding common ground such as, the narrator informs us, "a relative indifference toward money." The omniscient voice also tells the viewer, "They chatted easily. Neither had ever had such an attentive listener." Jules though lacks luck when it comes to love in Paris, even of the transitory kind while Jim draws women to him as if he were a magnet. Jim finds getting women so easy that he willingly hands some off to Jules, including a musician. "They were in love for about a week." This early setup runs us through the women, most of whom bear little importance to the story so they receive scant attention from the film. Desperate for some amorous action, Jules even ignores Jim's warning to stay away from the "professionals" only to learn that he should have trusted Jim's word and avoided the disappointment. This changes one evening, when the men encounter a woman named Thérèse (Marie Dubois) seeking refuge from her loutish anarchist boyfriend who blames her for a shortage of paint that he thinks will make people believe that anarchists don't know how to spell.
What separates Jules' and Jim's relationship with Thérèse from what lies ahead with Catherine comes from Thérèse clearly indicating a preference between the two men, in this case Jules. Though Dubois' role takes up very little screen time, she does prove a charmer (and remember that U.S. moviegoers, at the time of Jules and Jim's release, had yet to see her film debut as the waitress Lena in love with Charles Aznavour's piano-playing Charlie in Truffaut's second feature, Shoot the Piano Player). When they return to the house, Jules acts the part of the gentleman, offering Thérèse his bed while he sleeps in a rocking chair, but romance occurs quickly and rectifies that situation. That hourglass first spotted in the opening credits reappears and Jules explains that he prefers it to a clock. When all the sand passes through to the bottom, that means it's time to go to sleep, he explains. She simply smiles and tells him he's sweet. Thérèse demonstrates for Jules her trick that she calls "the steam engine." She places a lit cigarette in her mouth and puffs out her cheeks like a blowfish and then chugs in a circle in the bedroom until she has reached Jules' chair, one of the many, recurrent visuals of circular imagery that Truffaut utilizes in the film. You shouldn't feel bad for Jim — he's busy bedding his frequent lover Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) and making excuses to depart her bed before the sun rises despite her request to lie beside her for a complete night for a change. Jim nixes that idea, saying that if they did that they might as well be married and she'd expect him to stay the next night as well. Gilberte expresses skepticism at his excuse, especially when he suggests that she imagine he's working at a factory, betting that his plan involves sleeping until noon. Later that night, Jules, Jim and Thérèse go to a café and no sooner have they sat down that after making eyes at another man, Thérèse asks Jules for some change to play music. He complies, she takes the money and the man follows her. Thérèse asks if she can stay with him that night and the two depart. Jules starts to stand in outrage, but Jim grabs his arm and he sits back down. "Lose one, find 10 more," Jim advises. Jules admits that he didn't love Thérèse. "She was both mother and doting daughter at the same time," Jules says, sighing that he doesn't have luck with Parisian women. He shows Jim photos of some of the women back home he loves, presenting them in order of preference and contemplating returning for one of them in a couple of months if the situation in France doesn't change. However, Jules lacks a photograph of one named Helga so he sketches her in broad strokes on the café's table. Jim tries to buy the table, but the establishment's owner refuses unless he purchases the entire set.
That night, they go to the home of Jules' friend Albert (played by Serge Rezvani, a renaissance artist, though he prefers the term multidisciplinarian, who billed himself as Bassiak here and added the first name Boris when taking credit as the composer of "Le Tourbillon" that Moreau memorably sings) to see his slides of ancient sculptures he found around the country. (Somehow it slips my mind between viewings of Jules and Jim how little dialogue the actors actually get to speak openly in the film in favor of voiceover. For example, when Jules and Jim enter Albert's place, they exchange introductions out loud but then Henri Serre as Jim doesn't simply ask Oskar Werner's Jules, "Who's Albert?" Instead, we hear Michel Subor's narrator say, "Jim asked" — When I first heard this the first few times I watched the film, it sounded as if Subor narrated this entire dialogue. After hearing it for the umpteenth time, it sounds as if Subor merely starts it the Serre asks in voiceover, "Who's Albert?" with Werner's voice replying, "A friend to artists and sculptors. He knows everyone who'll be famous in 10 years." I can't say with 100% certainty which interpretation stands as the correct answer. I've looked for verification, but found none. Jules' response tipped me in that direction because Werner's voice can be distinguished easily from Subor's while Serre's falls in the same vocal range.) One slide of a stone face particularly strikes the friends' fancy — and Subor definitely describes this, informing the viewer, "The tranquil smile of the crudely sculpted face mesmerized them. The statue was in an outdoor museum on an Adriatic island. They set out immediately to see it. They both had the same white suit made. They spent an hour by the statue. It exceeded their expectations. They walked rapidly around it in silence. They didn't speak of it until the next day. Had they ever met such a smile? Never. And if they ever did, they'd follow it. Jules and Jim returned home, full of this revelation. Paris took them gently back in." Later, Jules and Jim hit the gym where they spar with some kickboxing. Jules inquires about the progress of Jim's book. Jim tells him he thinks it's going well and will turn out to be very autobiographical and concern their friendship. He proceeds to read Jules a passage. "Jacques and Julien were inseparable. Julien's last novel had been a success. He had described, as if in a fairy tale, the women he had known before he met Jacques or even Lucienne. Jacques was proud for Jules' sake. People called them Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and rumors circulated behind their backs about their unusual friendship. They ate together in small restaurants, and each splurged on the best cigars to give the other." Jules finds the writing beautiful and offers to translate it to German. Jim's brief allusion in his novel to "rumors" about his friendship with Jules marks the closest the film ever comes to implying anything homoerotic between the men. While Jules and Jim opened the door for many cinematic variations on your standard triangle, we'd still need almost 40 years before Y Tu Mama Tambien. As the guys shower, Jules announces that his cousin wrote him and three girls that studied with him in Munich would be visiting Paris — one from Berlin, one from Holland and one from there in France, Jules plans to host a dinner for the visitors the next night. Neither friend has any idea who Catherine happens to be yet or that she will be the French girl in that group of visitors. This Quixote and Sancho soon will be tilting at a very shapely and unpredictable windmill that will change the course of all three lives forever. The next night, when Catherine (Moreau) descends the stairs and lifts the lace netting covering her face, her resemblance to the sculpture stuns Jules and Jim, something Truffaut emphasizes through quick cuts, and Michel Subor's narration, and the young men will keep the oath they made to that statue — they've found that smile, now they must follow it.
While for me, Jules and Jim stands at the high watermark of the French New Wave films, I know many others won't agree and when you look objectively at the story of Jules and Jim, it may employ many of that movement's techniques but many aspects of Truffaut's film set it apart from its cinematic brethren such as its period setting and a time span that covers more than two decades. Jules and Jim also caused moral uproars about the open relationships among the various characters in the film (and though Jules, Jim and Catherine might be involved simultaneously, they never took part in a ménage à trois). In a funny way, the 1962 film forecast the free love movement to come later that decade except its source material happened to be a semiautobiographical novel set in the early part of the 20th century. The prurience though lies in the mind of the fuddy duddy because part of what makes Jules and Jim so special comes from Truffaut's refusal to pass any judgment, be it positive or negative, upon the behavior of his characters. Despite the director's own criticism many years down the road that the film isn't cruel enough when it comes to love, the three main characters do suffer by the end but he doesn't paint it as punishment for their sins.