Jules and Jim breaks out of the gates with a frantic burst of energy giving off the effect of a comedic circus act or a whirling carousel and at times it functions as both. Champion of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut, at 29 years of age injects the film with this kind of frantic lifeblood tearing through the material and time with almost reckless abandon. If Breathless (1960) was not the title taken by one of its contemporaries, this picture could have just as easily taken the name.
You see, Truffaut takes Henri-Pierre’s Roche’s autobiographical novel, the work of an old man, and transforms it into a period piece shot by a young man. The distinctions reveal themselves in full force.
It’s a cinema of attraction with whips, tracks, freezes, jumps, and flies constituting a fluid adventure that’s given free reign to go in so many directions thanks to the versatile camerawork of Godard regular Raoul Coutard as well as connecting voice-over narration (provided by Michel Subor) and a score courtesy of George Delerue.
Still, as Truffaut lets us sink into his story things come more clearly into focus but never so they reach a point of complete clarity. He never dwells too long on a moment or an idea. Instead, choosing to move through the lives of his protagonists touching on so many moments and relationships and ideas. Thus, in one sense Jules and Jim never slogs but it also still functions as a fairly compelling work of historical drama covering a lot of terrain in a condensed amount of time. Some may find that off-putting others will welcome it as a refreshing permutation of the Hollywood status quo.
The year is 1912. An Austrian named Jules (Oskar Werner) and a Frenchman named Jim strike up a friendship that feels like the perfect representation of the deep lasting bond that can form between two individuals. They are young men with a great many of the same interests and a comparable outlook on life.
They’re always benevolent toward one another, they never fight, and they share a mutual satisfaction in the arts while diverting their time at the gymnasium, playing dominoes, and of course, in the company of women. From there one of the great cinematic friendships is forged for life. Though tested, not even a woman can tear their bond asunder…completely. At least not in the way we might expect.
It all begins when they become enamored with a statue, an opaque figure with a pleasant smiling face that captures them so much so that they must go and see it for themselves. But far more striking is the woman they meet back in France who embodies that same bewitching quality.
They meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) as they have met many other women in the past for tea or an afternoon of trivialities and conversation. Except Catherine is one of the few that stays with them. Of course, she is personified by none other than Jeanne Moreau that monumental beauty and one of the undisputed queens of the Nouvelle Vague alongside Anna Karina in Godard’s early works.
There’s a frisky and lithe vivacity that carries her through the film’s earliest scenes as she dons her disguise as Thomas frolicking through Paris in one of the most iconic and enduring sequences of the cinema. An overwhelmingly attractive abandon radiates out of her. Truffaut has set Moreau up as such with his narrative and she does the rest.
However, still, as the story continues to progress and she marries Jules and they make a life together with a daughter named Sabine, there are other qualities that come to the fore. Namely, her maturity with a hint of sophistication that still leaves space for that same carefree vigor continually coursing through her and garnering the undivided attention of the camera.
In the complete inverse of the film’s title, you find its true attraction and the figure who makes the whole story what it is. Jules so aptly puts it that she’s “a force of nature that manifests itself in cataclysms.” She’s so very uninhibited.
Thus, Jules will love her for a lifetime and Jim will count her among his very closest companions but still, she is a complicated creature and perhaps Truffaut is playing out his own mesmerization and subsequent befuddlement with women. Catherine is an epitome of that. She has other lovers. She openly cavorts with Jim who wants to love her even as he wants to stay true to his best friend. She constantly does what is least expected but that goes with the territory of Truffaut’s invention.
As such, it is less of a conventional love triangle and more precisely a menage a trois as the French might say. This is not so much about dramatic conflict as it is tragically sad in the end. Because this is a film about friendship as much as it is love and it’s a dream friendship as much as it is a romantic fantasy. Maybe it’s possible for both to exist partially in the forms projected onscreen and yet Truffaut fills both with so much that we easily yearn for.
There’s the song “Le Tourbillon” that Moreau sings and it quite remarkably ties into this film. The words come from her lips gayly, describing a woman who could very much represent Catherine and then a lover who are both “Each blown their way by the whirlpool of days.” There’s not a better way describing the course of this film.
It’s consumed with so many interludes and subsequent shifts that are almost matter-of-fact from the breakout of the Great War to its ultimate resolution or the marriage of Jules to Catherine and her eventual affectionate advances toward Jim.
Within these segments, it occurs to me that the film hardly comes off like a drama. Still, there are moments of comedy and undoubted tinges of bitter tragedy. But what we’re left with is what Truffaut best described himself — a bit of a knowing paradox of tones.
“When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, it’s just wonderful.”
It is another of the great tragicomedies of cinema like a Citizen Kane (1941) or 8 1/2 (1963) but there’s no doubt that this is Truffaut’s own rendition and it remains the heart & soul of the Nouvelle Vague for its defining visuals that have ingrained themselves in the cultural landscape the world over.