Summer 2013

Noah Baumbach
Love Story

François Truffaut’s New Wave classic Jules and Jim has lost none of its freshness and sense of innovation for Noah Baumbach. In fact, he borrowed some of its techniques for his latest film.

BY ROB FELD

 
UPLIFTING: Noah Baumbach admires Traffaut's
craft and cutting in Jules and Jim.
(below) The two friends (Oskar Werner and
Henri Serre) celebrate love by hoisting
Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) on their shoulders. 

For me, it was the beginning of getting over a cultural barrier,” says Noah Baumbach of the first time he saw François Truffaut’s French New Wave classic, Jules and Jim (1962). “I watched it for a college French class with headphones on in the language library, and had to return the next day to finish it, which was not the best first viewing experience, but I remember having the same visceral reaction as I’d had when I watched movies like Road Warrior or Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was a kid.”

This time the conditions are considerably better as Baumbach prepares to watch the film again in his New York office. Truffaut’s story follows two bohemian friends, the blonde Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the dark-haired Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre), and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), the woman they both love. Based on Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel, it begins with Jules and Jim’s meeting in Paris in 1912, where they live a spirited life of art and romantic quests. The three become inseparable until WWI, after which they reunite, and switch partners in an ultimately tragic ménage.

Raucous horns from Georges Delerue’s score burst forth over the credits, after a quiet and poetic voiceover by Catherine states her ironic philosophy of love and missed connections under which the film will operate. “The rush of the filmmaking is part of it,” says Baumbach, “but it’s not just the bravura. The music has a celebratory sense.”

As the horns and credits give way to a montage of Jules and Jim’s burgeoning friendship, a narrator speaks matter-of-factly of how their friendship came to pass. Truffaut holds the men in a series of two shots and wide shots as they walk, talk, and court women, until the camera becomes more active: it captures Jim alone one moment, then swish-pans away from him to reveal Jules as a third wheel.

"I love the camera there,” says Baumbach. “We did that in Frances Ha when she is reading to her best friend Sophie: the camera moves over and she’s knitting. There’s something about the logic of the camera move; the voiceover says something, then you move and reveal the other side. It’s almost funny and it has such a point of view—you know that the director knows exactly what he’s doing. That lightness of spirit was something I thought about for Frances.”

As Truffaut tracks the two friends through a series of brief, youthful and short-lived intersections with women, Baumbach leans back and comments on the kinetics of the filmmaking. “The cutting has so much energy and the blocking is great. Everything is always moving, going in and out of doors, and then a transition like this, here,” he says as Jim enters a café and Truffaut maintains momentum by dissolving from a screen left pan to a screen right to show the group of friends now inside. “Everything is so well choreographed. We’re never lost.”

Truffaut keeps pace as Thérèse, one of Jules’ mercurial women, glances over her shoulder at a possible new love interest. The shot cuts jarringly to the man, with the camera off axis and not matching Thérèse’s eyeline view of him. “That was a weird cut. It’s stylized,” admits Baumbach.

The positioning, however, allows Truffaut to follow Thérèse as she pulls the man out of the café and pan 360 degrees back to Jules, who is now abandoned. “It’s not as crazy as Godard, but it feels like, ‘I want to cut now, and if the energy is right the cut will work.’ On The Squid and the Whale I started to understand it in my own work. It’s something I really reacted to in Truffaut’s movies—the energy of the cut.”

When a friend and patron of the arts, Albert (Serge Rezvani), shows them slides of a goddess statue with an otherworldly smile, Jules and Jim make a pilgrimage to the island location to see it in person. In what looks as clipped and shaky as a home movie, Truffaut dollies in while zooming out on the statue, tracks right, then left, covering all angles of the mysterious face. They resolve to follow that transcendent smile should they ever encounter it in life. Fate steps in soon thereafter when Jules meets and falls in love with Catherine, a capricious femme fatale who possesses just such a smile. “He does a similar cut around Catherine when he introduces her,” Baumbach observes. “It’s like the filmmaker is excited to show her to you in the way Jules and Jim are excited to see her. You’d get a different feeling off it if he showed it to you in one take. He doesn’t do this all the time. He does let scenes play out, too. But he is able to make all these disparate elements feel part of the same movie,” he adds of the frenetic camera pans and cuts, freeze-frames and square irises Truffaut uses. “[The filmmaking] is so committed in every possible way that he can cut to stock footage of Paris in a different aspect ratio, and because we’ve already seen the slides that Albert showed them, it still feels like the same language.”

