One of humankind’s biggest follies is the belief that love can be mastered, like chess or draughts. Many spend their lives away thinking that love will be easy to find if they follow the rules. What Jules et Jim asks us to consider is whether love is just a game ,and if so, just how many players can it entertain?
These are challenging questions, but somehow the film feels as light and carefree as a newly released balloon. It kicks off with a legendary two minute montage which introduces us to the titular pair, cut to George Deleure’s bustlingly brilliant score. Jules is the German in Paris, and Jim is the Frenchman who welcomes him. They share similar interests in sport, culture, and, naturally, women. But Jim is careful about whom he involves himself with, while Jules, played with touching vulnerability by Oskar Werner, has a tendency to peer no deeper than under the dress.
The duo zip across France, pausing only for the odd party or theatre show. At a meeting, they met Catherine, a stunningly adroit and beautiful woman who defies everything Jules and Jim’s elders taught them about femininity and its place in the world. Entranced, they join Catherine on a madcap expedition across the nation. They share a summer of dreams, sleeping in marble mansions and sprinting across endless bridges. Little they knew that it would be the last summer of it’s kind before World War One arrived and gutted Europe of its pride and innocence, and placed brother against brother. Jules and Jim are on opposite sides and are more afraid of killing each other than they of being killed themselves.
This is typically bittersweet ground for François Truffaut, the film critic who, along with Jean Luc Godard (Breathless) and Claude Chabrol, spearheaded the French New Wave that rewrote the laws of moviemaking . Jules et Jim was only his third film, but yet the budding filmmaker flaunts a stunning control of the medium. Watch as he weaves glamorous CinemaScope imagery with battered World War One archive footage, exposing the harsh joins between the trio’s communal fantasy and their individual realities. He deploys freeze frames to memorialise certain emotions, and poetically imposes one image on to another to suggest dreams and visions. It is a truly virtuoso display from one of cinema’s most inexhaustibly inventive artists.
But underneath his revitalising style, Truffaut was one of the select storytellers who could develop moving relationships that you believed in without resorting to sentimentalism. The conflict his characters face is simple. Jules and Jim both love Catherine, and Catherine loves both of them too. But marriage, the consummation of love, is always a contract between two. What is there to do? Can one pair be satisfied, knowing that their closest friend is alone? Catherine suggests the answer is to never commit yourself to a single person, to make love without ever giving any, but this is hardly a solution and actually divides the trio further apart.
Shot with blazing panache by Raoul Coutard, every frame seems to swell with rich romance, every close up startlingly intimate.
Every performer is excellent, particularly Jeanne Moreau who is magnificent in her portrayal of Catherine, an emotional tempest who is simultaneously dizzyingly fickle and unyieldingly sincere, even as she manages several affairs across the continent. Henri Serre often goes underappreciated, but he gives Jim a smouldering melancholy which at once makes him very attractive and highly relatable.
It’s impossible to overstate how influential Jules et Jim was and still is. Martin Scorsese pilfered every one of Truffaut’s tricks for his seminal Goodfellas, and today it seems it is every young filmmaker’s obligation to try and replicate the sparkling sweetness which made this film such a delight. But they always stumble, because what makes great cinema cannot be bottled. Like Catherine, the film is one of a kind.