Monday, April 30, 2012


"She's a force of nature that results in cataclysms."


In countless interviews, several excerpted on The Criterion Collection two-disc edition DVD of Jules and Jim, François Truffaut repeatedly admits that what attracted him to the story in Henri-Pierre Roché's semi-autobiographical novel lay in the concept of a love triangle where a film portrayed neither man involved as better than the other. He tells the interviewer questioning him at any given time that intrigued him because the cinematic tradition always paints one of the suitors as inferior. The film critic turned director certainly succeeded with his third feature film, aided immensely by those he cast as the triangle: Oskar Werner (his first name spelled as Oscar in the credits) as the Austrian Jules, Henri Serre as the French Jim and, most indelibly, the intoxicating Jeanne Moreau as Catherine, the French-English object of the title characters' affections. What wows you about Jeanne Moreau's performance though is that for all the brash acts that Catherine commits, Moreau doesn't play Catherine as a stereotypical nut. That "calm smile" referred to that relates Catherine to that statue exists in her performance most of the time as well. When you try to think of new ways to describe her work, it doesn't help when her director used to be a film critic and gave a great summary of it in a 1965 interview: "Jeanne Moreau's acting was like a slalom run against all the possible clichés. I left her free like the other actors to do as she saw fit." Man, I wish I'd written that. It wasn't enough that he made an all-time great film, he has to come up with better review lines as well?

Things move fairly swiftly once Moreau's Catherine enters the picture even though the film does cover a great expanse of time almost from the moment she appears. After the dinner, the narrator informs us that Jules more or less vanishes for a month, spending every day with Catherine, only encountering Jim at the gym. In a steam room meeting, Jules finally invites Jim to hang out with him and Catherine and as the two head up to see her, Jules admits that she inquires about Jim quite often, wondering what he's like. Despite the fact that Jim has been nothing if not generous to Jules when it comes to women, Jules makes a point of stopping him before they go in to meet her and says the line that originally made the film speak so personally to me, "But not this one, Jim. OK?" I almost spoke those exact words to someone, not that it mattered, and my antennae proved to be tuned correctly to pick up that signal far in advance of my real-life story (of which you will receive no further details). Upon that first "real" meeting, Catherine seems eager to join the boys' club, losing her dress to put on the costume of a man who Jules calls Thomas. She wants to see if she can fool others out on the street so the three depart and, sure enough, before too long a man asks "Thomas" for a light. For many, it would be easy to leap to a feminist interpretation of this scene, seeing it as Catherine's bid to be treated as a man's equal back in 1912 and to be judged by the same rules, but once you've seen Jules and Jim in its totality, that conclusion doesn't quite ring true. Catherine (a) doesn't get judged by anyone within the film and (b) operates under her own set of rules, unique to her and her alone. As the trio continues to wander, "Thomas" thinks that a bridge offers a great spot for a footrace and challenges Jules and Jim. She makes her first mention of rain or water, as Catherine also frequently bring associations with fire. Truly, the woman represents an elemental force (or a James Taylor song). To watch the clip of the race, I suggest going full screen because the image plays very tiny. YouTube offers other clips of the scene but so many of them lack subtitles, I thought it best to go with this one.

In that clip, though we'd earlier seen Jules express a mild fear that Jim could woo Catherine from him, we see that it doesn't matter much what Jules or Jim wants — the great friendship has become a threesome and Catherine controls what the group does, immediately deciding that all three will be departing for the shore the next day and selecting Jim to help her get her bags to the train station. (It's also telling that she not only proposes the foot race, but she cheats in it to win as well.) The clip cuts off before we get a few more important lines courtesy of our omniscient narrator who says, "Jim considered her to be Jules' and didn't try to form a clear picture of her. Catherine once again wore that calm smile. It came naturally to her and expressed everything about her."