Jules starts a relationship with Catherine and warns Jim against stealing her: “But not this one Jim, OK?” The three of them go on holiday together, and a light musical theme accompanies them as they collect discarded artifacts in the woods. “The music helps here. It’s sad, sweet and romantic, while they’re just hanging out in the country—but it’s also the way Truffaut sets up the camera,” explains Baumbach. “We were trying to do this with Frances, make big moments out of little ones.” The camera follows them, then their hands and feet along the leafy ground from a postcard to a porcelain shard. “It feels so important. Truffaut evokes a similar exhilarating feeling earlier, but now there’s something deeper—these three are now the core relationship. It’s both joyful and so complicated, and we sense that this friendship is not going to remain the same. He’s bringing them together and apart at the same time,” he says, as Jules and Jim carry Catherine away on their shoulders.


GOOD TIMES: As Truffaut tells the story of the three friends, it’s both joyful and complicated. “He’s bringing them together and apart at the same time.”

The friends frolic jubilantly, and Jules is deeply in love, but it’s Catherine’s whimsy that leads them all, and her angst makes it clear that she is ultimately not one to be owned. After Catherine leaps unexpectedly into a Paris canal at night, leaving Jules and Jim stunned, Baumbach observes that, “Now you know it’s more complicated than riding bikes and running around. We know the situation is unsustainable.”

WWI breaks out and the two men go to fight on opposite sides for their respective countries. “I like how he does the war; it’s just a montage. It doesn’t bother me that this is stock footage,” he says as Jules and Jim disappear from the action in all but two brief moments. “The black and white of the film adds to the period feel but it also helps with using the stock footage. Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen, there is a feeling of nostalgia that the general use of black and white suggests. There’s also something about bringing in the reality of war straightforward without music; it interrupts such a ‘movie-movie.’ There’s a matter-of-fact quality to it; we follow these characters but really this big horrible thing is going on around them.”

After the war, when Jim travels to the house in the Austrian woods Jules now shares with Catherine and their daughter, Truffaut captures the men’s reunion embrace in a freeze-frame. “There’s something so beautiful about it,” Baumbach says, nodding. “Even though this is the more sober half of the movie, it’s like Truffaut saying: ‘Wouldn’t you love to preserve this moment?’ [That shot] punctuates it without feeling like he’s trying to improve it. When he uses a freeze frame, or iris, or double cut, it’s because the moment earns it, which is so important.”

In the quiet, relaxed country times of rocking chairs and open fields, Jules and Catherine tell Jim that their romantic relationship is over, and that Catherine has again been seeing her favorite and recurring distraction, Albert. The characters’ dynamics also change, as seen in the performances. “Jim feels so much more substantial now. In the beginning you think of him as goofy with that mustache, but now it’s shaved. They do a great job of suggesting maturity in very small gestures, in the acting. The whole countenance of Oskar Werner’s Jules has changed. And Truffaut really does capture the feeling of being in the country with them. Sitting in a room during the day, he shows us boredom and trying to relieve boredom. He’s not afraid to stay in a scene longer than might seem necessary, while before he was so freely cutting around.”


LOVE FADES: After World War I, Jules is living with Catherine and their daughter in the Austrian woods, but they are soon to separate. “The whole countenance of Jules has changed.”

When, in a strange moment of playfulness, Catherine calls for Jim to catch her as she runs from the house and into the night, accompanied by a discordant, Hitchcockian suspense score, Truffaut shoots them in a wide shot as they come down a hill. “Day for night in black and white is so cool,” says Baumbach. “It was practical because it’s such a long shot and would have been difficult to light. Whatever the reason, there’s something so beautiful about this walk and talk; how they come toward us from that distance, and we dolly with them,” he says, as Catherine confesses her infidelities. “Truffaut doesn’t need to cut in. He just sets it up so they’ll come closer. I love shots like that. If I could, I’d shoot everything that way. And the day for night makes it beautiful in a way you can’t define. It’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.”

