One of the most remarkable things about François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, now regarded as the audacious apotheosis of the French New Wave, is that it was adapted from a novel written by a 75-year-old writer, Henri Pierre Roché. What we think of now as a perennially “young” film was thus the product of an old man’s sensibility.
Truffaut adapted it with an exceptional panache and flair that was often not present in his later films, despite their other virtues. It wasn’t characteristic of the two earlier films of Truffaut himself, and certainly not of Godard and Chabrol’s first efforts, but it was at least as daring and definitely richer and more mature.
The film chronicles some 20 years in the lives of its three central characters, starting off in the era of La Belle Epoche, just before the first world war, and ending at the time of the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. What is so astonishing about it is not just its freshness and vitality – the feeling that life is always exciting if sometimes dangerous – but the way the young director managed to mould his characters so accurately to the events of their time.
He did this with the aid of copious references to old movies, photographs, paintings, novels, music and theatre. Few other films illustrate better the axiom that the best film-makers have to know something about all the arts. But it is the changing reactions of the menage à trois to each other that most of us remember.
Although the film is called Jules et Jim, the dominant character in it is Catherine. She is independent, unpredictable and silly enough to throw herself into the Seine when the two men discuss a Strindberg play without her participation. She is prepared to bear Jules a child but not ready to be either an orthodox wife or mother. She even starts an affair with Jim, half knowing that both men are too fond of each other and of her to break off their friendship. Besides, as she says, “one is never completely in love for more than a moment”.
Jeanne Moreau was the perfect choice for Catherine: she gives a performance full of gaiety and charm without conveying an empty-headed bimbo. She makes the watcher understand that this is no ordinary woman whom both men adore. It is possibly the most complete portrait of any feminine character in the entire ouevre of the New Wave and it made her an international star.
The film is full of idyllic moments that translate into doubt and retreat. The atmosphere of gathering gloom with which the film ends is thus totally logical, matching the storm clouds over Europe. “They left nothing behind them,” is the commentary’s epitaph after the death of Catherine. The whirlwind of life continues but without the three friends.
Jules et Jim seemed revolutionary at the time, but Truffaut’s revolution, unlike Godard’s, implied not so much the destruction of the past as a turning back to the humanism of Vigo, Renoir and the French cinema of the 30s. The film’s “rondo of love” represents both a backward glance at the best of the past and a forward glance into the cinema’s future. Its enthusiasm for what the cinema is and can be is what makes it so special.