Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
In the early years of the 20th century, Jules, an Austrian (Oskar Werner), and Frenchman
Jim (Henri Serre) are the best of friends. Then the free-spirited Catherine (Jeanne
Moreau) comes into their lives. Both men fall in love with her, but it's Jules who
marries her. He takes her back to Germany, where they have a child. World War I, during
which the men fight on opposing sides, separates Jules and Jim. They meet up again after
the war is over, and Jim and Catherine begin an affair...
It's hard to recapture the impact Truffaut's third feature had on its release. In the early 1960s, the French New Wave had just broken, and many cinematic masters (not just French ones - think Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni) were working at the height of their powers. To be culturally au fait, you had to watch their latest films as they arrived in Britain. Truffaut always did have a warmer, less cerebral sensibility than many of his New Wave compatriots. At its worst it could slide into sentimentality, but at its best it filled his films with a joie de vivre that's hard to resist. And Jules et Jim (based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, who also provided the source material for Truffaut's 1971 film Anne And Muriel) is one of his best: it's funny, moving, charming, exuberant and bittersweet. This was the cineaste's date movie of 1962. And its (then-) X certificate, promising some French sauce and a daring ménage-à-trois theme, didn't hurt either. (That certificate is presumably due to some references to prostitutes: nowadays the film is a PG.)
If you're used to Truffaut's more classical-style later work, Jules et Jim may well come as a surprise. At least in its first third, this is very much a young man's film, full of cinematic inventiveness (and not a few nods to the cinema of the past) and exuberant striving to see what he could do with a camera. With the aid of Raoul Coutard's highly expressive black and white photography, Truffaut mixes newsreels with new footage, or uses filters, whip-pans, and freeze-frames. At times he'll blank out most of the Scope screen, or use its full width to emphasise a character's solitude. Most of this is in the first half hour, and you can sense the style 'maturing' to a more restrained, classical kind as the characters reunite, older and maybe a little wiser, after the war.
Jules et Jim may have been set in period, but just as much as its contemporary-set successor La peau douce, it's very much about what was happening at the time it was made. You can detect a sense of liberation in this film, and Catherine became a symbol of emancipated womanhood, in love with both men but ultimately independent of them. This was a career-defining performance for Moreau, and Werner went to work with Truffaut a few more times (they died a day apart in 1984). Serre didn't do much else of note, but he will be remembered for this role. But ultimately this is a director's film; watch it and see Truffaut come of age.
The DVD has an anamorphic transfer and a Dolby digital 2.0 mono soundtrack. Disc extras: introduction by Serge Toubiana, commentary by Jeanne Moreau, trailer, 1965 interview with Truffaut where he discusses some scenes in the film, 1966 interview with Truffaut where he discusses the original novel, trailers for Tartan's François Truffaut collection.