Cinema Du Fils: Francois Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim (1962) – Blu-ray review
Truffaut’s cinematic verve is never in doubt – but why would anybody want to spend time with two lovesick idiots and their emotional torturer?
Jules Et Jim
(Francois Truffaut, 1962)
If you’ve ever wondered why the films of the French New Wave are so committed to breaking rules and dazzling us with style, it’s because of the directors’ disdain for what came before. The so-called Cinema Du Papa (“Dad’s cinema”) was ponderous, talky and static: a reverent retelling of classic stories made for the dinner-and-theatre set. For Godard and Truffaut, that was a crime, a waste of cinema’s potential, so they determined to bring energy and passion back to the big screen.
No film encapsulates that better than Jules Et Jim – in outline, a period melodrama but one made with all of the bells and whistles of the early 1960s. Truffaut refused to compromise on chronology; the result is a film brimming with camera movements and devices (voiceover, freeze frame, shifts in aspect ratio). In content and tone, too, Truffaut forges his own path, basing the movie on a little-known second-hand novel about a bohemian threesome between the title characters and the woman they both love. This isn’t Dad’s Cinema, but his son’s.
The trouble lies in Truffaut’s exuberance; a youngster (and Truffaut was only just 30, an infant compared to other directors) isn’t necessarily the best judge of his material. Truffaut seemingly never stopped long enough to realise that these characters are pretentious fools. The titular duo spend their lives in indolent isolation from the real world, working (allegedly) as writers but mostly playing dominoes or taking extended holidays. They are such proto-hipsters than not even the shattering impact of the First World War can stop their solipsism; the misfortune of fellow comrades in the trenches just provides fresh stories for them to tell.
As for their love lives… these guys have to grow up, but are so besotted with Catherine that they become masochistic, lovesick idiots in her company. Jules is willing to be cuckolded, provided he can bask in the reflected glory of it being his best friend who’s usurped him. Jim, meanwhile, vacillates between being in or out until it’s a wonder anybody will put up with him.
The object of their affection has been held up as one of great women in cinema, a free-spirited muse who refuses to be pigeon-holed by the male gaze. True enough, she is far from the embryonic Manic Pixie Dream Girl type she’s painted as in the first act, winning hearts with a painted-on moustache and cheating in races. But what, really, do we learn about her? As Moreau sits there, eyeing up her co-stars like a cat toying with mice, we learn that she is cruel and capricious, with a default setting of passive-aggressiveness that punishes those who love her by being openly unfaithful. At best, she is deeply annoying; at worst, a misogynist stereotype about the unknowability of women.
The style papers over the cracks. George Delerue’s music is dainty, then tragic, in the right proportion. Raoul Coutard’s camerawork has the musicality you’d expect from his work with Godard, but also a sense of elegiac, late afternoon light that repositions the trio’s First World Problems as grand tragedy. And then there’s Truffaut, who brazens out the falseness by emphasising how fun their lives are and how said it all is when they’re not having fun.
There’s no denying that the effect is a rush, and it’s no wonder that the film has become something of a Bible for independently-minded directors, especially in America: Scorsese and Tarantino borrowed Truffaut’s stylistic brio, while Wes Anderson stole the faux-literary elegance. The trouble is, what goes around, comes around – fifty years on, it has become a canonised classic, beloved of exactly the middlebrow intelligentsia who Truffaut was against. Inevitably, the Cinema Du Fils has become, in essence, the Cinema Du Papa.