Jules et Jim
In this story of a triangular love affair around the years of the first WWI, one of the lovers says of the female central character: "Catherine had the statue's smile", and director Francois Truffaut introduces her to us in a flourish of cuts. Jules and Jim have seen a statue in the Adriatic and Catherine resembles it. We see her walking down some steps before the film cuts to an extreme close-up, moves to an extreme side elevation, then to a medium close-up in side elevation, then a frontal close-up, a side elevation zoom, before another medium close-up, another side elevation zoom and then an extreme close-up. Think in contrast to how Casablanca introduces us to Ilsa, distinct in her elegant clothing, as the film uses reaction shots to others in the bar, making us aware of her striking looks. Without getting lost in a beauty contest, Ingrid Bergman would probably be deemed more objectively beautiful than Jeanna Moreau, but if director Michael Curtiz's purpose is to show Ilsa as the most stunning woman in Casablanca, in Jules et Jim it is to capture chiefly Catherine's singularity. Ilsa is more beautiful than other women; Catherine is different from other women. The editing is as singular as Catherine's looks.
This doesn't mean if Curtiz wished to show in 1942 Ilsa's singularity he could have done so using the same editing procedures as Truffaut. The film would still have been obliged to rely on Hollywood technique. Truffaut, as a filmmaker of the Nouvelle vague wasn't under the same obligation and had both a longer history of the image and greater freedom to make editing choices on this basis. Some of these were indebted to the Soviet montage filmmakers of the twenties, with Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kuleshov and others insisting that film isn't chiefly a recording medium but an editing one. Why rely on filming what you see uninterruptedly where is the creativity in that? Better to generate a system of editing that allows film to become a distinct form. Eisenstein offered five key components to editing: the metric, the rhythmic, the tonal, the overtonal and the intellectual.
Eisenstein's argument was a bit sparse with examples but loosely the metric is where shots are cut together so that the filmmaker edits according to effect rather than story. It might be the emphasis in an action scene which wants to quicken the pace no matter the content as each shot is the same length or alternate lengths. A four-second shot followed by a two-second shot and back to a fourth-second shot and so on. Here Eisenstein gives Pudovkin's The End of St Petersburg and his own October as examples. In October, the dancers' feet and the crowd's faces aren't shown for us to make sense of the screen space but to get increasingly worked up by the dance itself. We don't know where the characters are spatially, nor is it very important. What matters Eisenstein says is that "the pieces are joined together according to their lengths, in a formula-scheme corresponding to a measure of music." (Film Form) In the rhythmic montage the scene dictates the pace, and this is the most typical and conventional of editing as the film usually addresses its montage to the story it tells and we can think of the shots in Casablanca and how the length is very much dictated by the telling.
In tonal montage, Eisenstein emphasises the dominant emotional mood, where a series of shots might be matched by a tone that asks us to feel a certain way. Eisenstein offers a scene in Potemkin where the fog moves across shots but other films we might think of include Tokyo Story and Le Boucher, where the films set a mood initially rather than convey an action. The tonal often combines aspects of the metric length of shots and the rhythmic element of conveying clear information but it does so to generate a general atmosphere. Overtonal montage is more complex and combines all the previous elements to generate often an idea that is felt. Eisenstein can be a bit vague on this and gives no examples but it seems pretty close to the sort of scenes we find in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, where the films cut between contrary scenes all the better to bring out a sense of complexity greater than the typical cross-cutting sequence.
Whether these are examples of intellectual montage over overtonal montage is a bit moot. Some put the scene in The Godfather where the christening is juxtaposed with the assassinations in the overtonal category while putting the cross-cut where Kurtz and the water buffalo are killed in Apocalypse Now into intellectual montage. The difference between the overtonal and the intellectual seems to be one of affect versus thought: the former pushes the feeling to its highest level; the latter an idea to its optimum filmic possibility. As Eisenstein says, speaking of the gods sequence in October: "these pieces were assembled in accordance with a descending intellectual scale pulling back the concept of God to its origins, forcing the spectator to perceive this 'progress' intellectually." (Film Form)"
Eisenstein's ideas may sometimes be unclear but they are important; he more than anyone in cinema has given much thought to film as an editing medium rather than a recording device. In contrast, twenty years after Eisenstein, Andre Bazin believed that cinema didn't attend enough to what he would call the ontological basis of film: that it is a recording device and this is vital to its appeal. Bazin was more interested in films like Citizen Kane, Bicycle Thieves and Germany Year Zero films where he saw the shots as emphasising mise en scene over editing. As he would say: "Cinema attains its fullness in being the art of the real." (The Major Film Theories)
But let us now return to Jules et Jim - or at least to Truffaut. Truffaut would have generally been much closer to Bazin than to Eisenstein. Not only was Bazin French, he was also editor of the magazine that gave Truffaut the chance to develop his ideas as a critic, Cahiers du Cinema, and Bazin was more than symbolic father figure; he all but adopted the semi-orphaned Truffaut. But like other filmmakers of the Nouvelle vague, like Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, Truffaut wondered what would come out of an aesthetic reliant on both the importance of mise en scene and the opportunities in montage. If some moved more in the direction of editing, like Resnais, Truffaut became much admired for his longer takes. And yet much of the energy and vitality in Jules et Jim comes from the use of montage, not just in the scene described but also in a couple of other important sequences too. In one, the three leading characters Jules (Oskar Werner), Jim (Henri Serre) and Catherine (Moreau) go for a cycle to the beach. Truffaut could have settled for one transition shot between the house and their destination but he offers us six. This might be partly to show a burgeoning attraction between Jim and Catherine while she has presently chosen to be with Jules, but it also captures Truffaut's fascination with time passing, that these transitional shots might be there to show the characters moving from one space to another, but manage to convey, too, time that passes as memorable as part of memory. It is as though the whole film, narrated by a voice outside the story (non-diegetically like Dogville, Manderlay, Casablanca and A Matter of Life and Death and unlike the far more common diegetic usage, Double Indemnity, Stand by Me, GoodFellas and Casino) captures a disembodied memory which is perhaps even more moving for its impersonality.
