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JULES AND JIM
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre
Director: François Truffaut
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: February 4, 2014

"She's a vision for all, perhaps not meant for any one man alone."

Film ****

In 1953, septuagenarian author Henri-Pierre Roché published his first novel, "Jules and Jim."  Initial critical reaction to the autobiographical book was lukewarm or simply indifferent, and Roché's novel seemed destined to join innumerable works by other unknown authors in the inconspicuous bargain bins of back-alley bookshops.  However, as fate would have it, a young and impressionable French film critic happened upon a copy of the book and, after reading it, sensed something special in Roché's elliptical prose about the relationship between two men and one woman.  He recognized the novel's potential for a fine film adaptation, particularly with its fresh and liberating variation on the timeless love story.

That critic mentioned Roché's novel briefly in a review for (of all things) a 1956 American Western film.  Destiny deemed that Roché would read this very article when it was published in the newspaper Arts on March 14, 1956, and shortly thereafter the two men struck up a friendly correspondence by mail.  It would be the commencement of a brief collaboration between the two men until Roché's passing in 1959.

The film critic so enthralled with Roché's story had been none other than François Truffaut.  During the mid-1950's, Truffaut had been the critical equivalent of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, championing the fresh and carefree style of American films (especially of the gangster and film noir genres) while denouncing the stale and backward stagnation of French cinema.  As with most frustrated critics, Truffaut felt that he could personally create something more innovative than the current product, something that could truly revolutionize the cinema.

Truffaut would indeed direct such a film, 1959's The 400 Blows.  Considered a masterpiece and one of the finest French films ever made, The 400 Blows ushered in the New Wave, a movement comprised of an eclectic group of young and optimistic first-time French directors determined to re-invigorate French cinema.  However, Truffaut had originally intended his first film to be an adaptation of "Jules and Jim," with Roché himself authoring the screenplay to re-create for the film the novel's nostalgic quality of an old photo album.  Roché's death delayed the project temporarily, although Jean Gruault would eventually write the screenplay (with assistance from Truffaut).  Truffaut wished to honor the novel's simple and distinctive prose, and the completed screenplay by Gruault and Truffaut reflected this faithfulness by lifting numerous sections from the novel verbatim for voice-overs in the film.

Jules and Jim (1962) would become Truffaut's third feature film (after The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player).  Today, the film is widely revered as one of the greatest films of the French New Wave and a masterpiece by any other standard.  Truffaut envisioned the film as more than just a simple love story; he wanted to "show two men who love the same woman in such a way that the public [would] love all three of them equally."  As such, meticulous care was taken to assemble the right cast with the right charismatic chemistry to elicit audience empathy for not just one but for all three characters.

The film's three main characters are Jules, an aspiring Austrian author, the Frenchman Jim, and the young woman Catherine (Kathe in the novel) who both men adore. The role of Catherine was cast fairly quickly after Truffaut noticed actress Jeanne Moreau in a theatrical production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Roché himself gave Moreau his blessings only days before he passed away).  The actress projected an intelligent and worldly sophistication that had already been showcased by director Louis Malle in 1957's Ascenseur pour l'Echofaud and 1958's The Lovers.  However, Moreau's portrayal of Catherine would be one of her most memorable roles, highlighting a successful film career during which she appeared in other such acclaimed films as Luis Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight.  As Jean-Pierre Léaud (star of The 400 Blows) would become the adolescent face of the French New Wave, so Jeanne Moreau with her depiction of Catherine in Jules and Jim would become the poster girl of the New Wave.

Truffaut picked two relative unknowns for the roles of the two men in Catherine's life.  Oskar Werner, primarily a stage actor, was chosen to portray the writer Jules.  Werner was a dynamic and fine actor with an impressive range (he was later nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 1965's Ship of Fools), and he would provide a touching and heartfelt anchor to some of Jules and Jim's wilder antics.  Henri Serre was chosen to play Jim for his resemblance to the young Roché (Jim was essentially Roché's alter-ego in the novel).

