Adapted from a little-known 1953 novel by Henri Pierre Roche, Jules et Jim – Francois Truffaut’s fifth film in a highly creative two-year period – is an energetic and cinematic, but ultimately frustrating, attempt to breathe new life into that most hackneyed of plot devices: the love triangle.
The film begins in pre-World War I Paris, and ends in rural France just as Europe is becoming clouded with the rise of German fascism in the 1930s. Over the course of these two decades, the three central characters align and realign their relationships in an attempt to satisfy their shifting emotions, and to explore that which lies just beyond social acceptability.
The two male characters from which the film takes its name are, respectively, a shy, conservative Austrian (Oscar Werner) and a tall, extroverted Frenchman (Henri Serre), whose shared love of literature, theater, art and drinking draws them into a close, almost conspiratorial, friendship. They translate each other’s poetry and share girlfriends as casually as they share cigarettes. Their obsession with a certain statue – glimpsed during a friend’s slide presentation – leads them to visit the Adriatic island on which the statue is located, just so they can more closely observe its enigmatic smile.
The film’s real enigmatic smile, however, belongs to the mysterious, unconventional Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who enters their lives shortly afterward, and who so resembles the aforementioned statue that Jules and Jim are both instantly infatuated with her. The duo quickly becomes a trio, and somehow a delicate emotional balance is struck and (briefly) maintained. The early scenes dealing with the men’s friendship and the introduction of Catherine are very enjoyable. As spirited and eclectic as the characters themselves, these scenes are filled with naturalistic charm, spontaneity and energy. Truffaut and his editor, Claudine Bouche, construct this section as a whirlwind collage of carefree youth – blurring the line between the turn of the century and the early ‘60s so effectively that the film’s second half feels stilted and dull by comparison.
The tonal shift is appropriate to the material, however, as the outbreak of World War I puts an abrupt end to the innocence and marks – a little heavy-handedly – the introduction of conflict. In the name of friendship, Jim gives his blessing for Jules and Catherine to marry, but the two men are quickly drafted into opposing armies and spend the war dug into foxholes, terrified that they might unknowingly shoot each other in the heat of battle.
After the war, Jim visits the couple in their rural chalet, and the change in the trio’s dynamic is instantly felt. Seated round a table, Jules, Jim and Catherine struggle to make conversation, awkwardly exchanging pleasantries until the old chemistry is gradually rediscovered. Jules and Catherine have a five-year-old daughter, but their marriage seems to be winding down. Catherine has been restless, taking a series of lovers, and Jules is at a loss. As a last resort, he begs his friend to marry Catherine, so that the triangle might be altered but unbroken.
At this point, the film turns in on itself, as the two men struggle to keep up with capricious Catherine. She flits from one to the other and back again, occasionally ducking out to spend the night with a third party, leaving Jules and Jim stuck in an increasingly baseless friendship. Jules leaves several times, returning to Paris to pick things up with his girlfriend, with whom he is still in love.
It is characters like this occasionally mentioned girlfriend and the barely noted daughter that make the film’s events seem less like victimless bed-hopping and more like selfish irresponsibility. Catherine spends scene after scene agonizing over her desire to have a child with Jim, without a moment’s thought for the child she already has. Jim’s readiness to spring out of his girlfriend’s bed and race down to the train station the second Catherine telephones him is another example of this self-involvement. At some point it begins to feel less and less significant who ends up with whom. The viewer can’t shake the feeling that perhaps the best thing would be for all three of them to go their separate ways before the whole thing ends up on Jerry Springer.
As Catherine’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, a tragic climax begins to look more and more inevitable. It is a shame that a film which began with such relentless forward drive should spend its final act going round in circles, and when the end finally arrives, it is hard to know what to take away from the experience other than an overall sense that the menage-a-trois is more trouble than it’s worth (something many viewers already had a handle on before the movie began). Some critics have even suggested that the whole film is a political allegory about the dangers of impartiality (with reference to France’s attitude towards Hitler).
The film’s main strength, though, is Truffaut’s camera, and his keen eye for the emotional moment of a scene. His relentless experimentation with composition, music, montage, pacing and even frame size keep the film interesting, despite the ultimately exasperating self-involvement of its characters.
– Ben Stephens