Jules et Jim, a cornerstone work of the French New Wave, was recently screened at Filmhouse as part of a retrospective on the great director François Truffaut. It is a film of extraordinary warmth and humor, with three of the greatest characters to exist in cinema.
The inseparable duo of Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian writer, and Jim (Henri Serre), a French bohemian, begin the film by romping through the streets of Paris and involving themselves in sexual escapades. Their friendship is intimate, and odd, with overt sexual undertones — a portrait of male intimacy that feels as though it could only have existed in the Paris of 1912, where the film is set. The two find themselves entranced by the serene smile of a statue of a goddess on the Adriatic Sea, a smile that they find replicated in Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), an impulsive and passionate woman that immediately captures their attention. The duo quickly becomes a trio, with amorous complications to follow.
Jules et Jim bounds quickly from one location to the next, moving from the cafés of bohemian Paris to the trenches of the First World War to a chalet deep in the heart of the Black Forest. The constant changes in the setting are accompanied by a camera that moves with wild abandon, finding the greatest excitement in the smallest of details. At the screening I attended, audiences laughed constantly at the numerous oddities that appeared onscreen, as did I. Then again, just as the credits rolled, the man sitting behind me said somewhat excitedly, “Well, that was a weird one.” (He isn’t wrong.)
The film is adapted from Henri-Pierre Roché’s semi-autobiographical novel, which goes some way in explaining the film’s masterly literary quality. Voiceover narration pervades the film, describing the interior emotions of the two men at every turn. Such a storytelling device, normally blunt in its use, does not, in this case, stifle the film’s cinematic resonance—it brightens it. The emotional depths of these characters feel endlessly explorable, only just broached by Truffaut’s dynamic filmmaking.
This is especially true of Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine, the film’s true star. Jules and Jim’s enamored glances upon her could have easily ended up reaffirming the Male Gaze, yet Moreau’s impassioned performance portrays a character in total control. She is impulsive, direct, and filled with desire, often wielding Jules — whom she eventually marries — as a weapon against the world around her.
Truffaut’s love for the cinema shines through every frame of Jules et Jim, making it hard not to beam with joy. More than anything when watching this film, one finds a sense of love for the world, an amazement at the nature of relationships between people. There is a profundity and unknowability to these characters that is unmatched, and may never be.
Filmhouse is currently screening a number of films by François Truffaut as part of their François Truffaut: For the Love of Films series.
Image Credit: Jules et Jim via Flickr.