Monday, 9 July 2012

Jules et Jim (1962)

I'm going to be a pretentious cineaste loser for a minute and talk about the French New Wave. If you don't know the French New Wave, here are the essentials: late Fifties-ish to late Sixties-ish. French (obviously). Black and white. Weird, choppy editing. Crappy film stock quality. Shot on location. Near-adolescent directors. Not all of that is true of every New Wave film, but those are the basics. The darlings of the movement were Francois Truffaut (Jules et Jim, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Pierrot le fou, Band of Outsiders). Truffaut died in 1984. Godard's still puttering around with a movie camera making stuff that's more incomprehensible than ever. Good for him.

The New Wave oscillated wildly between being transcendentally good and mind-numbingly, bogglingly bad -- not only between films, but also within films. Jules et Jim contains both the transcendental and the boggling, but the emphasis is, thankfully, on the former.

Jeanne Moreau: avoiding skin cancer before it was cool!
Jules et Jim (1962) is a bromance for the ages. Jules (Oskar Werner) is a shy Austrian, Jim (Henri Serre) a Parisian playboy, and both are writer/journalist/translators who lend credence to my favorite Hunter S. Thompson quote: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits -- a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage." Truffaut's two fuckoff-misfits forge a friendship over their mutual loserdom: soon they're writing memoirs about each other, having matching white suits made, and starting rumors about exactly how platonic they really are. Then they meet The Girl. Oh, shit.

Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) is a card-carrying, dues-paying Manic Pixie Dream Girl: a nauseatingly overused character type nowadays, but maybe relatively fresh in Truffaut's time. She endears herself to Jules and Jim by doing stupid things like drawing on a fake mustache, carrying around a vial of sulfuric acid to throw in the face of a hated ex-boyfriend, and jumping into the Seine to get away from an annoying conversation. Naturally, Jules and Jim fall desperately in love with her, and Catherine proceeds to date one, then the other, for literally like thirty years. One day, she gets bored and takes Jim for a joyride off a cliff, leaving Jules to have his friends cremated. Boo hoo hoo, The End.

Catherine is, without a doubt, the worst thing about Jules et Jim. I don't care if Moreau's performance was #80 on Premiere Magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. I don't care if Faye Dunaway did base her performance in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) on Catherine. I don't care if Jeanne Moreau is the greatest actress in French cinema, or in the world, for that matter. Catherine doesn't have a personality, she only has quirks. She doesn't have motivations, she only has appetites. Worst of all, she isn't interesting: she's just weird. Jules et Jim spends way too much time documenting her various exhausting foibles and not nearly enough time on its title characters, whose relationship is what's the real point here.

But now and then, quietly, Jules et Jim is brilliant. Rapid editing around shots of an ancient statue, making it look "alive", anticipates Kubrick's "dancing" Jesus figurines in A Clockwork Orange (1971). On the other end of the spectrum, sudden freeze frame-closeups "immortalize" Catherine's beauty, carving it in celluloid stone. An original song, "Le tourbillon", is both the climax and the touchstone of the film: its lyrics underscore the heroes' tumultuous journey, and the song itself is a delicate and lovely example of early 60s folk (never mind that the movie is set around WWI). It's too bad these lovely gems are mired in a sea of footage of Jeanne Moreau looking endlessly moody and gorgeous.

Jules et Jim gets a 3/5. What!, say film critics everywhere. A 3/5! Don't you know this movie is seminal! A work of genius! A masterpiece of the French New Wave! Blah blah blah, whatever. Like I said in my review for Gun Crazy, the fact that a movie is influential doesn't mean it's flawless.

I visited France in 2008-ish and people were STILL allowed to smoke in restaurants. Ugh.
SCENE STEALER: Marie Dubois as Therese, Jules' (or was it Jim's?) cafe groupie. Therese introduces herself as "the steam engine" because she can smoke a cigarette with the lit end inside her mouth, which is maybe the fin de siecle equivalent of being able to tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue. Dubois' filmography is Frencher than French and I haven't seen any of it, but IMDB says she played Hortense in Le legs, which is the most straightforward title I've heard in a long time.

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