Jules and Jim
Friday December, 29 2017 at 08:00 PM
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"I wanted to make a subversive film of total sweetness," Francois Truffaut said of his third - and arguably his greatest - feature film, Jules and Jim (1962). Truffaut especially liked the notion of turning the potentially scandalous story of a menage trios into a lyrical romance: "What amused me was that we were going to have a terribly original, daring situation that we would render plausible and acceptable to everyone within a framework like a pre-war MGM film, where people grow old peacefully in their homes in the company of their grandchildren."
Besides being an avid filmgoer as a teenager, Truffaut read a great deal of literature and built up a substantial collection of books. Throughout his life he liked to reread his favorite novels, marking up his copies with prodigious notes and underlining. Some of his favorite authors included Balzac, Proust, Cocteau, Celine and later Henri-Pierre Roche, whose 1953 novel Jules et Jim formed the basis for Truffaut's film. Roche (1879-1959) drew inspiration from his real-life love triangle with Franz Hessel and Helen Grund, whom Franz eventually married. During much of his life, Roche collected art and associated with many leading modern artists in the Parisian art scene, among them Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. He didn't publish Jules et Jim until he was already in his seventies and managed to complete only one more novel - Les Deux Anglaises et le continent (1956) before his death in 1959. (Truffaut adapted the latter work in 1971 as Two English Girls.) Roche's incomplete third novel, Victor, was published in 1977.
In his widely translated introduction to a subsequent edition of Jules et Jim, Truffaut noted that he first came across the book in 1955, a few years after its initial publication. He wrote: "I was discovering, in Henri-Pierre Roche, a writer who seemed to me to be stronger than Cocteau, for he achieved the same kind of poetic prose using a less extensive vocabulary, and making ultra-short sentences from everyday words. Through Roche's style emotion is born out of the void, the emptiness of all the rejected words, it's even born out of ellipsis." Truffaut further noted that Roche arrived at his unique style through a laborious process of weeding out any extraneous language, sometimes reducing an entire manuscript page to a handful of sentences. When Truffaut praised the novel in the middle of a film review--for an Edgar G. Ulmer Western, no less!--Roche wrote a letter in response and the two began regular correspondence.
Truffaut and Jean Gruault's screenplay for Jules and Jim went through a similar process of constant pruning and refinement. Gruault was a theater actor and had collaborated with Jacques Rivette on the script for the long-gestating Paris Belongs to Us (1961) before Truffaut sought him out for help with the adaptation. Truffaut was especially concerned about preserving the novel's distinctive language in the voiceover narration. For the initial drafts of the screenplay, Gruault literally cut and pasted sentences and entire passages from multiple copies of the novel onto pages of the script. Truffaut himself underlined passages that he wanted to keep. While attempting to remain faithful to the novel's style and its overall plot, Truffaut changed the story so that the character of Catherine (Kathe in the novel) made her first appearance earlier. In general, Truffaut and Gruault allowed themselves the freedom to shift some passages around and put dialogue in the mouths of different characters. They also excised a number of characters, condensing details from different female love interests into the single figure of Catherine. Despite all these changes, Helen Hessel--the real life Kathe/Catherine--wrote a letter to Truffaut after seeing the film, declaring that the director had somehow succeeded at capturing "the essential quality of our intimate emotions."
For the cast, Truffaut chose Henri Serre because of his physical resemblance to Roche and Oskar Werner because of his work in Max Ophuls' Lola Montes (1955), one of Truffaut's favorite films. The film's real star, Jeanne Moreau, was not only a gifted actress but had earned a reputation for a certain fearlessness thanks to the sexually explicit love scene in Louis Malle's The Lovers (1958). Truffaut decided to shoot the film almost entirely "wild," or without sound. The actors dubbed the dialogue in post-production, with the important exception of the musical performances by Boris Bassiak (Serge Rezvani) and Jeanne Moreau, which were recorded live. In a 2003 interview for the Criterion Collection DVD, the cinematographer Raoul Coutard stated that the film was shot with a Camiflex, a smaller, lighter camera model that allowed a great deal of flexibility during the shoot. For many scenes the only crew members present were Coutard, the focus puller and Truffaut. This allowed for a greater sense of emotional intimacy in the actors' performances.
Truffaut and his editor Claudine Bouche ultimately took nine months to edit the film, which is not surprising considering its numerous expansions and contractions of time and the delicate changes of mood it sets up throughout. Truffaut even had Michel Subor re-record parts of the voiceover narration to mesh better with Georges Delerue's score. Everyone's collective efforts evidently paid off, for the finished film has continued to captivate audiences worldwide ever since its first release.
Producer: Marcel Berbert (uncredited) and Francois Truffaut
Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut and Jean Gruault
Director of Photography: Raoul Coutard
Production Design: Fred Capel (uncredited)
Film Editing: Claudine Bouche
Music: Georges Delerue
Script Supervisor: Suzanne Schiffman (uncredited)
Cast: Jeanne Moreau (Catherine), Oskar Werner (Jules), Henri Serre (Jim), Vanna Urbino (Gilberte), Boris Bassiak (Albert), Anny Nelsen (Lucie), Sabine Haudepin (Sabine), Marie Dubois (Therese), Michel Subor (Narrator).
by James Steffen
De Baecque, Antoine and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Le Berre, Carole. Franois Truffaut at Work. Londond: Phaidon Press, 2005.
Roche, Henri-Pierre. Jules et Jim. Translated by Patrick Evans, with an introduction by Franois Truffaut. London and New York: Marion Boyars, 1993.