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Fox Lorber presents
"I'm afraid she will never be happy on this earth. She has a vision. Maybe she can't belong to just one man."
DVD ReviewWith his third feature (after The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player), François Truffaut made that leap from promising young filmmaker to nouvelle vague master. Jules et Jim, adapted from a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, is not only a fine film in its own right, but in many ways is the apex of a certain style of French filmmaking, the long shadow of which looms over much of cinema, on both sides of the Atlantic, even decades later.
The setup isn't remarkable: Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), who's French, are fast friends in Paris in 1912, nearly inseparable. The titanic event is when Catherine comes to lunch—played by Jeanne Moreau, Catherine is the kind of woman you ruin your life for, and the boys come under her hypnotic spell. Jules wins her heart, but domestic bliss isn't what Catherine has in mind, and the Great War interferes with their quests for happiness. Jules and Jim fight on opposite sides of the war, but pick up the baton of their friendship shortly after the armistice, as Jules and Catherine are ensconced in a farmhouse, with their charming little daughter Sabine. That certainly doesn't mean, however, that all is happiness, and their searches for love, friendship and camaraderie, in every conceivable permutation, play out over the rest of the movie.
The bohemian antebellum age is finely rendered, as is the haunted postwar world, in which most of the story takes place; despite being a period piece, and despite being forty years old now, the characters are thoroughly human and recognizable. Truffaut is intent on displaying his virtuosity, and he does so to great effect, using many of the arrows in his director's quiver, technically especially: freeze frames, handheld shots, whip pans, dissolves and dollies, aerial shots. But it's his compassion for his characters that make it more than an empty formal exercise.The trio of actors at the center give fine performances. Werner, the Austrian among the French, seems forever slightly heartbroken, ever the outsider. Serre didn't go on to a career of great accomplishment, but he's a winning Jim, and in many ways it's Moreau who is at the heart of the picture. She was already a star of considerable magnitude, but this isn't a diva's turn—she's working it, even if sometimes her character seems more symbol than human being.
She's a sexy and empowered woman, but in many ways Catherine could only be portrayed in a time before feminism. She's described, literally, as a force of nature ("She's an irresistible force that can't be stopped"), a queen, and you get the sense that not only Jules and Jim but also Truffaut are almost afraid of Catherine, this goddess of the nouvelle vague. And it's her sexual power that leads to some of the weaker moments in the film, the symbolism that's absurdly overt—for instance, the cuckolded husband sawing logs in a gesture of emasculation as his wife cavorts with another man, in the family house. (There are no shortage of suitors for Catherine throughout the movie, including Albert, the next-door neighbor and Jules's friend, who actively encourages her to leave her husband, in front of him.) She's the catalyst for all the action, but at times she seems too inscrutable, too high up on Parnassus for mere mortal men to win over, or even to understand.
The ménage a trois at the center of the story was deeply shocking in its time, and it may be the mark of the movie's influence that it now seems almost the weakest part of Jules et Jim, sort of a French version of Three's Company that takes itself far too seriously. There are some conversations that are little more than ruminations on the nature of existence, and given that Truffaut is such a fine filmmaker, you just want him to do something, instead of offering this graduate seminar mock profundity. But you can feel Truffaut chafing against French film conventions, and asking the same questions along with his characters: does bourgeois life fit these free spirits? How are we to find happiness? Is monogamy natural, or an impossible social convention?
It's hard not to sound a little silly when describing one's philosophy of life—one person's credo is another trite aphorism. But Truffaut and his cast don't overdo it, and while every now and again you may roll your eyes—oh, those self-involved French—far more often you'll find yourself engrossed in the psychological nuances of these people.
As the characters evolve, your reactions to them grow and change as well—is Catherine absolutely bonkers, or just a woman caught in an impossible situation? Is Jules a weak-willed poet, or a hopeless simp? Is Jim fueled by unescapable passion, or simply a bad friend? Truffaut happily leaves us to draw our own conclusions. The movie remains very much of its time, and while the shock value of the central narrative has dissipated—it's become the stuff of cable movies of the week, at best—the level of technical accomplishment in the filmmaking and the profound compassion for a number of characters, who are frequently at odds with one another, mark this as one of the great ones.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The print seems to be a sloppy one, and it remains that way in the transfer. While the black levels aren't too bad, the film is loaded with scratches and blotches, as well as with serious resolution issues—slats on window shutters glow because they're too close together. A film of this stature deserves better video presentation in this digital format.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: Hiss is especially bad over the opening credits, which makes you think that you're in for serious trouble, but that's about the worst of it. Otherwise, the sound is clear and the dynamics are sufficiently steady.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 6 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups), Two English Girls (Les Deux anglaises et le continent), The Last Metro (Le denier métro), The Woman Next Door (La Femme d'à côté), Confidentially Yours (Vivement dimanche!), Stolen Kisses (Basiers volés), Bed & Board (Domicile conjugal) , Love on the Run (L'Amour en fuite)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Glenn Kenny
Selected filmographies are provided for Truffaut, Moreau, Werner and Serre, along with lists of awards received over the years, for all but Serre. The featurette (02m:15s), billed as a Tribute to Jeanne Moreau, is little more than sort of an early music video—it's principally clips of Moreau from the feature over a song she sings in it.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsIf you're feeling contrary, tell your favorite film fan that you hate Jules et Jim. But be prepared to hear an earful, because its spirit remains animated and its director's accomplishment here is remarkable. Technical presentation on this DVD could be stronger, but now that a word like "masterpiece" gets bandied about, check out this disc if you want to see the real deal.
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