REVIEW: “Jules and Jim”

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I consider François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” to be one of the acclaimed French director’s great films. Released in 1962, this movie was one of the pivotal films in the French New Wave movement. In fact, you can’t watch it without sensing that it’s doing something bold and new in terms of filmmaking. There’s such an energy and a freshness in both the technique and in the storytelling itself. More importantly it’s a fantastic bit of cinema that would go on to influence many other films including “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Thelma and Louise”

I really appreciate the filmmakers of the French New Wave. They left an unmistakable mark on motion pictures, and their styles and creative approaches stand out in every film they made. It was a movement of experimentation and of bucking the trends of moviemaking that they believed had grown stale. “Jules and Jim” showcases this in every facet of the movie. It’s playfully neorealistic both in its use of the camera and in its strikingly grounded narrative. But aside from its influential methods and techniques, I found the story itself to be an utterly fascinating look at friendship and the bumpy road that sometimes accompanies it.

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Jules and Jim first meet in Paris in 1912 and they immediately become friends. A narrator whisks us through their early days as young men in Paris and we watch as a foundation is laid for what should be a lifelong friendship. Jules (Oskar Werner) is a shy and reserved Austrian who can’t seem to find the right girl. Jim (Henri Serre) is just the opposite. He’s a confident and outgoing Frenchman whose never had a problem with the ladies. Both enjoy art and poetry and they spend a lot of time just sharing the good things from their cultures with each other. All of their earlier and happier days fly by in the opening few moments of the film but that’s okay. Truffaut is clearly setting the table for the more important part of the story that lies ahead. Yet while brief, these opening moments are beautifully woven together and Truffaut’s camera allows us to perfectly comprehend how close these two friends are.

Through a series of events the two cross paths with the free-spirited Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who takes their lives down an unpredictable road. Eventually their jobs, a war, and other things separate Jules and Jim, but it’s Catherine who always serves as the new centerpiece to their friendship and it’s the complicated relationship between the three that keeps bringing them back together. Moreau is superb and her character is a difficult one to place. At times she’s energetic, vibrant, and full of life. But at other times she’s disconnected, neurotic, or in states of depression. The different dynamics she brings to her already complex relationships with Jules and Jim makes for incredible cinema.

The twists that the film applies to relationships and love are profound and almost feel experimental. Things take such unorthodox and unconventional turns and they seem destined to end badly. The most obvious casualty would seem to be the friendship between Jules and Jim yet no matter what trial or contention the two face, their loyalty to one another stands. I’m not sure how much sense all of this makes because I’m desperately trying to dance around the details and I refuse to spoil it for anyone. Let’s just say Truffaut takes Jules and Jim down some roads that few people could or would endure.

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All of this is told through the lens of a true visionary. Truffaut and other influential groundbreakers like Godard and Chabrol were forging new paths into cinematic storytelling. You see it in every frame of “Jules and Jim”. Truffaut’s camera adheres to no common or popular formula of the time. It’s living and moving and so many times he captures the perfect angle or presents a new technique. It’s the picture of what the French New Wave was all about. It’s such a departure from the traditional moviemaking of the time both in terms of style and story.

“Jules and Jim” may not always be mentioned in the same breath with Truffaut’s own “The 400 Blows”, Godard’s “Breathless”, or Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” but it deserves to be considered as one of the French New Wave’s best. It’s a film that’s lively and spirited while at the same time being a bit disturbing and perplexing. There are layers to peel back and new things to discover. In other words “Jules and Jim” offers a wonderful experience both technically and emotionally. Moreover it’s a firm reminder of why we still go to the movies.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

5 Phenomenal Directorial Debuts

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Sometimes it takes a director a few movies to really hit their stride. On the other hand sometimes directors knock it out of the park on their first try. This week I’m looking at five phenomenal directorial debuts. Now I have to admit as I was doing research for this list I was really surprised at some of the first efforts of some of the directors I came across. Many were extraordinary, others not so much. But one thing’s for sure, with so many directorial debuts throughout film history this certainly isn’t the definitive list. But after seeing these five directorial debuts, I can boldly say that they’re absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE 400 BLOWS” – Francois Truffaut

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Acclaimed director François Truffaut’s first film is arguably his very best. “The 400 Blows” is a 1959 French drama that was a pillar of the French New Wave movement. It was such a key film in defining a movement that was steering away from the traditional moviemaking of the time. Truffaut not only directed the film but wrote this semi-autobiographical story of a young boy’s hard life growing up in early 1950s Paris. Even with the movie’s sometimes heartbreaking subject matter, “The 400 Blows” is a beautiful film and it’s clearly a deeply personal work from Truffaut. I can’t say enough about this picture and it’s amazing that such an accomplishment could be a director’s first effort.

#4 – “BLOOD SIMPLE” – The Coen Brothers

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While Joel Coen was listed as director and Ethan Coen as producer we now know how the Coen brothers work. “Blood Simple” was the brilliant directorial debut from arguably the best directing team of our time. The Coens also wrote this modern-day film noir that gave us a new way of looking at crime thrillers. We get our first look at several of the reoccurring themes that the brothers would revisit in their following films as well as their own quirky sense of dark humor and unique style. Overall this is a fabulous movie and a great debut for the Coen brothers. It certainly set the table for the many wonderful pictures the Coens have given us since.

