Jules and Jim – 1962 – dir. Francois Truffaut
I think I am not far off-the-mark in saying this country has never been as French as it was in the 1960s. The election of John F. Kennedy to the White House as the decade began introduced the beautiful and very French Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy to our culture and our world. Who wasn’t seduced by her pouty, French whisper, her tres chic chignon and French flips, her preference for French fashion designers over American? The Kennedys, it was known, employed a French, not an American, chef, and we citizens were treated to a French Chef of our own in the person of Julia Child who boldly brought French cuisine into our dining rooms. Traveling to Paris was all the rage for students in those years, and it was a big deal to be able to say you spent a semester or a summer in Toulouse or Bordeaux. The innovative movie critic, Pauline Kael, let us know that a tantalizing, new world of French and foreign-made movies was out there, fresh for the tasting. As Mathew White, an ex-patriate writer living in Paris at the time, wrote in his luminous novel, “Cigarette”, “If it’s French, it must be exciting.”
And if anyone doubts that the Eisenhower years were as dull as a stuffed moosehead on a lodge wall, and as silent, let them take a look at the movies and t.v. shows of the late 1950s: High School Big Shot (stupid), St. Joan (awful), Storm Center (heavy-handed), The Magic Clown (insipid) and Bucky and Pepito (forget it!).
So when La Nouvelle Vague hit American shores, we inhaled it like a breath of fresh, or should I say “French” air. French language, culture, cuisine, toutes choses francaises oxygenated our repressed society and minds.
Watching Jules and Jim again after 50 years led me into a time tunnel back to my days as a French major, to students sporting black berets and wide-brimmed fedoras, to girls in mini-skirts and “Irma La Douce” fishnet stockings, to guys in paisley elephant pants, sprawled on intellectual campus lawns feeding their tie-dyed minds on a diet of Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, and to those wonderful old theaters like The Brattle, The Janus,The Orson Welles and yes, even one called The Paris! where I spent many, happy, rainy day hours devouring every movie they ran. For those of you who, like me, are unashamedly, un-apologetically in love with memory, Jules and Jim is a ticket to that particular past…
The story is a simple one: two guys, Jules and Jim, roustabouts, fall in love with a girl and she, with them. She marries one and stays in love with them both. That’s it. But does director, Francois Truffaut, mean this to be merely the tale of a menage-a-trois? Given that freedom of expression, of self, of the “Do your own thing” zeitgeist was being generated throughout 60s America and the planet, Jules and Jim might seem to be a proclamation of Free Love, a bohemian stripping away of old morals and codes of behavior. And the case can be made that, at first anyway, the three principal characters seem to possess such an unfettered, guilt-free, everlasting passion for each other, that what else can the movie be about but the opening of the mind and spirit to sexual exploration, a full and honest liberation of the heart as well as of the libido? It is only when we see what happens when these three people leave discipline and boundaries behind that we realize Truffaut’s story is no promo for Free Love but a cautionary morality tale advising against such folly.
As the three leads, Oskar Werner as Jules, Henri Serre as Jim and the incomparable Jeanne Moreau as Catherine work their way into our hearts and movie history. They light up the screen with the incandescence only the young in love can summon, the wonder and the mystery of it all, and as they age and grow, they shape and mold their performances to such levels of understanding and pathos, they ensure that we will never forget them. All three actors turn in bravura work.
Jules and Jim elevated the young Truffaut to early iconic status as one of France’s and the world’s most innovative directors, and he would go on to create many of the classics of the day including, Shoot the Piano Player, The 400 Blows, Day for Night and the American gem, Fahrenheit 451 (also featuring Oskar Werner). Truffaut lends an airy, circus-y quality, light as a child’s balloon, to the early scenes of our three heroes as they meet and fall in love. Jules and Jim borrows a lot from Chaplin and the early Silents, also has a touch of Keystone Cops to its characters’ manic energy and verve. Later, as the story grows darker, Truffaut lets go of our hand, allowing us to feel as trapped and as shocked and as lonely as Catherine, Jules and Jim begin to feel. Forced to grow up, they know only two choices for them remain: to bend or to break.
Jules and Jim is an anomaly, a romance surely of its time (the 60s), and yet Truffaut has imbued it with a timeless quality, made it a story for the ages.
Oh! One more thing………when you come see Jules and Jim, as I know you will, look around you in the darkened theater. You will see your seatmates, yes, but here and there surrounding you, see the flickers of the good ghosts of all those who have sat there before you and will be sitting there after you have gone. This old house, The Brattle, has hosted some of the most glorious stories and performers the world has ever been blessed to know. And though, in this case, Oskar Werner journeyed on a long time ago, and we don’t see Jeanne Moreau and Henri Serre too much in movies anymore, Jules, Jim and their beloved Catherine have never left us. They ride across that bridge on their bicycle of joy a thousand times, just for us. The camera will follow them into eternity, and what fools we are if we do not follow along! For in the magic world of the movies, those people and stories we love as dearly as we may love ourselves are gone yet, at the same time, are always with us…