Jules and Jim, Francois Truffaut's homage to bohemian ideals of romantic freedom, seems destined to be a film that will be more fondly appreciated by those who discovered it when it was still fresh and scandalous than by those now encountering it for the first time, a half-century past its debut. In the context of where popular movie culture was at in 1962 and the film's crucial role in demonstrating the potential staying power of the nouvelle vague, I can easily understand the appeal of watching three attractive, sensitive, intelligent young people weave their way through the emotional thickets of a multi-decade love triangle - especially when it's crafted with such meticulous care by a director who closely studied film with an eye toward understanding what makes a scene, an image, a performance resonate most strongly with viewers, then takes what he's learned and reformulates it so creatively. History has shown that Truffaut chose wisely in setting up his third feature film, especially after the perceived failure of Shoot the Piano Player. Jules and Jim established a reputation as not only his "best" but arguably the most successful and influential offering of the French New Wave. That quasi-legendary status continues to draw new viewers to the film, who eager as I was to discover something as invigoratingly awesome as The 400 Blows or Breathless. But as is often the case, the high critical esteem sets up expectations that are hard to fulfill and may ultimately impede some people's ability to simply enjoy Jules and Jim's many admirable qualities.
To get the negatives out of the way first, I think the biggest problem for novices to overcome is managing our response to the obvious instability and emotional turmoil stirred up by the enormously self-absorbed woman at the center of the story. Catherine, portrayed with magnetic grandeur by Jeanne Moreau, is the real focal point of the film, regardless of a title that makes it seem like some kind of a buddy picture. Her commanding presence is palpable in practically all of her scenes (and even a few where she's not seen but is merely spoken of), powered by an inscrutable determination to pursue her own course ("she only announces her goals after she achieves them") and a willingness to make herself erotically available to men who prove themselves helplessly compliant to her whims. It doesn't take much of an imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of either Jules or Jim and wonder out loud if her charms are really worth all the angst and upheaval they trigger in each of their lives. And unlike the early 1960s, when the prevailing dilemma was being locked into unhappy relationships with no legal way out (viz Divorce Italian Style), most of us are surrounded by examples (or have our own real-life track record) of relational train wrecks that cast a dubious shadow over the dreamy free love idylls and frictionless exchanges of partners that make up the most appealing portions of Jules and Jim. Thus it's more than a bit difficult for some to forge a positive bond with these characters, assuming that Truffaut's motive is to offer them up as appealing role models or brave souls fulfilling an ideal that the rest of us either openly or secretly aspire to.
Another stumbling block for me, at least the first time through, was buying into the deep level of friendship that developed between Jules and Jim over the course of their lifetime. Other than being told how much they come to enjoy each others company in the opening pastiche, shot in silent film style to stir up nostalgia for the Belle Epoque, I didn't see much reason to believe it in the performances of Oskar Werner (Jules) and Henri Serre (Jim.) So strong was their connection with each other, the story goes, that they were able to remain pals even as the woman they both loved played each of them like yo-yos, abandoning one in favor of the other on multiple occasions, with hardly more than a sigh of resignation exchanged between them to express their heartache and disappointment. Even after granting a reasonable benefit of the doubt, I had a hard time believing that the trade-offs of Catherine's status as "live-in partner" would be so benign and painless, despite whatever camaraderie they shared. People are just more possessive than that in my experience and I was initially confused by Truffaut's attempt to persuade me that a profound base of shared interests, life experience and perspectives between two men would be sufficient to quash the rivalry that would inevitably develop. It wasn't until after I'd completed my first viewing that I discovered via the supplemental features that the film was based on an autobiographical novel, and that its menage a trois between Jules, Jim and Catherine is a fictionalized account of what really took place (with a few notable exceptions.) That knowledge helped me out quite a bit, actually. Knowing that this otherwise implausible story had a basis in reality compelled me to take a closer look when I revisited the film a week later.