Jules and Jim opens in Paris in the final years before the First World War.  Aspiring artists Jules and Jim first meet on the eve of an evening soirée, quickly becoming solid friends.  A somewhat odd yet kindred couple, they participate in fervent debates over life, love, and philosophy, in no particular order.  They go on double dates with women together and party together, all in service of finding that one true compatible love-mate.  Failures are aplenty but do not deter either man for long, as Jim optimistically expresses - "Lost one, find ten more."

One evening during these carefree times, the two friends watch a magic lantern show and are inspired by the feminine sculptural images they see therein.  One particular sculpture instantly fascinates them, the image of the perfect Earth-mother / sensual lover.  Soon afterwards, Jules and Jim encounter the very embodiment of this sculpture in Catherine.  With her beautiful full lips, soulful eyes, and wryly scornful countenance, Catherine proves to be irresistibly mesmerizing to the men, who are both soon taken by her.

Catherine is a passionate free spirit.  She lives life to the fullest.  She is impulsive and spontaneous and cannot be tied down for long, even to the detriment of her eventual marriage to one of the two friends.  Catherine represents the post-modernist, prototypical feminist, but more importantly for Jules and Jim, she is the catalyst to their emotional liberation. 

The First World War inconveniently interrupts this friendship, throwing both men on opposite poles of the conflict.  However, their enduring camaraderie skips nary a beat following the final armistice, and the friendship resumes quickly thereafter.  In one sense, the two friends Jules and Jim are reflections of the same personality.  The alliteration of their first names even confuses the women they meet, further illustrating the close bond between the two men.  Inseparable before the war, Jules and Jim remain closely tied afterwards, sharing the same thoughts and aspirations (and in the end, the compassion of the same woman).  Jules and Jim are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, as they even note themselves.

As important as is the friendship between Jules and Jim, the most pivotal character in the film is Catherine.  Both men set her upon a pedestal as a goddess to be worshiped.  She is, after all, the flesh-and-blood realization of that garden sculpture that had so mesmerized the men.  Truffaut emphasizes this point by employing similarly energetic camera movements in introducing both the stone sculpture and Catherine and again later through freeze frames on Moreau's profile.  However, Catherine is more than a static work of art.  She is animated and uninhibited, full of life, unwilling or unable to be pigeon-holed or restricted in any way.  Her inherent need for personal freedom ultimately will have sadder repercussions later in the film.

Despite the somewhat poignant conclusion to the film, Jules and Jim remains at heart a celebration of life and human bonds.  The film possesses an amazing sense of lightness and frivolity; here is a story which simply wades in the clouds, floating seemingly above all petty worries or preoccupations with the daily trials of life.  While the two friends Jules and Jim have their problems, each is so forgiving and understanding of one another that no conflict is ever allowed to significantly dampen their moods or lives.  They equally share the same woman, much as Catherine herself benefits emotionally from the two men's friendship.  This is perhaps the purest ménage à trois, in which all three people are equal participants.

Very few subsequent films have come close to replicating Jules and Jim's ethereal quality (most notably 1967's Elvira Madigan), its unique sense of atypical romance (notably 1971's Harold and Maude), or even the poignancy of its two-men, one-woman relationship (notably Terence Malick's Days of Heaven).  Truffaut uses a surprising number of innovative fast cuts, freeze frames, and disjointed editing techniques in Jules and Jim.  This apparent disregard for the conventional rules of cinematic storytelling is part of what makes the film so compelling and so fresh, even today.  However, at its core lies the touching relationship between the film's three characters, and Truffaut's romantic film remains without peer in world cinema; one might even argue that the French have attempted for years since to emulate or to recreate the delicate and whimsical style of the best Truffaut films, albeit with little success.  Truffaut stands alone, and Jules and Jim is quite possibly his greatest masterpiece and the pinnacle of the French New Wave.

Video ***1/2

Jules et Jim is presented in its original black & white aspect ratio of 2.35:1.  The transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original camera negative.  Image quality is relatively clear with sharp delineation of objects.  There are some archival war footage sequences which are naturally of poorer visual quality than the rest of the film.  There is also a brief section with superimposed English and French subtitles (for German dialogue!), making comprehension a bit tricky.  Aside from some mild grain and a bit of emulsion scuffing, but the picture is otherwise quite decent with fine gray tones and contrast levels.

