Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #110 - Jules and Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut)

François Truffaut pulls out all the cinematic stops in his 1962 masterpiece, Jules and Jim: voice over, dolly shots, aerials, pans, wipes, masking, freeze frames, photographic stills, newsreel footage. It’s like an overflowing portfolio of the possibilities of film. And it’s a great story: two good friends, Jules and Jim, a German and Frenchman, live the bohemian life in Paris before World War I, drinking wine in cafes, talking about art, looking for love. A friend gives them a slide show of ancient statues and they’re both taken by a marble portrait of a woman with a mysterious smile. A few days later, they meet a woman named Catherine who looks just like the sculpture, and so begins a 25-year saga in which both men are in love and obsessed with her, and their triangular relationship shifts dramatically over the years. It’s storytelling at its most sophisticated, with an almost musical quality, more like a symphony than a movie. At times, years go by in a breathless whir, as the narrator spins the yarn of the increasing complexity of the trio’s love. Other times the pace suddenly slows, often to a complete stop, with a freeze frame of the lovely Catherine, her blond hair backlit by the sun. Or it’ll linger on a seemingly mundane scene, maybe Catherine and Jim packing a suitcase, or the three of them drinking wine in a meadow, or riding their bikes on a tree-lined lane. It’s all so beautiful, and all of it together—the fast parts, the slow parts, the panacea of motion picture technique—gives the film a fullness that’s rare in movies.
The film won the Grand Prix (predecessor to the Palme d’Or) at Cannes, and is often included on lists of the best movies of all times. It’s inspired generations of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, who specifically hailed it as a precursor of the riveting pace of Goodfellas. In a gushing review, Roger Ebert wrote, “Jules and Jim was perhaps the most influential and arguably the best of (the French New Wave’s) first astonishing films that broke with the past. There is joy in the filmmaking that feels fresh today and felt audacious at the time.” Indeed, it still feels like cutting-edge art, despite being more than 50 years old and in black and white. And not just stylistically. Even though the story is set in the early 20th Century, and the film came out a few years before the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, the tragic romance feels contemporary, and infidelity abounds. Catherine is as liberated and self-assured as any character who might grace the screen today, in many ways even more so. And that’s what makes this film a true classic, its timelessness. In another fifty years, Jules and Jim will no doubt be as poignant as it was when it came out, and as it is now.

- Joe Miller

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