In François Truffaut’s debut feature, The 400 Blows, widely seen as the flagship production of the French Nouvelle Vague, or “New Wave,” he was able to convey a representation of youth in a very specific era and, at that time, in a very unique way. Autobiographical as the 1959 film was, it also featured a notable vitality and honesty, two traits that would distinguish several of these French films from the late 1950s and into the ’60s. While The 400 Blows was an earnest and refreshing portrayal of adolescence, in some ways, Truffaut’s 1962 feature, Jules and Jim, his third, feels even more youthful, in terms of stylistic daring and energetic exuberance. Though dealing with adults and serious adult situations, Jules and Jim exhibits a formal sense of unbridled glee, with brisk editing, amusing asides, and a sinuously mobile camera. Jules and Jim is alive like few films are. It’s a movie by a young cinephile (Truffaut wasn’t quite 30 when it was released) as he explores and exploits the medium he loves.
As befits a film of this quality and esteem, The Criterion Collection release of Jules and Jim is one of their most impressive. Essentially carrying over the supplemental materials from the previous DVD release, the recent Blu-ray/DVD combo does boast a new digital restoration and retains two commentaries (one with co-screenwriter Jean Gruault, Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, editor Claudine Bouché, and film scholar Annette Insdorf, the other with Jeanne Moreau and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana). There is also a documentary about the author of the film’s source novel, Henri-Pierre Roché; interviews with Gruault and cinematographer Raoul Coutard; a conversation between scholars Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew; and several excellent and insightful interviews with Truffaut, one also featuring Moreau and Jean Renoir.
A classic love triangle motivates the drama of Jules and Jim. Each making their way through various women like they would packs of Gauloises cigarettes, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) struggle to find “the one” amidst the bevy of beauties they bed and abandon. Suddenly, into their lives bursts forth Catherine (Moreau), a girl even more erratic and spiritedly unpredictable than they are, first seen in a stunningly cut montage that ranks among the best character introductions in film history. She’s a perfect match — but for which guy? Both, apparently. Jules falls first and falls the hardest, and Jim does his best to maintain a respectful distance — this is Jules’ girl — but when Catherine inexplicably and purposefully plunges into a river, far from being unnerved by this action, Jim becomes further enamored by this reckless young woman. Despite her impulsiveness (or perhaps because of it), Jules marries Catherine. He loves her; however, he possibly also hopes that the institution of marriage and family will remedy her unconventional behavior. “Less the grasshopper and more the ant,” is how he puts it later in the film. In any event, it doesn’t work. And still, Jim harbors feelings for Catherine.
With Jules on the German side and Jim on the French, World War I distances all three from each other, and through it all — the battles in the trenches and the emotional turmoil at home — Jules and Jim maintain, above all else, their unyielding friendship. Even when it becomes painfully obvious that Catherine no longer loves Jules (by his count, she has had at least three lovers and only just recently returned after having randomly left for 6 months), and even after she unashamedly transfers her affections to Jim, the two men remain respectful and cordial to one another. As the film’s narrator concludes, their “friendship had no equivalence in love.” Nevertheless, this inconsistent fluctuation of affection, as well as the resulting despair, paranoia, and frustration, cannot last. A breaking point for the trio is inevitable.
Upon subsequent viewings of Jules and Jim, knowing how the film ultimately turns out, it becomes obvious early on that this three-part relationship is not destined to succeed. One notices skeptical glances from Jim; regardless that he ends up falling for Catherine, he clearly senses something is askew with this potentially unstable charmer. Georges Delerue’s outstanding soundtrack also signals trouble on the horizon; even sequences of apparent elation are underscored by a particular piece that reappears throughout the film, a song tinged with impending doom, casting an audible cloud over the visual bliss. To be sure, Jules should know what he’s getting in for. No matter how one views Catherine, there can be no denying that she is who she is; she’s true to herself, if no one else. So when Jules insists that a woman’s fidelity is the most important thing in a relationship, we (and Jim) instantly have our doubts.