Audio ***

Jules et Jim is presented in its original French monaural sound.  The uncompressed 1.0 signal is directed primarily to the center channel.  The sound is not particularly dynamic and is a bit thin at times.  The original audio was also not recorded as direct sound but was instead mostly post-dubbed (one notable exception being Catherine's memorable song which can be heard over Disc One's main menu).  The occasionally uneven post-synchronizing of the dialogue with the actors' lip motions is a characteristic of the actual film and not an indication of an error in the mastering process.

Features ****

"There are no bad films; there are only mediocre directors." - François Truffaut

Criterion's Special Edition Blu-ray release of Jules et Jim (DVD disc also included) far surpasses the previous Fox Lorber DVD release in almost every conceivable category.  Certainly, the bonus features alone should keep fans of the film entertained and occupied for quite some time.

Aside from the theatrical trailer, there are two commentary tracks and interview excerpts from The Key to Jules and Jim and Bibliothèque de poche, with additional comments from Truffaut about Roché.

The first commentary features co-writer Jean Gruault, Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, editor Claudine Bouché, and film scholar Annette Insdorf.  The edited contributions for this commentary were originally recorded in 1992 and mostly revolve around recollections about the film's production or about Truffaut himself.  However, Insdorf's comments are particularly insightful and focus primarily on the character of Catherine and her motivations.

The second commentary is essentially an interview between actress Jeanne Moreau and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana.  This audio track is entirely in French with English subtitles.  Moreau discusses her initial meeting with Truffaut, her work on his various films, and her relationship with the director.  Toubiana possesses a wealth of knowledge about Truffaut, although regrettably he seems content to merely pose questions while Moreau provides the bulk of the comments.

Of the two excerpts describing the basis behind the story of Jules and Jim, the first one (31 min.) is the longest and comes from the 1985 documentary The Key to Jules and Jim.  This documentary highlights the lives of the real people, Helen and Franz Hessel, who along with Henri-Pierre Roché inspired the characters in Roché's novel and Truffaut's film.  The reminiscences arise primarily from interviews with the Hessels' two surviving sons along with occasional comments from old family friends.  Old family portraits complement these interview clips.  The second excerpt (7 min.) is from a 1966 broadcast of the French program Bibliothèque de poche.  In this clip, Truffaut discusses his friendship with Roché, briefly compares the adaptation to the novel, and lastly shows various international editions of the novelist's famous book.

The "Truffaut on Truffaut" menu of the disc lists a series of interviews conducted over the years with Truffaut himself.  First is an excerpt (9 min.) from a 1965 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps.  In this particular episode, Truffaut talks about the Roché novel, the adaptation process, and the film's central theme about relationships.  Clips from the film also appear, including the final scene (probable spoilers here).  Truffaut discusses some of his editing techniques for the film as well.

Next is a segment (32 min.) from the 1969 French program L'Invité du dimanche.  Jeanne Moreau is seen commenting on Truffaut's personality and his directorial style, while a later interview offers Truffaut an opportunity to react or to respond to Moreau's observations.  Also included are a few words from legendary French director Jean Renoir.

Following that is a short clip (9 min.) from Truffaut's first American television appearance, a 1977 interview with New York Film Festival director Richard Roud for the arts program Camera Three.  The interview is conducted in French (with subtitles) as part of Truffaut's visit to America to promote his film The Man Who Loved Women.  Truffaut discusses the "auteur theory" of filmmaking, compares Jules and Jim with Two English Girls (based on another Roché novel), and considers reasons why his films are seemingly more popular overseas than in his native France.

Next, a long and particularly interesting excerpt (29 min.) arises from Truffaut's 1979 "Dialogue on Film" for American Film Institute.  In this excerpt, Truffaut addresses a group of film fans for a question-and-answer session (with cheerful English translation from film scholar Annette Insdorf).  Questions range from Truffaut's directorial style to his interactions with his actors.