When Jim shows up at Catherine's apartment, she hasn't completed packing yet and still wears her flowing white nightgown, telling Jim she must put her dress on. Catherine chastises him immediately for not following the superstition and placing his hay on the bed. "Never put a hat on a bed," she chides. First, other things need taking care of before they depart. She dumps a pile of crumpled papers onto the floor from a porcelain bowl and requests a match from Jim who complies and asks what she's doing. "Burning these lies," she tells him. It's not stated explicitly, but I've read references that identify the papers as love letters but doesn't identify either the author or recipient. The pile quickly turns into a tall blaze that leaps on Catherine's nightgown, but Jim leaps to extinguish the flames rapidly. We had the first reference from Catherine to rain, now we have her first connection to fire. She goes behind her changing screen and asks Jim to hand her the dress hanging on the wall by her bed. When changed, Catherine realizes that she almost forgot to add a bottle to her suitcase. Jim inquires what liquid it contains. "Sulfuric acid, for the eyes of men who tell lies," Catherine explains. Jim warns her that the bottle could break in transit and end up burning through her things. Besides, she can get sulfuric acid anywhere. Reluctantly, she empties the bottle down the sink. "But I promised I would only use this bottle," she tells him as he gathers her luggage. She places hit hat back atop his head and affixes her own to hers and they head off for the train station to join Jules. I can't say with any sense of certainty how many times in the past 25 years I've watched Jules and Jim, but each time I notice something new or view a scene in a new light and that's a trait common to many of the greatest cinematic gifts we've been handed. For instance, I don't recall observing the large number of locomotives, actual, figurative or near where trains run. We've seen Thérèse show off her "steam engine" skills and heard the sounds of a train nearby before Catherine selects the bridge beneath the track for the foot race. We see obvious stock footage of a train rolling by the countryside. Once again, Michel Subor describes the journey to us. "They searched up and down the coast before finding the house of their dreams. Though too big, it was isolated, imposing, white inside and out, and empty."

That describes the house but none of those adjectives remotely apply to the movie itself. Many of the greatest films often include a magical ingredient that no matter how many times you've watched them, you forget the exact order in which scenes come. Usually though, that only applies to films that don't follow standard chronological order (the most famous and obvious example being Orson Welles' Citizen Kane), but somehow Truffaut accomplished that trick in Jules and Jim as well and its narrative follows a straight line and contains nary a flashback. I think any movie that can pull that off should be considered a film critic's best friend since it stamps out any risk of slipping into synopsis. As I prepared for this tribute, taking my notes and marveling at the available YouTube clips, part of me wanted to make sure that I wasn't showing scenes out of order, forcing me to check my chronology again and again. Finally, there came a point where I said, "What the hell am I doing?" First off, I want people to watch Jules and Jim. Secondly, while I'd love to show all these great scenes and repeat the memorable lines, I'd much rather readers discover them for themselves (or be reminded again if they choose to pay a return visit to the film). To give you the briefest update of what occurs after the three settle in at the house, Jules almost immediately asks Jim if he thinks he should propose to Catherine. Jim expresses skepticism, wondering if Jules pictures Catherine as a wife and mother. "I'm afraid she'll never be happy on this earth," Jules responds. He goes ahead and pops the question to Catherine anyway, telling her that if she doesn't answer, he'll ask her again every year on her birthday. "You haven't known many women, I've known lots of men. It balances out. We might make an honest couple," Catherine replies. It isn't exactly a yes or a no, but eventually they do wed. Soon though, The Great War intervenes to separate all three of them.

The war and post-war sections interested me the most in this viewing with the intercutting of stock footage (which isn't actual World War I footage, since there wasn't a lot of filming in that conflict so Truffaut had to use clips from re-creations of the fighting from old films) with scenes of Jules and Jim — fighting on opposite sides — worrying about accidentally killing the other during a battle. It's with relief that Jules writes Catherine that he's being transferred to the Russian front which he figures makes it less likely he'll face his friend in battle. Everyone returns from the war safely. Jim spends some time visiting some war memorials and cemeteries before eventually reuniting with Jules and Catherine, who have added a third — their young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin, who still acts to this day, mostly on French television, and appeared in one of Truffaut's final films, The Last Metro). Jules confides that his home isn't as happy as it appears, though he has accepted Catherine's frequent infidelities. He just fears the thought that she'll leave sometime and not return. Jim assures him that she'll always come back to Jules because she loves his "Buddhist monk quality." However, the war has changed Jim and it's easy to tell it's more difficult for him to maintain his distance from Catherine for the sake of his friend. One of the more interesting post-war sequences occurs when Jules and Jim chat about the experience of war, joined by Albert (Serge Rezvani/Boris Bassiak), who has been one of Catherine's recurring lovers.

