Lost in the Movies: Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

Even fifty years later, there aren't too many films like Jules and Jim. It exists as freely on its own terms as its mercurial heroine Catherine. Like her, it does not linger dutifully over necessities or continuities (in this sense, Manny Farber's classification of the film as "white elephant" art is confusing). It is restless, impatient, yet it can also luxuriate in a moment if the mood is right. It blows hot and cold: some passages are lyrical, others are exhausting or exhausted. This correspondence is ironic because, while evoking her essence in style, the film also conveys the impression that Catherine is unknowable. Her smile is as sphinxlike as that statue; Jules and Jim seem to pin her down convincingly, yet she's always leaping overboard to prove them wrong. Nonetheless, the title characters continue to explain her, to themselves, to one another, to their other women, even to Catherine herself, and she continues to act in impulsive defiance, into the fatal last reel. Essentially, Jules and Jim embodies Catherine's spirit in form, but that same spirit eludes it in content - the shape of the movie tells us more about who she is than she herself does.

The film does not merely give us a processed, "interpreted" impression of Catherine's approach to life. It really does leap around and float on impressions rather than provide audiences with a conventional lead into the movie. This isn't just a "looseness," a stylistic filter placed over an ordinary movie. There is no conventional buildup to scenes, montages and incessant narration replace the function of establishing shots or exposition, and while there is certainly a first and second act, and maybe a third, the narrative glides and flows too freely to fit a conventional structure. It's like a Godard film without the irony or self-consciousness. Viewed negatively, Jules and Jim could be seen as a trailer for itself - a succession of highlights, exciting juxtapositions, and striking images cascading across the screen without the meat to sink one's teeth into. Oh, there are plenty of sustained moments - the race across the tunnel, the graceful bicycle rides, those superimposed letter-readings racing over hilltops, the charming song, the tale of a soldier who lived a romantic lifetime corresponding with a girl he met briefly one time.

Yet these moments are relatively unmoored, freestanding monuments to a fleeting sense or casual inspiration. No underlying intensity holds the film together - its joy in the beginning is simple and pleasant, not feverish; the melancholy in the middle is moodily sensual rather than passionate; the gloomy finale is perfunctory instead of operatic. This is true in a given moment as well as overall; the shots are as unmoored as the overall structure. Truffaut uses the widescreen format quite daringly: instead of precisely balancing his compositions, or dramatically emphasizing empty space or background detail he tends to use the frame without regard to its shape; I suspect the cinematography in his work - and I'd have to more closely examine anamorphically-shot films of the fifties and sixties to be sure - is revolutionary for the casualness with which he uses such a wide aspect ratio. It could be a square, it could be a rectangle, hell it could be an octagon - he just points and shoots. It's never sloppy, but it's far from precise - it's like a home movie shot with professional equipment.

The characters negotiate the frame like slow-moving pinballs; rarely do they wander offscreen - they respect the edges (or, often, the edges respect them, moving to keep them in view) - but within the frame itself, they could stand anywhere. The camera will not pin them down. Meanwhile, there is an iconic quality to the images, loose and naturalistic as they can be - a feeling that each shot represents something, that beneath the Renoir surface a Hitchcock sensibility lurks. Thus the meaning of a sequence seems to be embedded more in the cutting than in a given shot, even though there are plenty of long takes. Unlike some other New Wave films, Jules and Jim does not give the impression of having been shot without a script but rather of having a screenplay illustrated imaginatively. The film demonstrates a latent classicism in the free-spirited mise en scene - a feeling that the movie, like the characters, knows what it is rebelling against and (probably unlike them) rather respects the traditions it defies.