Last in this set of Truffaut interviews is a 1980 archival radio conversation (28 min.) conducted between Truffaut and Claude-Jean Philippe.  The interview is subdivided into ten audio-only segments, each presented over a still photograph or promotional artwork from Jules and Jim.  Topics range from Jules and Jim's initial distribution difficulties in America, Truffaut's admiration for director Ernst Lubitsch, Truffaut's relationship with the actors in the film, and even a few words about the film's co-screenwriter Jean Gruault, too.

Next, there is an interview (19 min.) with director of photography Raoul Coutard, who had worked with many of the finest New Wave directors.  Coutard discusses the making of Jules and Jim and touches upon Truffaut's career.  Clips from the film accompany Coutard's anecdotes, which generally focus on the Caméflex photography system, lighting on the sets, and the film's cinematography.

Screenwriter Jean Gruault has his own interview, assembled from footage shot at the Cinémathèque Française and briefly used in the 1986 documentary Working with Truffaut.  The footage here represents the complete interview (21 min.), re-edited specifically for this DVD release.  Gruault discusses adapting Roché's novels to film, Truffaut's screen alter-ego Antoine Doinel, and several other Truffaut films upon which Gruault collaborated.

The last interview segment is a conversation (23 min.) between university professors Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew.  They speak about the cinematic techniques exploited by Truffaut in fully realizing his version of Jules and Jim.  The two film scholars also discuss various condensations of the novel's characters for the film adaptation as well as some of their personal favorite scenes from the film.

Finally, there is a stills gallery.  Aside from the usual promotional artwork, the gallery contains screenplay notes, script pages, and samples of Truffaut's correspondence with his colleagues, including Helen Hessel.  There are over thirty entries, not including various text pages describing the contents of the gallery.

Criterion is one of the few companies to include generous supplemental reading material in their Blu-ray packages, and a fine 44-page booklet has been included with Jules and Jim.  Apart from many production photographs and various notes concerning the film's cast and crew and the transfer itself, there are several worthwhile essays reprinted in this booklet.  The opening essay is "On Jules and Jim," a piece written by film critic John Powers.  This article provides a fairly good synopsis of the film as well as the characteristics which have made the film such a classic of the French New Wave.  The article is also a good introduction to the film and can be enjoyed without spoiling any of the film's plot elements.

Next, there is a triad of articles written by Truffaut himself during the 1950's when he was still a critic for Cahiers du cinéma.  The first article, "On The Naked Dawn," is a positive critique of a now-forgotten low-budget American Western film which contained at its core the relationship between two men and a woman.  This article is interesting not only for its historical perspective but also for the mention of Roché's novel "Jules and Jim" (this was six years before the release of Truffaut's film adaptation of the novel).  The second article, "French Cinema is Withering Under the Burden of False Legends," is a diatribe by Truffaut concerning the perceived decline of French cinema.  Within this article, we can witness the flowering of Truffaut's own determination to become a director himself and to liberate French cinema from its tired conventions.  The long third article, "Henri-Pierre Roché Revisited," is the introduction to a 1981 German edition of the novel "Jules and Jim."  Truffaut describes his enthusiasm for the novel and his faithful correspondence with Roché before the author's death.  Truffaut relates his own steps afterwards towards making the film  and his efforts to preserve the texture and tone of the novel (after the release of Jules and Jim, Truffaut even received a complimentary and grateful letter from Helen Hessel, who had been the inspiration for Kathe).  This article continues with a description of how Truffaut came to adapt another of Roché's novels - "Two English Girls."  Truffaut closes with an extensive biography of Roché's life.

The final article in the booklet is "Jules and Jim," a movie review written by Pauline Kael, perhaps the best-known American film critic of her day.  Kael showers accolades upon the film and presents a rather scholarly dissertation, but she gives away entirely too much of the plot.  Save this essay for last (after watching the film).

Summary:

I envy the first-time viewer of Jules and Jim.  Generally considered the crowning achievement of the New Wave, this film is one of François Truffaut's most exuberantly enjoyable films, a celebration of essential joie de vivre.  Criterion did a fine job with this superb Blu-ray release of Jules and Jim.  Top recommendation!

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