This is nonetheless all quite tragic, for despite their faults — and no one here is more or less guilty or innocent than another — Jules, Jim, and Catherine are relatively likable and sympathetic characters, especially when things are going good and one wishes to be the fourth member of this joyous assembly. Jules gets hit the hardest, though. He goes from pleading “not this one,” asking Jim to refrain from encroaching on his budding relationship with Catherine, to “be careful,” when he becomes resigned to the fact that Catherine now loves his friend. And it’s Jules who, at the end of the film, clearly elicits our deepest sympathies. Jim, envious of the apparent (though illusory) stability of Jules’ life with Catherine and their daughter, Sabine, tells Jules that while France may have won the war, he would have rather “won all this.” This type of domesticity is, for now, beyond the gallivanting Jim. And thanks in no small part to Moreau’s appeal, it’s continually easy to forgive and forget Catherine’s transgressions. Truffaut, in one of the interviews on the Criterion disc, describes the film as one about a woman who “loves two men with equal passion.” She may be heedless in her other relations, but it’s hard to really blame her for what she seems to think is a perfectly legitimate arrangement among the three of them. If they’re all good with it, or at least pretend to be, well, why couldn’t this work?
Like so many other films of the Nouvelle Vague, Jules and Jim is largely lauded and remembered for individual sequences, most of which highlight the incomparable Moreau. (This movement was nothing if not a showcase for beautiful and talented actresses.) According to John Powers, in an essay included here, Moreau was “a pop-eyed siren with the ferocity of Bette Davis and the kitty-cat wiles of Tuesday Weld.” From Catherine as “Thomas,” to the footrace on the bridge, to her musical interlude as she sings “Le Tourbillon,” there are many remarkable moments to take away from Jules and Jim. Already established as an attractive and gifted performer, it’s Moreau who generally steals the show. Having appeared in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, Moreau was a familiar and breathtaking screen presence, but usually a somber one. Aware of this, she and Truffaut have some fun with the brooding convention, making sure that Moreau smiled more often than normal (one scene in particular alludes to this). Their collaboration and friendship would grow from this film forward. They would remain close and work together again 6 years later on The Bride Wore Black.
At the time prior to Jules and Jim, Truffaut’s career was anything but secure. The financial failure of his second feature, Shoot the Piano Player, which is now a beloved film, led to some notable shifts in Truffaut’s production methods, namely a required bankable cast and a solid screenplay that was to be followed, his improvisatory tendencies temporarily put on hold. Whatever it took to get it completed, Jules and Jim is now one of the greats. It was enough to make Jean Renior jealous for not having made it himself, and–as noted by renowned New Wave cinematographer Coutard, who does exquisite work on this picture–it’s “a film that leaves one speechless.” Truffaut thought the film was perhaps “too decorative” in its depiction of a complex love affair: “not cruel enough,” he says in one of the interviews here. This could have been the result of a young man’s naiveté, but in any case, he sought to rectify the approach with Two English Girls in 1971, also, like Jules and Jim, adapted from a Roché novel with Gruault. This tale of a lovestruck threesome instead features, as the title implies, two girls and one boy and is much less buoyant than its predecessor.
Before his untimely passing at the age of just 52, François Truffaut covered a lot of cinematic territory, as a hugely influential critic (he speaks on the auteur theory in one interview on the disc) and as a filmmaker. He surely pulls out all the filmic stops here. Jules and Jim begins with a breakneck opening and never lets up in its barrage of technical tricks: rapid cutting, flowing camera maneuvers, tracks, dollies, zooms, irises, superimpositions, stock footage, and some superb freeze frames that perfectly, yet fleetingly, capture that Moreau essence. Few cineastes, in whatever form they choose to work in, wear their love of the medium so obviously on their sleeve. As a result, Truffaut is something of a film lover’s filmmaker. A quote from him gets to the heart of this. It perhaps helps to explain how he was able to make so many tremendous movies, movies that embodied and projected a passionate love of the cinema, and why he appreciated the art as he did. Asked in an interview which he preferred, seeing sights in real life or in the movies, he said, “I think I like the image of life better than life itself, because I don’t think real life is as satisfying as a film.” After watching Jules and Jim, it’s hard to necessarily disagree.
— Jeremy Carr