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Pick of the Week: "Jules and Jim" DVD

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Of all the films I've ever seen, François Truffaut's French-language "Jules and Jim" (1962) is one of my favorites. It is superb, both in terms of artistic content and entertainment qualities. I've watched it at least half a dozen times, both on videotape and on the big screen in art-house revival, and I've never seen it looking better than on the Fox Lorber DVD.

I'm hard-pressed to think of any filmmaking more energetic and vivacious than that of the first third of "Jules and Jim," which depicts intellectual bohemian life in Paris during 1912-14. Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are two young writers who have a peaceful friendship until they meet the free-spirited Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). She brings excitement into their lives, but her impulsiveness is sometimes scary. One night while the three of them walk beside the Seine, Jules ignores her while he expounds on Baudelaire's misogyny. Disgusted by his lack of consideration for her feelings, Catherine climbs up on a parapet and jumps into the river. But it's the details I always remember: Catherine lifting her veil before she jumps, her hat floating downstream, her triumphant smile.

The tone of the movie darkens with the outbreak of World War I. Off camera, Jules and Catherine travel to his home country (Austria), where they marry. As the story picks up again on camera, Jim hasn’t seen them for about seven years when he visits them in their rustic chalet near the Rhine. He soon learns that Catherine hasn’t slept with her husband for years, she has extramarital affairs, and Jules fears his wife is on the verge of leaving him for good. But Jules desperately wants to stay near Catherine, and he urges Jim to court her in the hope that the three of them could then manage to remain together.

I suppose "Jules and Jim" is most famous as being about a ménage à trois, a situation which does exist for a while in the movie as Jim begins a romantic relationship with Catherine and then moves into the chalet with her and Jules. But Truffaut treats this with great delicacy, and I think it's remarkable that Jules and Jim's friendship is so strong that it survives. It turns out to be problems between Catherine and Jim that eventually lead to the tragic climax.

In "Jules and Jim," Jeanne Moreau creates one of the most memorable characters in film history, and I also like Oskar Werner's performance. Even though the movie is fablistic, the acting styles are naturalistic, and while I'm watching the film, I find it impossible to think of Moreau and Werner as anybody other than Catherine and Jules, even though I've seen these two actors in several other movies. Henri Serre also seems fine to me as Jim, but I haven't seen him in any other film.

To my way of thinking, "Jules and Jim" maintains an exquisite balance between the visual and the verbal. Truffaut uses interesting locations and all manner of cinematic tricks, including fast cuts, slow dissolves, quick pans, freeze-frame, different film stocks, and unexpected camera angles, to keep things lively. But I also like memorable lines, and the film delivers a lot of those, both from the articulate characters and the voice-over narrator. The movie also has evocative and unpretentious music by Georges Delerue, and I can never forget Jeanne Moreau singing "Le Tourbillon" ("The Whirlpool"): it perfectly captures her character's femme fatale nature.

The DVD comes with a few bonus materials, and I have listed these on the next page.

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