#3 – “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” – George Romero

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My favorite horror movie of all time is “Night of the Living Dead” from director George Romero. I’ve always been impressed with how the film used a minuscule budget and no-name performers to create such a wonderfully eerie atmosphere around a groundbreaking story. Even more impressive is the fact that this was Romero’s directorial debut. There are so many director’s touches that make this such a classic movie. But it’s really cool that Romero’s first film essentially launched the zombie craze that is still going strong today. “Night of the Living Dead” is a fascinating bit of filmmaking and an incredible first effort from George Romero.

#2 – “CITIZEN KANE” – Orson Welles

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You know it’s an amazing accomplishment when a director’s first film is considered by many to be the greatest movie of all time. Such is the case with Orson Welles and the phenomenal “Citizen Kane”. The movie underwhelmed at the box office but critics adored it and over time both it and Welles’ stellar direction have received well deserved praise. Welles also produced, co-wrote, and starred in the film. “Citizen Kane” had its share of controversy and obstacles while it was being made, but the finished product is an absolute masterpiece and it’s a master class on strong and visionary directing. It’s a true cinema classic.

#1 – “THE MALTESE FALCON” – John Huston

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Being such a huge fan of Humphrey Bogart I knew a lot of cool tidbits about one of his biggest movies “The Maltese Falcon”. Yet one big and well known fact escaped me until a few years ago. This was the directorial debut for the brilliant John Huston. He also wrote the screenplay for this fantastic film noir that remains one of the greatest films of all time. It’s said Huston had envisioned and setup in his mind the entire film frame by frame before he ever started shooting. His intense preperation and incredible detail enabled him to shoot the entire film in order. The result was a seamless and fluid movie filled with great characters and some brilliant camera work. Huston would go on to make several more classic films but his career started here with the search for the “stuff that dreams are made of”.

And there they are, 5 Phenomenal Directorial Debuts. I know there are several that could have made the list. What are you thoughts? Feel free to leave your comments and share your favorites.

5 PHENOMENAL FRENCH LANGUAGE FILMS

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Years ago as I began to grow as a movie fan I opened myself up to foreign cinema. I can’t express how thankful I am for that decision. And while I still don’t see as many foreign language films as I should, over the years foreign cinema has introduced me to some truly great movies. From the far east to the middle east, from South America to Central Europe, there are wonderful filmmakers making movies all over the globe. While I’ve dipped my toes into the films of many different countries, I’ve found French cinema to be one of my favorites. So I thought it would be fun to look at five phenomenal French language films. This is the first Phenomenal 5 dedicated to foreign cinema but it won’t be the last. Now there are many French films that I haven’t seen so it would be silly to call this the definitive list. But there is no denying that these five French movies are nothing short of phenomenal.

MON ONCLE#5 – “MON ONCLE”  Jacques Tati only made six feature-length movies but that’s all it took to establish him as a fantastic filmmaker. “Mon Oncle” is the consummation of Tati’s many talents all wrapped into one delightful creation. The film features Tati’s signature style of visual storytelling and comedy as well as his familiar critiques of materialism, consumerism, and social elitism. But at its heart is a very funny story featuring one of the most lovable characters you’ll find – socially awkward but certainly lovable. Monsieur Hulot’s sweet and friendly demeanor is infectious and he’s always content regardless of his state. But perhaps my favorite thing about this film is the incredible sense of community that Tati is able to capture. Hulot’s working class neighborhood is filled with life, energy, and an assortment of entertaining characters. Those things also perfectly describe “Mon Oncle”.

#4 – “BREATHLESS”BREATHLESS – Acclaimed director Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film was “Breathless” from 1960. Long considered one of the signature movies from the French New Wave, “Breathless” remains to this day a highly influential film. In the movie Godard went to great lengths to buck the traditional trends in filmmaking by using several innovative visual techniques now forever associated with the French New Wave. But “Breathless” isn’t all about style. There’s also a very good story born out of the social climate of 1960 Paris. At first I had a tough time gathering my thoughts on the movie. But after processing the film and looking closer at the story, it has become a true favorite of mine. Jean-Paul Belmondo and the lovely Jean Seberg are fantastic and Godard gives us some of the best street views of Paris. Groundbreaking and highly entertaining.

MR HULOT#3 – “MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY – I really want there to be variety in every Phenomenal 5 I do, but for this list I couldn’t leave off either if these two Jacques Tati classics, the aforementioned “Mon Oncle” and “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is my favorite Tati film and one of my favorite comedies of all time. Every ounce of Tati’s creative genius is on display in this film. As a director he has an incredible eye for structuring each scene and capturing each moment. In front of the camera as Mr. Hulot he brings out the comic brilliance of legends such as Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is a very visual comedy with a heavy emphasis on sight gags and perfectly timed humor. There are so many great laughs in this simple but hilarious picture and it’s a profound example of how true comedy can be done without the gimmicks and clichés we often see today.

