Director: Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre
As one of the seminal films of one of the most analysed, written about, and influential film movements of the 20th century, Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim is a film which should, at this point, have a blunted impact on the first time viewer. Yet, though Jules and Jim has been written about countless times and influenced numerous films and filmmakers over the past 52 years, it still has the power to surprise, delight, and move the first time viewer. When a film makes it onto as many "Best Movies" lists as this one has, it can start to seem more like a movie that's "good for you" rather than good to watch, but a truly great film is capable of transcending all that outside noise to leave the viewer feeling engrossed in its story and Jules and Jim is definitely one of those movies.
Beginning in 1912 and breezily spanning the next 25 years, Jules and Jim is the story of a friendship between Jules (Oskar Werner), a shy Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a more outgoing Frenchman, who meet in Paris and quickly develop a tight bond. They do seemingly everything together and many women pass between them until Jules meets Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who reminds both Jules and Jim of a statue they saw on an island in the Adriatic Sea, and tells his friend that this one is different. However, though Jim does not become physically involved with Catherine (at least at this stage), the three of them spend so much time together that, for all intents and purposes, they're in a three-way relationship, though Jim is officially involved with a woman named Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) and has been for a number of years. Eventually Jules and Catherine decide to get married and go to Austria to do so, only for World War I to break out a few days later and Jules and Jim to enter it on opposite sides. As the war rages on, the greatest worry for each man is that he may end up killing the other. Meanwhile, Catherine, still in Austria, has given birth to a daughter, Sabine.
When the war ends, Jules and Jim are reunited when the latter goes to stay with Jules and Catherine in Germany. There Jim learns that the marriage is failing and that Catherine is having an affair with Albert (Serge Rezvani), who lives nearby. Jules also confides that Catherine has recently returned to the home after having left him and Sabine for about six months and that he's fearful that she may leave again. With Jim around, Catherine seems to lose interest in Albert, but transfers that interest to Jim, who is given Jules' blessing to pursue a relationship with Catherine because he feels that that's the only way to keep the family together. So Jim moves into Jules and Catherine's home and the three of them, plus Sabine, live happily for a time, though the fact that Jim and Catherine fail to conceive a child together starts to drive a wedge between them. When Jim returns to Paris (and Gilberte) for a time, the relationship between him and Catherine dissolves completely, in part because of crossed letters which result in each receiving antagonistic letters when they're at a point where they're considering reconciliation and loving letters when they're at a point where they're in the mood to scrap the whole endeavor, and in part because the main reason that Catherine and Jim consider reconciling at all is that she learns she's pregnant and the pregnancy ends in miscarriage. As easily as Jules, Jim, and Catherine came together, they've now come apart, but a final chapter is yet to play out in Paris which will determine their ultimate fate.
Jules and Jim is a film which tells a "before" and "after" story. In the before Jules, Jim and Catherine were young people living a life of freedom and possibility during the Belle Epoque, an extended period of political stability in western and central Europe during which artists of all stripes flourished, especially in Paris. Though they may not quite understand it, as understanding can often only come with hindsight, the trio certainly "feels" that they're at the center of something important and something special, and the general optimism of the age is expressed through the lightness with which they live. Because they are young, they believe that this can last forever, and because it was such a precious time in their lives and because they believe that they people they were then are the people they truly are, they think they can return to it following the interruption of the war. They want to recapture that light way of being once they're reunited, but they're no longer so young and the social and political climate around them is so changed that they are irretrievably now in the after, and there is a sense of heaviness and consequence to what they do and how they behave. What resonates in Jules and Jim is the way that it captures that sense of loss and the impact that it has on its three characters, turning it from a common occurrence that comes naturally with the passage of time into a tragedy that can only end with an act of defiance and rage.
Jules and Jim is a film that runs deep, but Truffaut brings an amazingly light touch to it that makes the whole endeavor seem effortless. In its way, the film is itself part of a "before" story, coming out of a cinematic Belle Epoque which changed the course of film history; it lives in that lightness of being that defines the first part of its story, in that sense of wonder and possibility, in that sense of happiness and fulfillment - but it has the advantage over its characters in that it doesn't have to contend with the pain and disappointment of seeing that slip away. It is eternally in that moment, while the films which followed and were influenced by it work to do the "recapturing." Within the context of film history, Jules and Jim is an important film, but it doesn't carry itself with that weight. It's an intensely watchable and deeply engaging film that has retained its power to entertain and fascinate even after five decades worth of scholarly interest.