How do I feel about all this? Torn. I admire what the movie is doing, but I often don't respond to it. It was one of the earliest foreign films I saw, and in the past dozen years I must have seen it at least ten times, including on the big screen. On certain occasions, I've responded to the lyricism of the countryside sojourn (is it just me, or do post-Fall scenarios seem more romantic and evocative than the pre-Fall that's supposedly being longed for?). And the dashing bravado of the early scenes, especially when one is in filmmaking mode oneself, can be irresistible. Yet I've always felt curiously distanced from Jules and Jim. I know that's not supposed to happen. This is the movie of which Jean-Michel Frodon (in a passage worth reading in full) writes, "Look at Moreau! Look how beautiful she is! Truffaut was in love with her (how could he not be?), Jules et Jim was created from this love - it would have been impossible to make this movie without the obvious happiness of the director filming his actress, the strength they gave to each other. A shadow of sadness can be felt each time she leaves the frame, a thrill of joy and desire each time she enters it again."

Well, Jeanne Moreau is beautiful (though her sleepy-eyed pout surprised me when I first rented it as a teenager, and was a definite factor in my initial disappointment). But Catherine is a horror - and her combination of flakiness and neediness is exhausting. On the one hand, her mercurial force lends the picture a semblance of the tension it sometimes seems to lack; on the other, her roller-coaster ride becomes tiresome, and the willingness of Jules and Jim to ride it off the rails exasperating. I see the charm, but I don't see the force that leads them ever-onward into this tempest - I understand it in the abstract but don't feel it. This isn't a general problem - many filmic femme fatales work their magic on me as well as their onscreen victims; but in this case the undisguised nature of Catherine's megalomania makes it hard to digest.

Meanwhile, Frodon also writes, "Francois Truffaut's voice-over is the sound of a wind that caresses and makes one world disappear, another world appear." The quality of his voice is indeed enchanting, at least in small doses, but I usually forget it's Truffaut narrating, and grow impatient with this chattering voice constantly telling us what is happening, perpetually goading us to feel caught up in the romance of it all. (This reminds me of taking a walk with someone who keeps pointing out the beauty of the sunset, or the roar of the waves, or the smell of the flowers, robbing each experience in turn by identifying it). All of those formal qualities I've described above, fascinating and exciting in theory, present obstacles for me while watching. I know Truffaut is supposedly to be moving, and Godard dry, but it's Godard I respond to because I feel propelled by the movies, caught in the friction between romanticism and self-consciousness. Truffaut assumes you are already on his wavelength and his little touches and gestures are like reminders of a secret conspiracy rather than invitations to a party - for me, anyway.

While I mentioned the oddity of classifying this for-the-moment movie as a "white elephant," I nonetheless recognize the experience Farber conveys in his famous essay:

"Jules et Jim seems to have been shot through a scrim which has filtered out everything except Truffaut’s dry vivacity with dialogue and his diminutive stippling sensibility. ... The point is that, divested of this meaningless vivacity, the scenes themselves are without tension, dramatic or psychological. ... Truffaut’s imagery is limited to traveling (running through meadows, walking in Paris streets, etc.), setups and dialogue scenes where the voices, disembodied and like the freakish chirps in Mel Blanc’s Porky Pig cartoons, take care of the flying out effect. Truffaut’s system holds art at a distance without any actual muscularity or propulsion to peg the film down. As the spectator leans forward to grab the film, it disappears like a released kite."

Why can't I give up on the movie, accept its slight charms but dismiss it as "overrated"? More importantly, why don't I want to? Is it those times when it clicked for me (even on those occasions, I was never fully immersed)? Is it the appeal in the abstract of this approach, of this sensibility, of these images and this story? Is it the tantalizing aspects - that wonderful moment when the bug on the window seems to crawl into Catherine's mouth, or that tear-drenched close-up two-shot of Catherine smothering Jules, desperately desiring to feel again? Ultimately, I think it's that very "trailer" quality, a quality at once alluring and frustrating, that keeps me coming back for more. Every time I watch this movie, I think to myself, "Man, I really want to see this one," and then when it's over, I realize I just have.

Jules and Jim appears at the start of "Runaway Cinema", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".

In a few weeks: Metropolis
Yesterday: It's a Wonderful Life

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