As unconventional love stories go, Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim must rank as one of the most radical and sincere ever. Digitally re-mastered for DVD by Criterion, Truffaut’s breakthrough, forty-three years old now, remains edgy and subversive because its three madly romantic characters can barely endure the consequences of the sexual liberation they’ve chosen to live out.
The film’s pure cool, conveyed by a speedy exuberance, made the film the envy of the film world, from France’s crusty auteur Jean Renoir, who is interviewed on Criterion’s bonus material, to Martin Scorsese, who went on to replicate the film’s expository montages and freeze frame close-ups in his own Mean Streets and beyond.
Truffaut was an experimenter loyal to the classical touch and that rarest kind of artist: a thinker with cojones. With its supplementary booklet of Truffaut’s insightful essays and a DVD of interviews with Truffaut from throughout his career, this Criterion package is a master class in how to turn a dense literary novel into a popular film.
The 35-millimeter fine grain, black-and-white master tape has been digitally cleaned up, and DVD-producer Johanna Schiller preserves the clarity of the original’s ever-changing angles and its textures, interiors and panoramas, which range from Paris’ absinthe-soaked cafes to quiet gardens of Alpine chateaux. Unfortunately, the soundtrack seems to be beyond a full digital amplification, so you’ll strain to hear dialogue at key moments.
From the beginning, Truffaut’s film is hypnotic. His fluency with Roché’s novel and the obvious comfort of his young actors converge as the story’s breakneck opening rushes at the viewer like a dare. The plot is deceptively simple. Two young men in fin de siècle Paris befriend one another as they savor the fruits of bachelorhood. In the process, Jules (Oskar Werner), an émigré from Austria and an aspiring novelist, teaches his French friend Jim (Henri Serre) habits of self-reflection and philosophical circumspection. In exchange, Jim educates Jules about the finer points of keeping lovers and pleasing womenfolk. But their bonhomie is challenged by the stunning and moody Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who both attracts and outwits Jules and Jim, out-dueling them through her capricious faith in the pleasure principle. It’s a dynamic chemistry experiment, really.
While Catherine ultimately settles on Jules, the happy ménage à trois endures over two decades, even surviving the men’s service in opposite armies during World War I. Battle scenes and trench warfare unconvincingly disrupt the film’s otherwise gentle narrative, but when Jim tracks down his two married friends after the war and finds them in rustic, postnuptial bliss, he revaluates the loneliness of his single life. At the same time, Jim is privy to the marital woes of Jules and Catherine. The grass is both more and less green on all sides.
And it’s here the story goes deep, as Truffaut explores the tensions between domesticity and passion by suspending his characters between these two choices. Their friendships force them to live beyond the usual stereotypes of the mysterious stranger, the bored housewife, and the jaded cuckold. Much of the complexity is contained in the expressive, sometimes wordless gestures of Jeanne Moreau as Catherine. She is savvy yet compassionate, manipulative but not mean, and conflicted without ever being confused. In fact, Morreau’s virtuoso performance could be the most complex female character in postwar cinema.
The film is about emotional experimentation, which is risk of the most intimate order. A supplementary essay by Pauline Kael discusses how the film’s amorality appalled France’s Legion of Decency which is a kind of priceless endorsement. But it is not an ironic, detached or exploitative film. Truffaut’s characters have such a depth of conscience that their hedonism calls into question the supposed moral worth of fidelity. Although Truffaut forces us to eavesdrop, we bleed with when his characaters bleed.
If won over by film, you might feel what it must be like, as Jules says, "to play at the sources of life and lose." Through its religion of self-invention, Jules et Jim leaves you feeling timid in the presence of characters who forego the compromises of a false, settled life for a ride on the runaway train of uninhibited emotion.