One of the dangers of impersonal narration is it lends itself to authority (Casablanca) or irony (Dogville). Yet Truffaut uses it here to suggest that we are all caught in time's passing and utilises the editing to indicate this ontological tragedy, this temporal realisation. If many a filmmaker cuts to register an important piece of information, to push the story along, Truffaut cuts to capture all the better moments that seem to have been seized from time. We see it again much later in the film when Catherine, Jules and Jim, and Catherine and Jules' daughter, Sabine, go for a walk and, in four shots, Truffaut captures brilliantly a sombre mood in contrast to the earlier sequence. While during the cycle and by the sea the sun was bright and the weather warm, now it is cloudy and chilly, and they throw stones into the lake. Both scenes in Eisensteinian terms could be deemed tonal, with the shots carrying an atmosphere over from one to the next. Meanwhile, Georges Delerue's music moves from light in the earlier scene to dark in the later one while still similar. Each scene shows time passing but the similarities and contrasts between them give us a very strong sense of time, doing so more than just in the scene itself, but over time more broadly.
Truffaut may have written a well-known interview book with Hitchcock, and some of his films have Hitchcockian elements, including a yen for murder in Soft Skin, Shoot the Pianist and The Woman Next Door. But his approach to information was always much more elegiac than the suspense master. He wants the editing to create pockets of time rather than units of time: he usually follows Bazin's long take aesthetic and then reckons that editing shouldn't push the story along but intrude upon it and thus slow it down, creating a strong sense of reflection. Alternatively, it can move so quickly that it becomes a gag on back story exposition as we find in the early montage sequence in the film where the narrator discusses how Jules and Jim met, and how their friendship developed.
What Truffaut also expects from editing is shock. This was an aspect of Eisenstein's thesis that interested the Nouvelle vague; how the filmmaker could generate new thought out of cuts between contrary images, or at the very least create in the viewer a sense of surprise either diegetically or not. In other words, it could come from the story or be an aspect of the form. When Resnais in Hiroshima, mon Amour shows us a couple making love, with the French woman discussing what she saw in Hiroshima to her Japanese lover, Resnais creates a horrible juxtaposition between their passion and the documented atrocities. In Godard's Breathless, it is less challenging but still provocative. In a series of jump cuts, central character Michel thinks nothing of ordering food he has no intention of paying for; perhaps no intention of even eating. Editing became the means to shake the viewer out of their expectant filmic torpor, even stupor. Truffaut was generally gentler than that but Jules et Jim's ending can seem very Nouvelle vague indeed. Catherine asks Jim to join her in the car and in a series of cuts that will abruptly end Catherine and Jim's life, she drives the car over a broken bridge. It gives the film an abrupt ending, no matter Catherine's earlier moments of rashness, when much of what we have seen has instead indicated melancholy thoughtfulness.
Soviet montage was centrally about improving society and the individual was often a minor aspect of it, as the directors relied on types who could be edited into social coherence. In contrast, the French New Wave filmmakers sought singularity, the characters individuals with often inexplicable needs and desires. If the Nouvelle vague was a political cinema it was one closer to existentialism than communism, and the term came from a poll in 1957 asking young people about their lives and their hopes. The film movement became a meeting of personal and cinematic aspiration two years later and allowed editing to be no longer the socio-politically manipulative technique evident in Russian cinema of the twenties or the conventional technique in classic Hollywood. It became a radical device that could speak to needs beyond those of the political or the entertaining. It gave to cinema an exuberance that, for all Truffaut's brilliance with the mournful, could rejuvenate the form and suggest the new.
© Tony McKibbin