Friday, 31 December 2021

I’ve never seen… Jules and Jim (1962), BFI François Truffaut season


Married in 1913 to Franz Hessel, German journalist Helen Grund also had a relationship with his best friend Henri-Pierre Roché for some thirteen years. Franz was so accommodating, he divorced Helen so that she and Roché could live together. In the summer of 1922, Helen and Franz Hessel remarried, although the affair between Roché and Hessel continued… sound familiar? Roché wrote the novel Jules et Jim about the relationship with his lover and best friend and this inspired François Truffaut to make the film regarded as one of the finest of the French New Wave.


Until now I’ve had to take that on trust as, shockingly I know, I’ve not seen the film before hence the borrowed line from The Guardian’s series, but now the BFI are providing with the perfect opportunity to fill in those New Wave gaps with a UK-wide celebration of François Truffaut from January to February 2022, including re-releases of The 400 Blows (1959) – which I have seen - and Jules Et Jim (1962) and, as the saying goes, many more!


For a “new wave” La Nouvelle Vague is a bit ancien regime as this film is halfway between Georges Méliès and now but Jules Et Jim still feels fresh, inventive and a step-change in style from most post war films. It’s not just the director’s bold use of narrative, a voice-over that actually works to enhance the dramatic impact for example, and the sweeping camerawork from cinematographer Raoul Coutard, but the performances the director evokes. This may be entitled Jules and Jim, but the central focus is Catherine and Jeanne Moreau’s incredible energy as this most unpredictable and curious of characters. The only one who can reliably comment on Catherine is the narrator and he (Michel Subor) is recalling actions and events that take both the men years to absorb and comprehend and, right to the end, they don’t really know what she is capable of. Neither do we.

Jeanne Genie

Moreau is unpredictable and yet totally in control of her expression, managing to convey Catherine’s mercurial contradictions in ways that appear to have only just occurred. She’s reacting to her character’s surprise at herself, as unknowable as the statue which resembles her, and which first grabs Jules and Jim’s attention. It’s not a free-running tale of escalating passion like Goddard might make but a controlled and very deliberate retelling of a mystery passed onto Truffaut by Roché.


Jaques and Julien were inseparable, and they never knew that their neighbours found their relationship ambiguous. They ate together in small restaurants. They bought each other fine cigars… everyone called them Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.


The film starts in the 1900s, during la Belle Époque and features two bohemians in their search for experience and direction. Their friendship had no equivalent in love… but Jules and Jim are friends for life, enjoying the same things and attuned in their thoughts, often competing for the same partners but with Jules (Oskar Werner) a writer from Austria less successful than the more extrovert Jim (Henri Serre). Jules’ relationship with the free-spirited Thérèse (Marie Dubois) illustrates his soft centre as she is soon looking for a more defined companion (any relation to my own experience with Debbie the Redcoat in Butlins 1982 is entirely pertinent). It’s a foretaste of love's labours to come.

Oscar Werner and Marie Dubois

The two men become transfixed by a statue in a slide show, their ideal of womanly beauty, an immovable objet d’amour. They go to visit the monument on an island in the Adriatic Sea, spending an hour admiring this unresponsive goddess before meeting a woman in Paris who has the same shaped face, she is Catherine and she’ll be a lot more trouble to worship.


Not this one, Jim…


Truffaut highlights the moment of connection when Jules looks at Catherine and she looks at him by marking out a space on screen and then blacking out the image around it, something of a standard device by later in the decade but a surprise here? Jules and Catherine seem to be destined from this point and she soon becomes a feature of his and Jim’s togetherness.


There were three people in this marriage...

She soon reveals her eccentric energy by drawing a moustache and pretending to be “Thomas” for the iconic race across a railway bridge. She wins by cheating, showing a very “male” initiative… and I wonder if there’s a parallel here with Antonioni’s male and female alienation? Probably not, I’m out of the shallows here but Moreau was equally at home in the previous year’s La Notte running rings round Marcello Mastroianni.


The trio decide to holiday in the south and as they prepare for their trip, Catherine “burns lies” in her flat with Jim and tells him she has “vitriol” for the eyes of men who lie… before pouring what looks like a bottle of acid down the sink. The film’s tone shifts in moments like this and whilst we’re shocked, we assume she’s joking… At another time, as the boys talk about the play they’ve seen, Catherine gets tired of their intellectualisation and jumps into the Seine… Jim and Jules don’t get to establish why she was so reckless, and she smiles quietly to herself soaked through between the two on the cab ride home.


Henri Serre and Oskar Werner

Jim’s relationship with Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) is on a different footing by comparison and she doesn’t meet Jules until many years later; a complexity which says everything about Catherine’s influence on the two men.


The carefree years end as war begins and Jules and Catherine move to Austria to get married before he is enlisted in the conflict which separates him from his best friend. There’s an extensive sequence of archival footage which looks like a mix of documentary and reconstructions from the silent era; I wish I knew the sources – probably a mix of French and German?


She jumped at men the way she had jumped into the river.


The three are reunited after the war at Jules and Catherine’s house in the Black Forest where they live with their daughter, Sabine. Things have changed and the marriage has not satisfied Catherine, leaving Jules clinging on, accepting anything she wants as the price of her presence. She begins a relationship with Jim, even under the same roof, and the men are able to accommodate this as the price of their own friendship and the women they love’s happiness.


Will even this state of affairs last though as Catherine still hasn’t found what she’s looking for… I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Albert (Serge Rezvani) and she writes a song with him. I’m still not sure what Catherine’s restlessness signifies and that’s the point. Every reason to rewatch this enthralling film on the big screen in 2022!


Georges Delerue’s score is also a thing a beauty, matching the emotional force with skill and lovely melody.


The two-month Truffaut season at BFI Southbank, starts on Friday 7th and runs to the end of February 2022. Curated by BFI programmer at large Geoff Andrew, it will feature thematic strands, so that audiences can access Truffaut’s immense body of work more easily. There are also talks and a course, no stone left unturned in this re-examination of an unparalleled life in film.


Jules et Jim plays from 4th February on the Southbank and elsewhere and a new BFI Blu-ray will follow.


Details on the BFI website.

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