France, before the First World War. Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) meets French Jim (Henri Serre) and they soon become the best of friends. Then they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who will have a major effect on both of their lives.
Henri-Pierre Roché's novel Jules et Jim was published in 1953, when the author was in his seventies, and told a story based on his own experiences fifty years earlier. François Truffaut found a second-hand copy of the novel and determined to film it. He contacted the now-elderly Roché and kept him informed of the progress of the film adaptation. His last letter to Truffaut approved of the casting of Jeanne Moreau. He died four days later. It was a lasting regret for Truffaut that Roché never got to see the film. A decade later, Truffaut adapted another of Roché's novels in Les deux anglaises et le continent (either Anne and Muriel or Two English Girls in English-speaking countries). Truffaut and Jean Gruault wrote the screenplay, staying as faithful as possible to it: the narration by Michel Subor is often word-for-word.
Jules et Jim was a success and rapidly gathered a cult following. This was at a time when cinema was very much in the cultural frontline, and anyone who wished to stay up to date, or be seen to stay up to date, had to see the latest Bergman or Kurosawa...and, of directors who made their reputations a little later, Antonioni, Fellini and the French New Wave. While it was a historical story, and underneath the New Wave stylistics a conventionally structured novel adaptation, there was something new and fresh to Jules et Jim, something that seemed very modern. That's partly because it's still the work of a young man (Truffaut was thirty in the year of its release) and because it had an attitude that marked it out from films that came before it, the “cinéma du papa” that the New Wave directors, in their previous careers as critics, had been quick to deride. 1962 is a little early for what we think of as the Sixties, but certainly something was in the air. One of the less elevated reasons for people, in the UK and USA especially, for watching European films was the fact that they were more liberal in the depiction of sexual relationships. While there's nothing graphic in Jules et Jim (what once earned a BBFC X certificate for sexual references now carries a PG), it does centre on a love triangle, not strictly polygamy but serial monogamy, which was not something you were likely to see in films which spoke in English.
While Jules et Jim is undoubtedly a love story, it's one of the platonic love between the two men of the title, from beginning to bittersweet end. While Jeanne Moreau made an indelible impression as the free-spirited Catherine, and has top billing, the film isn't ultimately about her, though it is about the impact she has on the lives of Jules and Jim. The other women in the story – Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) and Thérèse (Marie Dubois) – move in and out of the story but the focus is on the central threesome. Following Fido in Shoot the Pianist, we have another young child in the shape of Sabine (Sabine Haudepin, who acted again for Truffaut as a child in his next film, La peau douce and as an adult in The Last Metro). without too much of the sentimentality that Truffaut was prone to when dealing with children.
Jules et Jim wears its historical setting lightly: with only one caption indicating the passing of time (at the end) we pick up on the passing of years in other ways. We travel from a Great War in which Jules and Jim fought on different sides (and Jim was scared of having to kill Jules in conflict) to a Europe on the brink of another war, with footage of book burnings, oddly prefiguring Truffaut's next film but one, Fahrenheit 451, which also starred Oskar Werner. (Ten years older than Truffaut, Werner died two days after him.) As with his earlier two features, there's a stylistic joie de vivre to Jules et Jim: a mobile camera, freeze-frames, Truffaut narrowing the Scope frame, and not only to include archive footage, before widening it out again. Raoul Coutard's black and white cinematography is exemplary. The film also has a great score by Georges Delerue that Time magazine listed as one of the ten best soundtracks of all time.
Jules et Jim marked a turning point in Truffaut's career. With his next film, La peau douce (The Soft Skin en anglais), Truffaut moved back to contemporary times, and a more classical form of filmmaking, less a young man's film but a fully adult one. Jules et Jim is many people's favourite amongst Truffaut's films, to the extent where there has been a tendency to overrate it, and then as a result underrate it. Either way, it's a delight.
Jules et Jim is one of twelve Truffaut films that Artificial Eye are reissuing on Blu-ray and DVD. They will be released as single discs two at a time at fortnightly intervals, then as part of the six-disc boxset François Truffaut Collection Volume 2 on 1 December 2014. A DVD checkdisc was received for review and comments below and affiliate links above refer to that edition. Affiliate links for the Blu-ray can be found here. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.
Shot in Scope with anamorphic lenses, Jules et Jim gets a widescreen-enhanced DVD transfer in the correct ratio of 2.35:1, and looks very nice. With black and white films, contrast is vital and this looks pretty much as I remember from my two viewings of this film in 35mm, though without the print damage of course!
The soundtrack is the original mono and is clear and well balanced, with Delerue's score coming through very well. The film is almost all in French, with some lines spoken in German by Werner and one line in English by Moreau. In a couple of places there are French subtitles translating German dialogue on screen, but they would seem to be part of the original materials this transfer was derived from. English subtitles are optional for the feature and the extras. (The extras not carried over are a television interview with Truffaut from 1965 in which he talks about certain scenes in the film, and an interview the following year in which he talks about Henri-Pierre Roché. These extras have English subtitles available on the French DVD.)
Jules et Jim was first released on DVD in France by MK2 in 2002, and some, though not all the extras, have been brought over to this disc. It begins with a short introduction by Serge Toubiana (3:48), as usual a brisk overview with Toubiana speaking over stills from the film (and some extracts from the soundtrack). This is divided into sections, dealing with Truffaut discovering Roché and their subsequent friendly correspondence, the use of a third-person narrator, the positive experience of making the film and its worldwide success.
Next up is a commentary, recorded in 2000, with Jeanne Moreau. This is actually an interview with Moreau conducted by Toubiana (uncredited on this disc). There are some gaps as Moreau seems to take a while to warm up to the conversation, but it covers a lot of ground, including her meeting with Truffaut (who made her read the novel) and such episodes where she jumped into the Seine for real and was ill for a couple of days afterwards as a result.
Finally, there is the original trailer (3:10), presented in anamorphic 2.35:1.