Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #4: Jules and Jim

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

I watched François Truffaut's Jules and Jim for the first time with a dude. And not as part of a sophisticated liberal arts kid movie night where we drank wine and ate camembert. It was more, "Yo, I don't feel like doing homework right now. Wanna watch Jules and Jim?" We're both film snobs, so that wasn't an incredibly weird occurence.

I enjoyed my first viewing immensely. The photography, the music, the sheer exuberance of Truffaut's masterpiece was intoxicating. The romance, though, seemed at odds with our particular viewing: two guys drinking skunked Coors Light on my crappy apartment couch aren't the ideal audience for a story about a love so strong it defies the concept of fidelity. I resolved to watch the thing with a girl.

Fast-forward to 2011. New girlfriend, first Valentine's Day, and I need to watch a movie for this feature. Sounds like a job for Jules and Jim.

When Truffaut discovered Henri-Pierre Roché's autobiographical novel Jules et Jim in the 1950s, he was immediately smitten. "If I ever succeed in making films," Truffaut said, "I'll make Jules and Jim." High praise, especially for someone who had already secured a place in film history with gritty bildungsroman The 400 Blows and edgy noir tribute Shoot the Piano Player.

Nevertheless, adapting a story like Jules and Jim must have been a difficult task. The movie that emerged isn't so much a conventional narrative as it is a series of what might be called "emotional setpieces" punctuated by blasts of narration and stock footage when it's necessary to accelerate the timeline. I doubt the book was much easier to get your head around.

In general, the film follows the dalliances of the idealistic, doe-eyed Jules (Oskar Werner) and cool-as-ice Jim (Henri Serre), with a mustache any Williamsburg hipster would die for. One's Austrian and the other's French, but they share a love for the Bohemian lifestyle had come into fashion in France in the 19th century. They fence, they go dancing, they attend slideshows curated by their similarly-mustachioed foppish friends.

It's at one of these slideshows that the two become infatuated with a statue of an unnamed goddess. Her features instantly graft themselves onto the pair's memory. Who should come along shortly after but the sublimely flighty Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), with a face that seems the spitting image of the statue.

The rest of the film follows the love triangle between Jules, Jim, and Catherine. Catherine is nominally Jules' girlfriend (and eventual wife), but she doesn't really belong to anyone at all. She's more like an eternal idea manifested in an impulsive 20th century French dame. "She's a force of nature that manifests itself in cataclysms," Jules tells us towards the end of the film. She, for instance, jumps into the river just so that the men will fish her out.

We watch as Catherine leads the two to an idyllic French country house, then back to the city. She spends most of the film leading the men in her life around by the nose, only occasionally committing half-heartedly to other's plans (Jules: "I've asked her to marry me, and she's more or less agreed"). The love triangle deepens, and Jules and Jim begin sharing Catherine in what is a surprisingly easy truce. The center cannot hold, though, and Catherine shatters the detente in the end. I'll not ruin the absurdity of the turn.

The film, then, is less a love story and more an account of how infatuation affects the friendship between two men. And Catherine is less a woman than the Platonic form of that infatuation.

So if it's not exactly I Love You, Man, it's ironically not a bad movie to watch with your guy friends. And not a bad movie for Valentine's Day, but not the ideal pairing I was hoping for. C'est la vie.

- Photo via Obsessed with Film