Riding the New Wave: A second pass at Truffaut
“Riding the New Wave” revisits the seminal films of the French New Wave movement in cinema that helped to redefine the art form in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series aims not to question the films’ places on cinema’s highest pedestals, but rather to view them with an eye for the modern audience to try to determine if they could still entertain today.
François Truffaut’s 1962 romance “Jules and Jim” chronicles the tragic love triangle of three European writers as it develops through the first half of the 20 century. Best friends, the German Jules (Oskar Werner, “Fahrenheit 451”) and the French Jim (Henri Serre, “The Fire Within”), each stumble helplessly in love with the beautiful Catherine (Jeanne Moreau, “The Lovers”) and all her dangerous eccentricities. Told in three acts that each take place years apart, Truffaut uses benchmarks like the first World War and Jim’s disappearing French mustache to indicate that time has passed.
Telling the story spread out over time is a step away from the fast-paced, almost real-time standard of the New Wave, becoming reminiscent — ironically, due to the whole pretense of the movement — of a book. Instead of explaining the thoughts and desires of its characters through the limited scope of one or two insulated incidents, “Jules and Jim” shades towards showing the development of the characters over the course of their lives, more like “Les Misérables” than “Breathless.” And the presence of history even gives the film the same feeling of weight as something like “Les Mis,” turning it into a story about much more than just love turned sour. “Jules and Jim” has the atmosphere of a big film.
Despite all the great set-up, the love triangle that drives the narrative doesn’t satisfy. Jules and Catherine marry initially, but she doesn’t stay loyal to him for very long. By the time he has returned from the war, they have their first child and she has turned cold. Catherine’s infidelities are declared with the same lack of gusto with which someone might announce they have buttered a piece of toast. It’s hard to do justice to how passé the characters respond, it really just feels like Jules and Jim don’t care that the woman they are so dedicated to doesn’t seem to give a damn about them.
The frustrating part is how near-perfectly the love triangle is laid out. When Catherine begins to slide out of love of Jules, there should be tension. Instead, Jules resigns himself to living across the hall with his entomology work, asking Jim to love her so he can continue to see her in his life. But I have to stress: There’s an absence of emotion in any of these interactions. Jules has no resentment for either his best friend or his wife, who his best friend is trying to conceive a child with. It’s an absolute whiff.
And even as Catherine continues her adulterous tour-de-France outside of the two friends, neither rise to question her, as though they’re so captivated, so in love, that they can’t say a word. I don’t buy it. The film lacks the passion it needs to pull off the circumstances it sets up.
Though it’s not all loss. “Jules and Jim,” though unable to resonate emotionally with me, is unquestionably a beautiful film. Truffaut seemed to have developed as a photographer in the two years since his debut feature “400 Blows,” his eye for composition almost unmatched here. And if not quintessential New Wave in its narrative approach, “Jules and Jim” can sit comfortably as a revolutionary picture by its drive to experiment. At times shrinking to a pinhole or expanding from a point, Truffaut’s frame takes the viewers’ eyes on a carefully manicured tour of European country sides and tempered city vistas. The director even goes so far as to halt the picture altogether with a few momentary freeze-frames on Catherine’s face, as though burning her image into the film-reel as it is burned into her two lovers’ minds.
I can’t definitively say to avoid “Jules and Jim,” as there are aspects to it that succeed. If anything, out of all the films I’ve written about, it may be the most of-another-time, as the on-screen expectations of the actors have changed over the past 60 years. The human faults that Truffaut deals with in the subject matter are accessible even today — the most important theme being the question of, “How much of love is taking the risk that what you have is good enough?” “Jules and Jim” crafts a little world on the bank of the Rhine into a place where these questions spring up effortlessly out of the souls of the characters living there, if only the characters had put more soul on screen to prove that they have any reason to ask.
“I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.”