Confident in the formal ingenuity he initiated with 1959’s The 400 Blows (and Jean-Luc Godard furthered with 1960’s Breathless), director Francois Truffaut opens this French New Wave landmark with a burst of clever edits, roving camera movements, freeze frames and wittily intrusive narration. Now that they’d successfully broken with tradition, it was time to have some fun.
And so playfulness is the defining characteristic of Jules and Jim, even if what it largely entails is a tragic gender gap of fatal proportions. After introducing the fast friends of the title – a Parisian writer named Jim (Henri Serre) and an Austrian traveler named Jules (Oskar Werner) – the movie takes us through a catalog of the women they both admire. (Truffaut lingers most memorably on Marie Dubois’ Therese, who circles around the room puffing a cigarette like a “steam engine” while the camera follows as if it were an adoring dog.)
Even Therese fails to cast a real spell on them, however. That won’t happen until they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), whose own frivolity (she dresses like a man and races them across a bridge in one of the cinema’s most treasured tracking shots) may be her way of dealing with an underlying and serious sense of dissatisfaction. “Perhaps she’s not meant to be happy on this earth,” Jim tells Jules, who is the first to fall completely for Catherine, eventually marrying her. Indeed, the very things that mark her as such a mesmerizing woman – her daring and self-determination, her refusal to play by patriarchal rules – also, in some ways, stoke her discontent.
It’s inevitable, then, that Catherine’s attention will eventually turn to Jim, though the movie holds this off until the significant interruption of World War I, which pits the two friends on opposite sides of a great divide. Most discussion of Jules and Jim quickly passes by this middle interlude, which is understandable given that Truffaut mostly nods to it with newsreel footage, but I think it’s of vital importance. It is Jules’ and Jim’s war experience, as much as any supposed fickleness on Catherine’s part, that drastically changes the dynamic among the trio in the last third of the film. If the finale of Jules and Jim feels a bit sudden and exaggerated, perhaps that’s because we’re only viewing it within the context of a romantic triangle. Widened out, seen through the lens of history, it’s the story of love – in all sorts of forms – that’s been wounded beyond repair.