Truffaut’s Jules et Jim — An Expressionistic Analysis
As far as Bazin’s essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” might be used as a formal test of categorisation—notwithstanding the problematics inherent in his oversimplification of the realist and expressionist methodology—initial viewing of Jules et Jim seems to present a dichotomous structure. Certainly, a number of Bazin’s criteria for realism are met: camera movement; long-takes; composition-in-depth. and deep focus; a certain ambiguity of meaning. Similarly, several of Bazin’s criteria for expressionism also can be found: there is spatial and temporal discontinuity; editing is used for artistic effect; reality is augmented to create a world only vaguely like our own, and so on. The dichotomy though is only apparent. The over-all effect created by Truffaut shows Jules et Jim belonging more comfortably in the expressionistic domain; and, as we shall discover, devices which would normally—at least according to Bazin—deliver the effect of realism are utilised by Truffaut as tools of expressionism.
In our analysis of Jules et Jim, rather than examine fleetingly the whole gamut of expressionistic techniques, we shall instead explore in some detail the more important methods, paying particular attention to temporal and spatial distortions, editing and montage, special visual effects, and finally discover the manner in which Bazin’s archetypal techniques of realism—long-takes and composition-in-depth.—are recast.
Certainly one of the most striking features of Jules et Jim is temporal distortion. Truffaut utilises this effect by various means and for various purposes. In the first two minutes of the film, time is condensed in two ways: by the third person narrative, which encapsulates the film’s exposition in the most laconic of terms, describing the meeting and developing friendship of Jules and Jim, and also by the selective images which largely avoid redunant description of the aural narrative, but instead seek to interpret and compliment. Accordingly, when the narrator tells us that Jules is a foreigner in Paris; that he wants to go to an art student’s ball; and that Jim gets him a ticket and costume, the image we are offered is a simple one of the two playing dominoes. This image, incidentally, becomes a leitmotif in the film, supporting the theme of friendship and is touchingly varied much later when Jules plays instead with his daughter. Next, the narrator tells us that their friendship grows; the ball takes place; that Jules has tender eyes. The overlaid image though is of Jules and Jim hunting for a costume. It is interesting to note here that Truffaut not only condenses time, as already described, but creates a temporal duality, for the narrator has reached a moment subsequent to the ball, whilst we still watch the two friends costume hunting. This is the first instance of dual time lines, but it is often repeated. Simply stated, the audio narrative—and on other occasions the dialogue of the character—provides a temporal foundation that allows great visual freedom. The expressionistic effect of this temporal condensation and duality combined with the third person narrative is to produce a story book quality, as if we are presented not with real life but with a real story. This quality is underlined by the frequent story telling of the characters’. More precisely, the initial style created by this method has a simplistic quality much like a children’s story: the narration avoids hyperbole and treats exposition as bare-bones plot. Like a child having a story read to him, Truffaut provides us with the filmatic equivalent—though an equivalent which in many ways has greater potential—and we are allowed to look at the pictures, even when the story—narration—has advanced beyond their range.
As well as temporal condensing and duality, Truffaut also makes use of temporal displacement. An early example of this occurs when Jules and Jim meet up with the...
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