The Criterion label is synonymous with quality cinema on DVD. We have come to expect with the name meticulously restored prints of classic films, superb commentaries and analyses, and usual and fascinating special features. This new Essential Art House edition of Jules and Jim is, however, more or less Criterion Lite, with a perfectly restored print but with none of the other features that film aficionados have come to love and appreciate from Criterion. Thus, the new edition of François Truffaut’s great classic provides a gorgeous, pristine copy of the film – but nothing else.
This new edition of Jules and Jim therefore presents the film lover with a dilemma: pay $20 less than the two-disc edition of the film – which comes with commentaries, special features, and tons of extras – or save a few bucks and get the film sans the usual excellent extras. There are those who will watch a film on DVD and don’t care about commentaries or documentaries about the making of the film, even about classics like this one. For them, this edition of Jules and Jim will probably be ideal. I suspect, however, that most serious fans of classic cinema will be happier with the full-featured version.
Both editions come with the film itself and that, of course, is the sole reason either exists. One of cinema’s greatest achievements, Jules and Jim was one of the earliest films to be distributed by Janus Films and was thus for many people their first foray into French New Wave. It routinely makes “Best of” lists. For instance, when the American publication Entertainment Weekly published its list of the One Hundred Greatest Films ever made, which also included non-American film, in response to the American Film Institutes’ list of the One Hundred Greatest American Films, Jules and Jim was ranked Number 33, while Roger Ebert includes it in his list of The Great Movies.
Jules and Jim‘s story is of two friends who meet in Paris, the Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the Englishman Jim (Henri Serre), and their magical but ill-fated relationship with the entrancing Catherine. The narrative stretches from the eve of World War I to the eve of World War II. Although Truffaut had already made two extraordinary films in The 400 Blows (1959) and (1960), as well as contributing the story for Godard’s Breathless), Jules and Jim was his masterpiece.
A period piece based on Henri-Pierre Roché’s then-unknown novel from 1953 (made famous by the film), Truffaut constructed a brilliant work of art on a tiny budget. In the making of the film, he employed a breathtaking string of cinematic tricks, from a variety of camera pans, to wipes of the image to a corner of the screen; from occasionally freezing the frame for just a second, to complex dolly shots. His masterful camerawork expanded the language of cinema. To get the period effect he relied not merely on art design, but on period still photographs and newsreel footage, as well as a judicious use of locations in France, Austria, and Germany.
The first part of Jules and Jim moves along at a dizzying pace, with jump cutting, forcing the end of scenes by ending them too quickly, and with characters always walking, running or otherwise rushing along. The movement built into the early part of the film (and reprised in scenes like the famous bicycle ride) is a metaphor for the story’s most compelling character, Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau in the greatest role of her career. The camera mirrors her character by having her always on the run, whether literally in the iconic scene where the three main characters race across a bridge, with multiple extended tracking shots of Catherine in profile walking or riding or running, or in the memorable scene when she jumps into the Seine in an act of protest.
Her inability to stay in one place or be content with one person, even with Jim, whom she loves deeply, not only provides the content of the narrative but also establishes the visual style of the film. Few films blend camera and character so completely as Jules and Jim, with shot after shot communicating Catherine’s mercurial and capricious nature and her inability to stay still, either physically or emotionally.
Jules and Jim not only invites superlatives but compels them. Among its many other accomplishments, it is one of the finest conversions of literature into film, aided in part by the rapid pacing and exquisite narration that drives the story forward. Most films leave out a regrettable amount of detail, but Truffaut manages to present an unusually rich narrative through a combination of quick pacing and the effective use of a narrator, who efficiently pushes the tale forward by providing a bridge between scenes.
The cinematography is perfect with a host of gorgeous shots that are impossible to forget, from the previously mentioned tracking shots of Catherine to some spectacular shots from a helicopter, to the bicycle scene partially shot by a camera mounted on a bike. The cinematographer was Raoul Coutard, famed for his work with Jean-Luc Godard. His use of a lighter, more portable camera in Breathless was revolutionary and he put what he had learned in that film to effect in Jules and Jim. The score by Georges Delerue routinely makes lists of the best film scores ever, while Jeanne Moreau’s performance is among the most famous of any actress in French cinema.
All of which brings us back to my original concerns. Jules and Jim is one of the greatest films ever made. At this stage in the distribution of films on DVD, do we want or need barebone DVDs like this, particularly of a film this exceptional? This is going to be a personal decision, but I think this release is, not to engage in niceties, a rip off.
The Essential Art House edition of Jules and Jim lists for $19.95 while the two-disc edition with extras lists for $39.95. The joy of Criterion discs are the rich content provided in addition to the films. Removing that content transforms Jules and Jim into something less than what we expect from a Criterion disc. It does not even come up to the level of other film releases. In this instance Criterion has not provided the kind of quality product that one associates with the label.
At the very least, why did Criterion not release the Essential Art House edition with the commentary and “Making of” documentary that has become standard on nearly all single-disc releases? In this instance, Criterion has not provided the kind of quality product that one associates with the label. I believe most who love Truffaut’s Jules and Jim will be better served by getting the two-disc version that is enriched with special features – if they can afford it.