Even though the French New Wave was more than just a movement in the history of world cinema, it’s easy to view it within that limiting framework. Like all cinematic movements, it had a beginning and an end, and when each occurred is up for debate. But considering the Nazi occupation of France during WWII, and that regime’s strict censorship and exhibition guidelines, the fact that the country’s cinema came out ahead in the post-war era points to an elegant generation of catch-up, consuming all that they missed out on throughout the globe.
François Truffaut was one of the movement’s leading auteurs as the country was discovering a new voice that both honored popular film’s past and paved the way for new storytelling and aesthetic techniques. His filmography includes a handful of some of the most influential films of all time, and you can include Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim) in that list. Its story of friendship, love and how one affects the other has remained a hallmark of its era, and has been referenced in numerous examples of modern film, including The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Pulp Fiction.
The love triangle trope has been one of the relationship drama’s most common, even before Truffaut’s time, but by playing around with genre conventions and broadening the film’s philosophical appeal to a more liberalized society, Truffaut uses it to his advantage. Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are two friends caught in such a predicament with the enigmatic Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) for quite a bit of their adult lives. There are two parts to the story Truffaut and co-writer Jean Gruault weave from Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel of the same name: pre and post-WWI.
Cinematically, both parts are told differently. The pre-WWI section encompasses the first act of the screenplay, and it goes by in a blur. Even throughout the film, Raoul Coutard’s cinematography whips around the scenery with a rush, but it is especially purposeful in this first part as the hectic pacing communicates youth’s fleetingness, and even the mind’s inability to wax poetically on the past. Post-WWI, takes are a little longer and the pacing grows a little steadier, though still chugging along. Truffaut’s vision is still heavily nostalgic, but it’s during this half of the story where he wants us to pay most attention.
Perhaps that’s because it’s during this section of the narrative when the film truly differentiates itself from past romance dramas not just cinematically, but also philosophically. Most similarly plotted films before Jules and Jim might have eventually led to a sensationalized climax where the conflict between the two suitors reaches a point of no return, and any friendship between the two is virtually unsalvageable. Instead, as Catherine continuously goes back and forth between Jules and Jim, both are able to keep a level head while calmly discussing the perceived fallacies of marriage and monogamous love, in general.
And then there’s Catherine, whose character makes for the most interesting discussion. Along with Jules and Jim, she too shares cynical attitudes about romance, and though she additionally cannot help but waver back and forth between the two friends, and even find herself in a series of other infidelities, we never get the sense that Truffaut is looking down on her or telling us to view her negatively – for the most part, at least. The sympathy he means to evoke from us may be by virtue of Jules and Jim’s own lack of admonishment, but all the same, the understanding we’re supposed to feel is a welcome change from the scorn directors might normally cast upon similar female characters, or what we might refer to today as slut shaming.
Yes, there are other instances where the material’s rhetoric is influenced by misogynistic attitudes, but by 1962 standards, the fact that a film could feature two male protagonists acting in ways not befitting of traditional masculine behavior and a female protagonist not completely vilified for her particular faults is quite progressive. Truffaut, like many other great directors, capitalized on this new generation of filmgoers’ more liberal perspectives and intellectual pursuits, with its only downside being his using a chaotic narrative to legitimize the characters’ prevailing pessimism to the point of pandering.
There’s something intentionally imperfect about Jules and Jim, and even though it doesn’t have the same endearing qualities something like Sleepwalk with Me may possess, its narrative is enthralling enough to overlook any flaws. The Truffaut touch can’t help but stand out when global cinema was reaching further and further toward the avant-garde, and Jules and Jim was only his third movie. Not too shabby for a former film critic.