Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Kiss in My Mind

I finally, FINALLY saw Jules et Jim one of the biggies from the never shrinking list of classic foreign films I haven't seen. Within about one minute of screen-time it was IMMEDIATELY apparent that this was going to be an outstanding film and I gave myself a good mental kick to the bottom for waiting so long to see it. Right off the bat is the lovely restoration that Criterion has given the film. This is a very pristine print they were using, nicely complimenting the lush black and whites captured by DP Raoul Coutard. I am in awe of director Francois Truffaut's professional and revolutionary sensibilities only a handful of shorts and two features into his career. Truffaut demonstrates adroit mastery of filmic narrative still fresh into his career. You want a prime example of style informing substance? One need only examine the first hour of Jules et Jim wherein the action cuts with extreme rapidity and frenetic narration filling in the gaps so as to convey the wild and reckless abandon of youth as evinced by its titular protagonists.

While the film does have a structured story and theme, Truffaut doesn't mind slowing things down and let us get a feel for these characters (all of whom he has tremendous affection for). Truffat wants us to live in the rumpled skin of his characters, see how they think, how they love and how they examine the world. For all the exciting stylization the performances come off as so breezy and naturalistic that there is a genuine sense of knowing these characters. Listening to them ruminate on love, on women, one life, is so freeing, so soothing that one gets the sense of being wrapped up in the film.
The plot? We follow Jules (a then callow Oskar Werner), an Austrian expatriate in France and his new best buddy Jim (the dapper Henri Serre who has, easily, one of my favorite cinema mustaches ever [Peter-list idea?]) in the immortal quest for love, or at least meaningful female companionship. After trying and striking out a couple of times Jules meets Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) and after warning off ladies-man Jim, pursues her. The three become fast friends but there is romantic tension everywhere. World War I separates the trio, both men are drafted on their opposing sides and both are terrified they may encounter each other in battle and be forced to kill the other. Truffaut brilliantly inter-cuts stock footage of the war with his own scenes (a move that surely influenced the bettered technique of Phillip Kaufman in Unbearable Lightness of Being) and after the war the film's tone and tenor changes, very much matching the feeling of Europe itself. The film becomes more somber, more reflective (and if it were even possible, more wistful). Jules, Jim and Catherine go round and round. At first I thought Catherine a manic-pixie-dream girl, a fore-bearer to the likes of Annie Hall or Sam in Garden State. But Catherine is a bit more complex than either of those women. She's not a quick fix for the leads or a playful mystery to be unraveled. She is a complex woman who wants to play by her own rules. My perception of her was continuously changing as I watched the film and my sense is that in future viewings this will continue. It's a rich film that constantly has you re-assessing it and perceiving in new and different ways. You don't me to tel you why Jules et Jim is great, I'm just another chit to throw on the critical dog-pile of love for the film. But if you haven't seen it use this article as an excuse to not waste one more second NOT having seen it.

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