#2 – “AMELIE”AMELIE – One of the most delightful French films I have ever scene is “Amelie” and delightful is the perfect word for it. It’s the story of a shy and reserved waitress and all of the quirky individuals that make up her everyday life. She’s a lonely soul who tries to overcome it through her playful imagination. The perfectly cast Audrey Tautou is magnificent as Amelie who lives her life in beautifully filmed Montmartre. But there’s also the wonderful assortment of side characters that give this film such life. There’s the mysterious painter neighbor, her wacky cafe coworkers and regular customers, the mean jerk of a grocer. I can go on and on but regardless of who they are, Amelie has a positive impact on their lives. There is so much charm mixed with laugh-out-loud hilarity that permeates this entire picture. Gorgeous cinematography, brilliant writing, and pitch-perfect performances. “Amelie” is a joy.

The 400 Blows (1959)#1 – “THE 400 BLOWS” – Much like “Breathless”, Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” was a pivotal film in the French New Wave. It’s arguably the most powerful movie about adolescence and it’s an intensely personal film for the acclaimed director. Based on Truffaut’s own childhood, “The 400 Blows” looks at the life of young Antoine in early 1950’s Paris. He’s viewed as a troublemaker by the adults in his life and he finds the streets to be his only refuge. There are several stinging and uncomfortable scenes but all of them lead to the final shot which is one of the most potent in film history. There is such feeling and emotional pop throughout as we see this challenging and often times difficult world through young Antoine’s eyes. There’s also an undeniable technique and style behind the movie’s visual presentation. It’s an amazing expression of Truffaut’s vision and when combined with the brilliant screenplay the result is a glorious piece of cinema history.

So there are my five picks for the most phenomenal films in French cinema. Agree or disagree – please leave you thoughts below. Also be watching throughout the next several days as I review several of these and other French films on the site.

REVIEW: “The 400 Blows”

Francois Truffaut heads the list of great directors whose work I’m fairly unfamiliar with. Truffaut was an esteemed French filmmaker who was also a father to the French New Wave of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. He was deeply critical of the state of French cinema in the mid-50’s and eventually begin to make films of his own. His first feature-length picture came in 1959 with “The 400 Blows”. This is my launching point into the films of Truffaut and what a wonderful way to start. “The 400 Blows” is a gripping and deeply penetrating picture that instantly grabbed me with its heartfelt realism and it’s crisp visual style. And judging by this, his initial effort, there’s a clear reason why Truffaut is heralded as one of the most influential filmmakers in cinema history.

“The 400 Blows” follows 12-year old Antoine (played wonderfully by Jean-Pierre Leaud) and his life in 1950’s Paris. At first Antoine comes across as unruly and rebellious. But as the story unfolds we see that he is inundated with negative influences. His father is a forceful and sometimes pernicious authoritarian who takes the frustrations from his life out on his son. His abusive temper shows itself physically and verbally even to the point of publically humiliating his son . His mother is even more unhappy and discontent and she lets it show through her emotional negligence and general disinterest in her son. It’s only after Antoine catches her in an affair that she begins to show affection for him but even that is grounded in her own arrogant self-interest. Even at school Antoine faces his teacher whose meanness is based on his assumptive judgements that Antoine is and forever will be a bad kid.

Antoine finds refuge on the streets of Paris and in the company of his best friend Rene (Patrick Auffay). Rene is a mischievous type and it’s uncertain whether he’s the best influence either. But the two have a true friendship which Antoine depends on. Some of the movies best scenes are with these two friends walking the streets of Paris talking back and forth. As things break down at home and at school, Antoine sees the streets as his only out and it’s Rene who’s there to help him survive, although not always in the most wise of ways.

At its core, this is really a heartbreaking story. It’s a perfect example of a young boy being a product of his environment yet fighting hard not to be. Those who should be the stable, influential forces in his life utterly fail him. Even the law enforcement system heartlessly mistreat him later in the film. But Antoine just wants to be a little boy. We get to see the childlike yearnings for a stable home with a loving mother and father.

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There’s a scene where Antoine is at home alone with his father and they are preparing dinner. It’s one of the few instances where his father is being a father. Truffaut elegantly shows Antoine’s love for this father-son moment through the young boys gazes and expressions. There is also another scene where the family goes out to see a movie together. For these few moments we see the happy family that Antoine wants and needs. Sadly, these are anomalies – exceptions to an otherwise dismal life for the 12-year old.

“The 400 Blows” is a powerful movie that will take you through a wide range of emotion. We experience the playfulness and cruelty of life along with the young boy. Before long, we’re rooting for him yet we’re uncertain of what the future holds right up to the last shot. It’s truly a magnificent film that put Truffaut on the map and I can certainly see why it remains influential to this day. It’s gorgeously crafted, deeply moving, and features penetrating performances. Enough with the adjectives. Let’s just say I loved “The 400 Blows” and I can’t wait to dive into more of Truffaut’s work.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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