Nominally the cinema's supreme love triangle (if not its most psychologically fascinating), François Truffaut's landmark is a hard film to resurrect in a contemporary era that favors logic and emotional literalness over the French director's dreamy sense of the inevitability of disappointment and the invisibility of personal morality. A long-gestating pet project of the filmmaker, who happened across Henri-Pierre Roche's semi-autobiographical novel in a bargain bin in 1956 but waited to make it as his third film in 1961, Jules and Jim stands alongside Godard's Breathless as one of the early, instantly definitive films of the French New Wave, its impact on countless scores of subsequent films impossible to gauge. If its guilelessness seems a bit dated, a viewing today reads like a well-observed lesson that countless American filmmakers incorporated into their work over the following two decades, leaving it not just cogent but an essential piece of cinema history. With an almost insurmountable liberty in his use of the cinematic form, Truffaut embraces contradiction to create meaning—Jules and Jim is sad yet humorous, breathless yet contemplative, universal yet hermetic, based on a book by a man in his 70s yet directed by a man in his 20s. It knows of life's folly so intimately that it is impossibly naïve, and its selfless love of the cinema borders on narcissistic.
Jules (Oskar Werner) is described by the film's omniscient narrator as Sancho Panza to Jim's (Henri Serre) Don Quixote, yet their relationship is less complementary than symbiotic. A German and a Frenchman, both consumed by language, poetry, and literature, they are two equal sides of the same whole who divide only on one subject that cannot be equally shared: love. Jules is shy, patient, pensive, while Jim is a lothario who has no trouble attracting a willing partner for himself or his friend. Eventually their travels initiate an introduction to Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a frosty, strong-willed beauty who immediately recalls a fixation with a statue evocative of their joint female ideal, and she becomes the force applied to these immovable objects, the fulcrum of their lives' immense possibility. At first this trio frolics without expectation, gallivanting from Paris to the countryside and back on a whim, and if the reticent Jules could not be expected to respond with anything but intoxication with Catherine's mad sense of adventure, even the normally cagey Jim doesn't seem fazed to learn that Catherine regularly travels with a bottle of sulfuric acid tucked away in her suitcase, “for the eyes of men who tell lies.”
Using the Great War (recreated by Truffaut with newsreel footage as a battlefield montage) to strip Jules and Jim of their youthful simplicity, the film comes into sharper focus once Jules and Catherine are married, have a young daughter, and move to the German countryside where the easy friendship between the three ferments and eventually sours. It was during the war that Catherine first began to drift away from Jules (as their daughter was conceived during a furlough Catherine felt as though she “was in the arms of a stranger”), and the film's hypothesis is that Jules and Jim are doomed because they are impervious to that most important of realizations: that Catherine will never be content with their devotion. When Jim arrives in Germany, Catherine is already flirting with the possibility of an escape offered by another ex-soldier, and eventually Jim proposes (not so much to Catherine as to himself) that he occupy Catherine's attentions to ensure that Jules's solitary, pathetic desire to prevent her from leaving is upheld. Whether or not Jim truly loves her, or she him, is irrelevant. All three characters are so deeply infatuated with not just their own projected concepts of being but each other's bohemian-fueled impression of intellectual freedom—Jules to Catherine's reckless lack of inhibition, Jim to Jules's emotional selflessness, Catherine to her own willingness to take what she wants and leave what she doesn't—that their shared love becomes their jailor, the shackles unperceivable to the captives. The film's shrewdest moment of self-awareness finds Jim comparing Catherine to the queen of a beehive, with the two men her drones; despite the film's elastic form, Truffaut's ascetic sense of certainty (combined with the stiff, unmoved narration) makes the aura of the proceedings not unlike that of a scientific study.
What confirms Jules and Jim to the status of a flawed gem is Truffaut's inability to reconcile his core of almost surreal melancholy with a more psychologically acute perception of character, something perfected throughout his Antoine Doinel series and later efforts like Two English Girls, a second Roche adaptation that bears more than a few similarities to this film. (It's also a far more mature and satisfying work.) The timeline of his plot is impenetrable and his sense of incident is suitably hazy (it only fails him at the hastily staged denouement), but he too easily lets Jules and Jim, as characters, coast by on vague descriptions and archetypes rather than example. Jules is too easily reduced to his lack of action and is occasionally forgotten, while there is repeated discussion of Jim's proclivities as a ladies' man without discernment as to what drives his appetites or makes him so appealing to the opposite sex. (He seems a ladies man who has no ladies.) Jules and Jim instinctively intellectualize themselves to the point where it is possible they exist only within the reality of their own minds, and thus neither actor is able to give a performance that captures the imagination in the manner Jean-Pierre Léaud did in his various collaborations with the director. Catherine is a more fitting mystery, and Moreau gives a definitively opaque performance that is as frustrating as it is troubling. She makes Catherine not so much unpredictable as combustible, and if we must accept Jules and Jim's willful immolation without much enlightenment, at least the fire is appropriately scorching.
But despite his embryonic shortcomings, Truffaut is inarguably the star of the film and his presence alone justifies both Jules and Jim's almost immediate introduction into the canon of greatness as well as its enduring appeal. His generosity in creating fleeting throwaway moments that teem with detail and emotional resonance is unparalleled (almost shocking for such a young filmmaker), and the autonomy of his camerawork—careening from handheld to studious 360-degree pans, helicopter sweeps to freeze-frame snapshots—is galvanizing. Of course one must not fail to mention Raoul Coutard's black-and-white photography or Georges Delerue's immortal score, but Jules and Jim, as a whole, is as singular as its director. The berth of his sensitivity is so wide that the film seems less a creation of artifice than a pipeline straight into his emotional being. In 1957 Truffaut published an essay about the future of film (included in the Criterion DVD booklet of the film) in which he writes the following:
“The film of tomorrow seems to me therefore more personal even than a novel, individual and autobiographical, like a confession or like a personal diary. Young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will tell us what happened to them…and it will necessarily be likeable because it will be true and new. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.”
This does not just presage the enduring importance of Jules and Jim; it explains it in its entirety. This is not a great film because it equals the sum of its parts, but because it so fully embodies the altruism of its maker. It represents some of the first and most essential steps into a new age of filmmaking, one that you wish would endure still.