So fearful is Jules of losing Catherine altogether, that he gives Jim his blessing to commence a relationship with her. The three, plus child, continue living together in the house, and are regarded by the town as the village idiots. “There really are very few cuts now,” Baumbach remarks of the editing, which still maintains a tension. “The scenes all play in one. The cuts gave it that spirited, joyful sense before, but everything is weightier now. Now the scene can fade out or cut abruptly, while the action still seems to be going. There’s a feeling that life is cozy and dangerous, which Truffaut does so well. It’s an effective combination that feels more like how we experience things. You kind of want to hang out in that house, read in that room in that rocker and wear that sweater, but you also don’t want to be part of this dynamic.”

Jim and Catherine separate after she fails to become pregnant. When Truffaut cuts between characters, Baumbach comments on the naturalness he captures. “It’s very simple, but it’s great: [Jules and Catherine] are in a two shot, then you go to Jules’ single, and then Truffaut follows him back to a closer two shot. I like when you follow one actor to another, and the shot changes. It’s intuitive movement. You don’t have to be on everyone at all times, but when a filmmaker is good, you are always with the right person. These close-ups are beautiful and when he uses close-ups it really matters.


TRIANGLE:Jules is so fearful of losing Catherine altogether, that he gives Jim his blessing to commence a relationship with her. (below) The goddess statue with the enigmatic smile that originally captivated the friends.

“And then when [Jim and Catherine] say goodbye, potentially the most dramatic part, he throws it away,” Baumbach points out. Jim’s exit from the house is shot wide behind a veil of fog, with the narrator dryly giving the details. “That’s beautiful.”

Jim returns to his lover in Paris and time passes, indicated by personal letters back and forth read by the narrator. Eventually, Catherine draws Jim back to the country and Truffaut reveals the thriller behind the love story. When Jim tells Catherine he won’t return to her, admitting the failure of their experiment in unconventional love, she threatens to kill him with a gun she has, appropriately, hidden in her bed.

“Truffaut loved Hitchcock,” reminds Baumbach. “You feel there’s something up even if you don’t know what. Look, she’s too quiet. Then he holds her reaction, which makes it scarier. It almost turns into a genre movie when she grabs the gun with that music: dumm! But the movie is so flexible and Truffaut sets up so many elements, he can switch gears and it feels totally contained in the same movie.

Jim disarms Catherine and escapes through her window. A title card announces the passage of several months. “Now Truffaut sets up all the elements that will come into play later, showing Catherine’s car and the geography of the area,” notes Baumbach. Jules and Catherine spot Jim in a movie theater and he joins them for a drive in the country. After lunch, Catherine invites Jim for a drive alone, and promptly takes them both over the edge of a bridge, making sure that Jules is watching.

Under the voiceover, Jules is left alone observing the methodical details of their cremation and entombment, as strings and harpsichord restate the main theme woven throughout the film. “It’s disturbing that she kills him, but the music has so much emotion; it’s such a tribute to the characters and their relationships,” says Baumbach as the score swells. “I find it’s more moving to see Jules go through the formality of the funeral, watching how they actually crush the bones to make the ashes, and having to walk home while the narrator puts it in context. It’s deceptively thrown away but there’s actually something very sad about it, like it’s all just part of life. The music and narration put it in the context of story and past events—of life that’s over and things that could have been. It’s very moving.

“There’s discovery in this movie,” Baumbach concludes as Jules walks downhill through the cemetery, into the rest of his life. “You’re discovering this woman but there’s discovery in the filmmaking, too. You get involved in the story even though Truffaut uses narration and techniques that might seem distancing. He knows exactly what he wants to show you, and he only uses the voiceover when it’s either going to get us further inside the characters or dispense with exposition. It gives the movie a classical structure and puts it all in the past tense. This is a time that is now over. It’s both a celebration and an elegy.”

Screening Room

Directors select and watch a film that influenced their career and analyze why it had such a profound effect on them.

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