Jules et Jim

12 Jun

Director: François Truffaut (1962)

It seems to have become something of a Sunday afternoon tradition that I lock myself away and watch a black and white film, preferably but not exclusively, with subtitles. This may be an attempt to be silently pretentious but also mainly because I believe life looks better in black and white and at the moment I like to fill my eyes with beautiful people, beautiful places and beautiful music. And under these criteria, Truffaut often comes out top of the poll.

Pioneer of the French New Wave and of some of the most breathtakingly stunning casts, Truffaut rightfully earns his canonisation as an icon of cinema. And Jules et Jim was definitely one of the major stepping blocks to get him there.

Even the story of the film’s conception exudes the effortless romance that spins its way through every frame, word and musical note, artfully created by Georges Delerue. The plot is loosely based on a book by Henri-Pierre Roche about his relationship with his wife and the German writer, Franz Hessel; while browsing through a second hand book store (I like to think to think it would be one along the Left Bank of Paris….) Truffaut came across this intriguing yet heartwrenching story and, after befriending Roche was granted permission to use its inspiration for his film.

Set before, during and after the Second World War, Jules et Jim follows the friendship, love, and loving friendships between three bohemian youths; Jules (Oskar Werner) – an Austrian writer, shy and reserved but encouragable when prompted by best friend Jim (Henri Serre) – a French gent-about-the-town and finally, the cause of all their joys and troubles – Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), their free-spirited downfall.

The two men allow their lives to be ruled by the beauties and artistic treats Paris has to offer, never the more so when, after seeing an art collectors’ slide show, they both fall in love with a statue and its enigmatic, serene smile. Determined to see it for themselves, they seek it out and realise this is the smile of the woman they have been searching for.

So when Catherine enters their lives, possessing the statues smile, their threesome is complete.

It is no rare story in the cinema, or in life for that matter, that friends often find themselves sharing the same object of affection; what Jules et Jim does differently is that instead of transforming this fact into a darkened secret or illicit affair plotline, everything is out in the open. These three clearly all have such chemistry, two best friends, a beautiful woman – a naturally infection lust for life, and perhaps as a consequence, for one another. However, it is Jules who wins the prize, as it were, and he and Catherine begin a relationship, marrying one another just before the war begins.

The stark reminder of the war through Truffaut’s expert use of montage tears through the veil of happiness that covers the first part of the film, exemplified through the iconic scenes of the three running across the bridge, Jules, Jim and ‘Thomas’ aka Catherine avec pencil moustache.

This joie de vivre (apologies for the blatant French code switching) is soon lost when we realise, as do Jules and Jim, that in this war, they are fighting against one another – Germany against France, but also, against each other in loving the same woman. Only this latter battle is not so much an explosive fight as something which is continually acknowledged.

After the war, Jim visits Jules and Catherine, now living by the Rhine with their daughter Sabine. The breathless happiness we saw as they ran across the bridge is recreated for a brief moment as Sabine’s childish energy reinvigorates the memory of why these bons amis work so well together.

Only just like the make believe games they used to play, this happy family life is a facade, shielding the truth of their unhappy marriage; what was once perceived as Catherine’s endearing impulsiveness now redefined as unfaithful. But Jules is just too infatuated, and too terrified of the concept of life without his Catherine that he willingly plays the blissfully not-so-ignorant fool.

They say a fool in love is a dangerous thing and for Jules it is all the more so in that this fool thinks he can remain in control of his marriage by giving her exactly what she wants – even if it happens to be his best friend. It was never going to end well, but whether you can predict quite how well it ends, I guess depends on the amount of faith you place in love and its power to beguile as it tears its way through friendship, even if this destructive power is unbeknownst to friends.

After all, three is a crowd.


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