The Rear-View Mirror: Jules et Jim (1962)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Jules et Jim (1962) wasn’t my first film by François Truffaut, but it might as well have been: while I saw The Last Metro (1980) earlier, it didn’t fully register that this was a film directed by Truffaut, one of the founders of the French nouvelle vague, and I only remembered The Wild Child (1970) very, well, vaguely. In fact, I was more aware of Truffaut in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Watching Jules et Jim for the first time was a seminal experience, though, and it still is. I’d grown up watching a wide range of films and genres, from various countries, but as a kid and teenager I nonetheless associated black and white films with a certain, old-fashioned kind of filmmaking. I absolutely saw great black and white films when I was young, but I never consciously watched any that made me sit up and realise just how novel and exciting filmmaking could be as a medium. Even in my early 20s, I thought of black and white cinema as creating the traditions that later films and filmmakers would then develop, subvert and ignore.

What immediately struck me when I first saw Jules et Jim was its freshness. Its characters were fresh, its storytelling felt liberated from the conventions I’d come to expect, not just from black and white cinema but even from most more recent films. I realised just how much I was used to watching films where I generally knew what would happen next; I had no idea where Truffaut’s film would take the turn-of-the-century relationship between the Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) and the young German Jules (Oskar Werner). And I was definitely not prepared for Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine. She was mercurial, exuberant, capricious, but also narcissistic and, in psychological terms, quite possibly a sufferer of Borderline Personality Disorder – though no such terms could contain the character. For the viewer as much as for both Jules and Jim, it is impossible not to fall for Catherine, but as the film progresses it is impossible not to begin to fear her and the effect she has.

As I watched Jules et Jim, the structural and stylistic flourishes of the film began to remind me of later films that I’d seen first, from Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead (1999) to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie – though Truffaut’s film still felt fresh and original where some of the movies inspired by him would feel like reference and pastiche. I’ve since seen a few of Truffaut’s other films, coming to them with more awareness of the director and his oeuvre. I’ve enjoyed some, others less so. I intensely disliked Two English Girls (1971), based on a novel by the novelist who wrote Jules et Jim, which in spite of its many echoes of the earlier film felt like a tedious retread devoid of Jules et Jim‘s whirlwind charm and exuberance. I still want to watch more of them – but I suspect that Jules et Jim has ruined Truffaut for me, at least a little bit. I’ve seen many films that I love, but I haven’t fallen in love as quickly and as hard as I have with Jules and Jim and Catherine, their romance and their tragedy, with Truffaut’s direction, Raoul Coutard’s cinematography and Georges Delerue’s dreamlike, wonderful score. For me, Jules et Jim is the cinematic equivalent of truly falling in love for the first time.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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