Jules and Jim provides so many points of entry, so many possible paths for discussion, that you could choose a topic a day and keep busy for quite some time. That's partially why it's taken me so long to complete this piece. The rest of the blame falls on illness and the calendar. Honestly, if I could put myself into a self-induced coma for the last couple of weeks of April each year, I would. One final clip I'd like to share (which again works better if you watch it full screen) doesn't have as much importance plotwise as it does in terms of filmmaking and one of Truffaut's trademarks.

On the Dec. 2, 1965, episode of the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps titled "François Truffaut ou L'esprit critique," Truffaut spoke at length on the topic of freeze frames and this particular use. He pointed out that in part the scene poked fun at Moreau's previous roles in films such as Antonioni's La Notte that tended to be deadly serious. However, the process isn't as easy as one might think.
"It was hard freezing her expressions there. In the editing room, it looked very sharp and nice so I did it elsewhere in the film, but it can quickly get to be a habit. I stopped doing it after a few films. I stopped using it as a visual effect. Now I use freeze frames only for dramatic effect. They're interesting providing viewers don't notice. You sense them, but an image is only perceptible — it takes eight frames for a shot to register. Fewer than eight frames and it's virtually unreadable, unless it's a tight close-up."

One thing I've noticed while comparing the various YouTube clips (when they actually have subtitles) and the Criterion version of those scenes is how frequently translations differ, For example, in the clip above when Catherine asks for someone to scratch her back, Jules replies, "Scratch and Heaven'll scratch you." On the Criterion translation, his response reads much better and, I imagine, more accurately, "Heaven scratches those who scratch themselves."

I keep thinking back to the comment François Truffaut made in 1977 about being "too young" when he made Jules and Jim. If he'd made it at any other age, it wouldn't be the same movie and probably wouldn't hold the same appeal for so many. Granted, critics of an older age appreciated and praised the film at its release, but for Jules and Jim to grab you, really grab you, and maintain that grip over the years, I think you need to be young when you see it the first time, and that's why Truffaut, not yet 30 but captivated by the novel since 25, had to be young as well. I found this clip on YouTube and knew I had to include it. It's the great actor John Hurt extolling the virtues of Jules and Jim and what an impression it made on him. He was 22 when it opened.

"Happiness isn't easy to record, and wears out without anyone noticing"

As for Truffaut himself, I don't know what attracts me to him as a filmmaker so much. The obvious answer would be the critic-turned-filmmaker aspect, but it's not as if he stands as the only film critic who made that leap and I certainly don't carry affection for the others as I do him. I'm very mixed on Godard and think Peter Bogdanovich made a single masterpiece. It might be that he seems as if he's the heir to Jean Renoir. On the other hand, my list of favorite filmmakers runs on awhile and few resemble the others exactly. I did think of one connection to another director that I never would have thought of before when watching Jules and Jim this time (or more specifically its extras). As Truffaut time and time again referenced his love of literature and film and why he felt the need to include as much of the novel's prose in the form of narration as he could, that may mark the first time I connected Truffaut to Scorsese, specifically with his wondrous adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, where Joanne Woodward served the Michel Subor role.

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I've thought of them as somewhat connected for a while. I think it's impossible to love movies and not admire Truffaut and Scorsese on some level. Their films show a palpable love of the art of filmmaking, and their knowledge of the history and technique of cinema is well-evident in their writings, interviews, and frequent championing of others' work. Their movies are often brilliant, but only part of the story in their very personal, respective legacies.
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