Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Jules and Jim and the Hamlet Factor

When I was an undergrad majoring in English at U.C., Berkeley, in the early 70s, there was a story going around the English Department that went like this – a grad student finally reached the culmination of all his hard studies; he was going to take his oral exams. Tense but prepared, he endured hours and hours of demanding questions and he aced them all. He was nearly done. It came down to the last question – a question on Hamlet. There was a silence. “What’s the matter?” asked one of the examiners. “Uh,” said the grad student, “I haven’t read it.” “What? You haven’t read Hamlet! Why not?” “Well, you see, it was a challenge I set for myself. I wanted to see how far I could get through undergraduate and graduate studies without reading it, but I guess I didn’t get far enough.”

Point is – we get far into our movie-watching careers, and sure we’ve seen the most-talked-about classics, but there’s always one that, for one reason or another, we haven’t seen. For me, one of those iconic films that I had neglected to see was Jules and Jim. Something about it just wasn’t attracting me. Finally, I got it from Netflix, and I was glad I did. The beauty of Netflix is that you can get just about anything and you can fill in your knowledge of film history by watching those old classics you’ve missed. I encourage you to do so.

Here’s my review –

Jules and Jim, directed by Francois Truffaut, released in 1961, is the thoughtful, lightly paced, elegiac portrait of two friends, Jim (Henri Serre) and Jules (Oskar Werner), and the woman they both adore – Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) – a free-spirited, insecure, self-destructive woman who yearns for harmony but only succeeds in creating emotional discord. For the most part, however, the film does not point ominously toward tragedy. Most of its images are memorable snapshots of rural tranquility: fields, cottages, woods, beach, a lake – with the touchingly distant shot of Jim, Jules, Catherine, and daughter Sabine casting stones from a spit extending into the placid water.

You can see how the film touched the 1960s zeitgeist. Its tone is at times broodingly poignant and yet the film is always instilled with a visual lightness. As audiences viewed the film repeatedly during the turbulent 1960s, they must have found refuge in the story’s many sequences of light-hearted freedom – despite its backdrop of World War I and its brief images of the rise of Nazism. And Jules’s choice – to nurture a relationship between Jim and Catherine in order to ensure that the wayward Catherine will remain close by – might have been taken as an example of 60s sexual freedom. As Jules sits by good-naturedly while Jim sleeps with his wife, the 60s audiences might have justified this as a desirable ideal – though audiences today might be distanced by it.

At the same time, the film’s carefree tone is ironic. The story is interspersed with tragic notes. Jules, a German, and Jim, a Frenchman, are separated by World War I, which is covered by masterful use of archival footage: lines of troops going over the top, again and again, and a mesmerizing montage of explosions. Toward the end of the film, Jules and Catherine meet Jim in a cinema where they are watching a newsreel of book burnings in Nazi Germany.

Yet, throughout all this, the lightness shines through as we follow numerous sequences in which Jules, Jim, and Catherine frolic over fields, go on carefree bicycle rides to the beach, and chase each other through the streets of Paris. Meanwhile, Francois Truffaut, auteur of the French New Wave in cinema, turns his film into a tribute to film. We see a tribute to the silent era in the way this black-and-white film feels like it’s silent: the soundtrack includes dialogue and narration but there is often no background sound effects. We see a tribute to Charlie Chaplin in the sequence in which Catherine dresses as a man and she joins Jules and Jim to try out her disguise. And in the cinema lobby, we see a poster for Un chien andalou – the famous French surrealist film.

Whether you are touched by the film’s story or not, Jules and Jim must be viewed for its role in film history. (I found myself deeply touched – especially by the shots of the three friends’ idyllic times together that soon will end, yet I found Catherine’s heartless self-centeredness distanced me from the film at times, though I suppose that is a tribute to the depth of her characterization.) As you watch the film, you will find yourself remarking to yourself again and again, “Now that’s where he got that,” as you note how the film influenced later filmmakers. The rapidly delivered narration, the whimsical elements of the plot, and the use of smaller inset frames to show scratchy images of Paris make you feel like you are watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie or A Very Long Engagement. The inclination is to say that Jules and Jim, with its liberal love triangle, is very French; then another 60s movie comes to mind. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch, Sundance, and his lover, Etta Place, hide and travel together, but it’s Butch and Etta who share the bicycle. And, too, the film brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s sentimental touch – and his misty lighting. When the three friends leave the chalet for the train station, light from an open doorway casts a misty beam of light outside. Whether or not this image inspired Spielberg, we know that Spielberg honored the French auteur enough to give him a cameo in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Seeing Jules and Jim for the first time – forty-seven years after its release, I found myself thrilled by the experience of seeing many other films, spanning nearly five decades, reflected in Truffaut’s story, characters, and images – though I wanted to reach into the frame, grab Catherine, and slap some sense into her.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice post. I once watched Jules and Jim over and over all summer as I tried to use it to learn French. The film holds up well, but I increasingly find I prefer the more joyful first half to the more melodramatic second (where the tone seems more uneven), and the film reminds me of Citizen Kane in the way it incorporates older footage into the storyline. Jules and Jim's bohemian interest in pleasure and art remains delightful, especially in comparison to modern American values.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr -

Thanks for the comment. Good way to learn French. I lived in Morocco for three years, and I went to the movies even though they were all in French. Saw Truffaut's The Wild Child for the first time in French - with no English subtitles, of course - but my memory of the story is very clear.

Yes, there is something very engaging about the first half when they are friends, frolicking without a care in the streets of Paris - a scenario depicted in many other films. The second half gets somber.