Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Jules et Jim

There's not much new left to say about this magnificent, well-appreciated film after all these years. Still, Truffaut doesn't get enough credit for finding the passageway to a form of cinematic expression that puts narrative and the artist's commentary on a fluid continuum. As a punishment for making postmodernism look easy, Truffaut is too often pegged as the McCartney/Donovan to Godard's Lennon/Dylan, where it might be more accurate to regard him as a Joyce or Proust to Godard's Brecht.

Truffaut's way of making experimentalism commercial was to create a brazenly impressionistic cinema of the mind, and then to include, as casually as an afterthought, the cinema's traditional role - the documentation of reality - as one component of mental life. So the representational is present in Truffaut, but encapsulated, so to speak, in a container of shifting subjectivity.

In this light, we can understand why Truffaut does not have and does not need a strong sense of space, why his compositions need not come together, why the sequencing of shots in his films can be quite arbitrary. Truffaut merely alludes to external reality. He sacrifices the camera's authoritative rendering of the world in favor of a more abstract description of mental states. The elongation of time via overlapping cuts (i.e., Catherine jumping into the Seine - a common figure of style in Truffaut) and the intensification of the camera's gaze via a barrage of unexpected, jaggedly edited closeups (i.e., the depiction of the Adriatic statue, or the later comparison of Catherine's smile to the statue's) are blatant declarations that the film's form is refracted through and scattered by memory and emotions.

Truffaut's expression of subjectivity is strongly linked in Jules et Jim and other films to his bold enlistment of literature on the cinema's behalf. Putting the words of the novelist on the soundtrack in abundance is a way of telling the audience that the fascination of storytelling, which induces a present-tense state of mind, has already been accomplished in another medium. Whereas Truffaut's filming is anything but novelistic, and suggests rather the phantasmagoria of experience that swirls around our orderly narrative-making impulse.

The film's script (here's an online transcription of the dialogue in English), by Truffaut and Jean Gruault from Roché's novel, is a startling and brilliant amalgam of literary description and highly abstract passages of poeticized dialogue. (Read the "Catch me!" scene, where Catherine begins her colonization of Jim, to see how purely stylized and absurdist Truffaut and Gruault's dialogue can be - and then recall that it precedes and follows scenes that devote many minutes to establishing the line of the narrative.) When Jules recites the entirety of the Marseillaise over the phone to demonstrate that he has lost his Austrian accent, or when he describes Catherine's background to Jim ("Her father's a noble, her mother's a commoner. He's from an old Burgundy family. Mama was English. So she's not average. And she teaches." "What?" "Shakespeare!"), actor and director are united in a playful acknowledgment of their desire to inflect the story with the grandeur of private mythology. Truffaut happily intensifies such dialogue with music or closeups, creating Welles-like coups de théâtre that he uses as scene transitions. As often as Truffaut has been compared to Renoir, and as often as he invoked Hitchcock, he is probably closest to Welles in the way that his films are marked continuously and openly with the amplifications of memory.

If some programmer would screen Jules et Jim annually on the anniversary of Truffaut's birth or death, I'd try to clear my schedule in perpetuity.


Jake said...

When you say that Truffaut lacks a strong sense of space, the first thing I think of is the restaurant scene in Stolen Kisses, where Leaud keeps moving back and forth between the table and the phone. Truffaut is actually quite fond of gags that depend on characters physically covering territory – there’s a piano-accordion quality to his storytelling, with time and space alternately collapsed and stretched out.

Here’s a newspaper article I wrote for a retrospective:

Would you say Wes Anderson had a strong sense of space? He’s Truffaut’s child in some ways – interesting that in both cases you use the term “phantasmagoria”.

Jake said...

Actually, the scene I meant is in Bed and Board.

Jaime said...

I think WA has a strong sense of screen space - what's that French word for 3-D picture boxes? His depiction of physical space I think is closer to Jerry Lewis, most obviously with the ship in LIFE AQUATIC (= the house in THE LADIES' MAN)... I'm keen to see his animated film, which doesn't look like anything I can think of!

Dan Sallitt said...

Very good, concrete article, Jake, much more comprehensive than mine. (I like those short paragraphs - Langlois wrote like that.)

Léaud walking across the room in Bed and Board is rather Lubitsch-like. Space is involved, of course, but also duration, and encapsulating both of them a conceptual humor. Could be that I feel the space and the duration less because of the conceptual underpinnings of the moment.

I think I agree with Jaime that Anderson invests more in the qualities of the image than Truffaut. He certainly seems to care about those squared-off compositions and what they do to the storytelling. That he likes to undermine all sorts of continuity does, I suppose, militate against him exploring the feeling of space very much. I can think of an effect or two in Anderson that makes me aware of space, but I wouldn't want to push that idea very hard.

Perhaps Anderson is more likely simply to present us with discontinuous experiences, and Truffaut more likely to signpost discontinuity as the way the mind processes experience.