With the benefit of a little perspective and a more genuine interest in discovering for myself what made these characters tick, suddenly the odd, seemingly random gestures that Truffaut front-loaded into Jules and Jim's earliest scenes made more sense. The slide show of ancient sculptures that sets the stage for Catherine's entry into their lives when the men notice her resemblance to a particularly mesmerizing stone face underscores their ardent desire to live according to an artistic ethos. Catherine's adoption of a masculine disguise as an experiment to see if she can fool a passerby into thinking she's a man foreshadows her eventual forthright aggression in setting the sexual and even economic terms of her relationships with both Jules and Jim. Even the iconic footrace they run across the covered bridge concludes with an omen: "You cheated, 'Thomas.'" "But I won."
Similarly, there's some rich and enjoyable symbolism to be found in many other scenes, like the one in which Catherine burns her old love letters while clad in a diaphonous nightgown that catches fire, requiring Jim to both rescue her and clean up her mess. Or Catherine's chattering for attention, trying to distract either Jules or Jim from their recurring dominoes game, finally resorting to a cold playful slap to Jules' cheek when she doesn't get what she wants, only to see the whole group smooth over the offense with forced laughter as she seduces them with premeditated facial freeze-frames that Truffaut emphasizes slightly for our enhanced admiration.
However, as the commentary track showed me, sometimes it can be quite tedious to have some self-appointed expert spell it all out for you so I will leave that level of analysis out of this review. If you want more of that sort of thing, listen to the observations that Annette Insdorf makes on this disc; she's much more willing to go there than I am.
Speaking of commentary tracks, there's a fascinating contradiction contained in the two that are offered on Criterion's Jules and Jim DVD release. On one, Suzanne Schiffman, Truffaut's longtime collaborator who worked as script supervisor on this film, asserts that Catherine's famous jump into the Seine was performed for insurance reasons by a stunt woman dressed in identical garb. However, Jeanne Moreau's recollection on the other track states that her double was sipping rum prior to shooting the scene in order to work up her nerve, so that by the time her big moment came, she was too drunk to leap safely, obliging Moreau to do it herself. We do see her swimming in the river as she's pulled back to the stairs, but Schiffman insists that she just stepped into the water and turned around, while Moreau adds extra details about men yelling at her to jump because she hesitated and having to spend the next two days sick in bed due to her splash in the cold dirty water. It's hard to reconcile the two accounts, so I'll go with Jeanne's story.
The use of old stock footage and borrowed clips from some early movies set in World War I adds to the enjoyment in both cinematic and narrative terms. The montage of those scenes is very well done as Truffaut and editor Claudine Bouche deftly work out the differences in framing and film speed of their various sources in creating a brief but highly effective intrusion of the Great War into the carefree meanderings of our protagonists and everyone else around them. It also marks a significant shift in the mood of the film, as tensions between each of the three begin to mount and complicate irreversibly. Jules and Claudine are married now, they have a daughter, though there's some ambiguity as to her parentage. Catherine has a story to account for her birth while Jules was away at war (Sabine was born 9 months after he visited her on furlough) but by this point, her credibility is pretty worthless and the viewer is made aware of just how transient, even pathological, Catherine has become in her ability to manage her relationships with others. Not that she can't still be fetchingly adorable:
Of course, her adorableness is a big cause of the all the problems. For Jules, Catherine is too essential to his painfully inadequate sense of himself for him to lose entirely, so he implores his best friend to become her lover so that she won't leave him altogether to pursue someone else. Jim puts off a different woman, Gilberte, who waits patiently for him to settle down and marry her, in order to pursue an ill-fated affair with the flighty but headstrong woman he's been intrigued by for so many years, even though he sees through his own foolishness. Meanwhile, Catherine is so bewildered by her own mercurial desires that she's rendered herself infertile, psychologically at least if not physiologically (though it's difficult to distinguish the boundary between the two aspects of her being.) As Jim says in the quote that opened this review, which he speaks near the end of the film, practically signing his own death warrant as he inspires Catherine's final act of revenge, they made a mess of everything. Thanks to Jeanne Moreau's deep reservoir of charismatic allure and Francois Truffaut's prodigious mastery of cinematic technique, Jules and Jim nevertheless turns out to be quite a beautiful and influential mess. Just don't let it influence your own love life too much - plunging into the river looks like a lot more fun than it really turns out to be, and the dramatic statement it tries to make isn't all that meaningful or important in the long run.