Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Seventeen

60s 17

#17 — Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
And so here it is: not necessarily the best film to burst out of the French New Waves, but perhaps the quintessential example of the revolutionary movement and all the possibility it held, and then bestowed upon every filmmaker hearty enough to learn its myriad lessons. Only the third feature from director François Truffaut, Jules and Jim is, in some ways, simplicity itself. Based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the film is about three people: Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) and the two men, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), who love her. In the most crucial ways, it is the complete opposite of simplicity, taking decades of established film language and spinning it around like a pinwheel, marveling as the new colors created in the blur of movement. Truffaut is probably my favorite of the New Wave practitioners, because his approach to his art seems informed by the purest love of the pliable nature of cinema. “Of course I love movies,” Truffaut seems to cry. “Look at everything they can do!

The text of the film concerns itself with the freedom of youth, which beautifully complements Truffaut’s extended thesis about the freedom of cinema. The director employs every technique he can think of–editing tricks, unique framing, lighting maneuvers, freeze frames, dissolves and on and on–all in the name of expertly drawing out the heart of his material. His approach to well-worn filmmaking mechanics is simultaneously adoring and deconstructionist, injecting a vibrant freshness to the familiar moves. After years of Hollywood master craftsmen did their damnedest to make such things all but invisible to the average user–the tools meant to coax along the drama and goose certain reactions almost surreptitiously–Truffaut and his cohorts put them on display, spinning the klieg light so it pointed right at them. Famously a critic first, Truffaut was a student of cinema before he was an artist who claimed it as his favored medium, meaning many of his films were built on the foundation of his studious knowledge. Jules and Jim, though early in his career, sometimes plays like the final exam with which he shares absolutely everything he’s learned.

Of course, if all he delivered was–and let’s go ahead and use the French here–a tour de force of technique, it would be a giddy exercise in explicitly rendered craft and not much else. Truffaut, though, was a deeply empathetic creator. Where his contemporary Jean-Luc Godard could occasionally default to a clinical precision with his similarly sharp excavations of film syntax, Truffaut always kept the characters–the people–in his films at the forefront. His romance with film was never at the expense of his duty as a storyteller, a creator with an obligation to illuminate the nuances of the human condition with his work. Truffaut’s playfulness is threaded throughout Jules and Jim, but it’s actually his attention to the complicated relationships within the narrative that defines it. Truffaut may have been redrawing the boundaries of cinema, but, to his great credit, he was almost maintaining, even reinforcing, the commitment to emotional truth that often led to the greatest achievements of the form.

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