By IMAGO President Kees van Oostrum
Living in constant seclusion and isolation, clustered to streaming, and choosing an occasional DVD from the collection, I ended up screening “Jules et Jim” the other day. Watching the romantic story unfold, it felt, in these unprecedented times, like opening a window letting fresh air in on a stuffy summer afternoon.
Jules and Jim, a 1962 French New Wave romantic drama film, was directed, produced and written by François Truffaut, and photographed by Raoul Coutard. The story on which it was based was initially set around the time after World War I. It describes a tragic love triangle involving French Bohemian Jim (Henri Serre), his shy Austrian friend Jules (Oskar Werner), and Jules’s girlfriend and future wife Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).
The film was shot in several different parts of France, Austria, and Germany and was inspired by the history of an era, not unlike today. After the First World War, the Spanish flu ravaged the world and the great depression was upon us.
What struck me watching the film this time was, of course, the carefree interaction between the characters. The free flow of the touching, the kissing, the closeness, so far removed from today’s social distancing. But through that human interaction, the story weaves a cultural and social awareness that comes across very timely and contemporary.
In the body of the story, Jules is a shy writer from Austria who forges a friendship with the more extroverted Frenchman, Jim (Henri Serre). They share an interest in the world of the arts and the Bohemian lifestyle. After encounters with several women, they meet the free-spirited, capricious Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a doppelgänger for the statue with the serene smile. The three hang out together. Although she begins a relationship with Jules, both men are affected by her presence and her attitude towards life. Jim continues to be involved with Gilberte, usually seeing her apart from the others. A few days before war is declared, Jules and Catherine move to Austria to get married.
The story parallels many of our fears and insecurities in today’s world. There is the separation where both men serve during the war on opposing sides and each fear throughout the conflict the potential for facing the other or learning that he might have killed his friend, the failed marriage and then, of course, the inevitable reunion of all three characters.
After a time, Jim runs into Jules in Paris. He learns that Jules and Catherine have returned to France. Catherine tries to win Jim back but he rebuffs her, saying he will marry Gilberte. Furious, she pulls a gun on him but he wrestles it away and flees. He later encounters Jules and Catherine in a famous (at that time) movie theater, the Studio des Ursulines. The three of them stop at an outdoor cafe. Catherine asks Jim to get into her car, saying she has something to tell him. She asks Jules to watch them and drives the car off a damaged bridge into the river, killing herself and Jim. Jules is left to deal with the ashes of his friends.
In some ways, the film, made on a super low budget, borrowing and stealing from friends and shot simply by the masterful Raoul Coutard using few lights and a handheld Cameflex, became one of the foundations for the New Wave cinema. It started a new cultural era of film making and, for cinematographers, liberated them from bulky, heavy cameras and introduced a heartfelt and truthful documentary-style of shooting dramatic films. The style of Coutard, Pierre L’Homme, Sacha Vierny, Pierre William Glenn, amongst others, have influenced us until today and continue to inspire our creativity.
I feel, as filmmakers, we are currently in a semi-dormant waiting pattern for our world to start up again. There is the theory that, when things come back, our industry will never be the same as before. Our crews might be smaller, more contained, and our technology will rely more than ever on VFX. Not arguing against it or in favor, while we are waiting, we should probably indulge in the historical culture of our art form.
The current times can be experienced as a reset and restart of things that matter. Jules et Jim became such a film at the time and seems to still fulfill that guiding role in our heritage of filmmaking. I have no doubt that the pandemic will eventually create stories that will inspire and enhance our storytelling and vision. World events like these greatly influence our feelings and expression and, as Winston Churchill once said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.