“When love is not madness, it is not love.” – Pedro Calderón de la Barca
It seems difficult to imagine that it’s been fifty years since François Truffaut made Jules and Jim. The classic parable of two friends and the woman they both love is almost a cinematic contradiction. The story deals with the classic archetypes associated with the doomed romance, and the plot concerns itself with events that transpired nearly one hundred years ago. Yet the film has barely aged over the past half century while retaining its reputation as a seminal piece of La Nouvelle Vague. Truffaut was barely thirty when he made the film, mature and experienced enough to direct a complex love story that utilized different techniques and stylistic flourishes, while still at an age to remember what it felt like to be caught in the throes of romantic youth.
For those who have never had the chance to get acquainted with this timeless tale, a brief synopsis: Jules and Jim meet at the dawn of the 20th century. They become inseparable friends. They pursue several women. They remain bachelors. They are invited over to the house of a friend, and view a slideshow that has a picture of some mysterious and gorgeous goddess. And then they meet Catherine, the living visage of that statue, and their lives are never the same.
This encapsulates the first ten minutes or so of the plot, and for most of it the film bursts along like a locomotive at high speed. Indeed, one of the women Jim meets has the nifty trick of imitating a train by puffing out steam through the opposite end of a cigarette. Truffaut dwells on these early details for only as long as he needs to, but the pace of the film lingers once Catherine enters the picture. The impression is unquestionable; these two men are lurching through life, and when they meet this remarkable and unique woman, they are entranced, like moths to the flame.
While Jules and Catherine fall in love (“Not this one, Jim,” Jules quietly orders his confidant), World War I erupts and promptly separates the trio. Only after the war do they reunite, yet they are all changed. Catherine has had a baby while Jules fought on the Russian front, and Jim has become a successful writer. She has become bored, and seeks romantic flings with other men. Jules hardly seems to care, and almost nonverbally gives Jim permission to pursue her.
Of what takes place, I shan’t spoil more. On paper, the story could go in a million different directions, many of which would end in cliché after cliché. Instead, Truffaut sidesteps stereotypes and creates something more gentle and more melancholy than what one might expect. Watching the film, I was reminded very much of Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Y tu mamá también, which also featured an omniscient narrator relating the story of a romantic triangle that concerns itself with the loss of youth and how intricately connected love and the past are. I have little doubt Cuarón was inspired by Truffaut’s film.
There are a number of scenes in this film that effortlessly convey solemn enchantment. An example: when Jim and Catherine finally make love, Truffaut holds back on showing us the actual act of intercourse. Rather, Catherine’s smiling face is superimposed over the image, as the narrator tells us that for Jim, “other women ceased to exist.” Another moment is when Jim confesses that he longed to kiss the nape of Catherine’s neck, and she obliges by permitting him to do so. Both scenes last but a moment, yet they have such strong sensuality and tenderness that it puts most modern romances to shame.
The good times don’t last for Jules and Jim or Catherine, and things do end tragically. Yet again, Truffaut wisely avoids melodrama or manipulative sentimentality and turns his gaze on scenes that would be glossed over in another filmmaker’s hands. Note the scene where Catherine gazes at her reflection as she puts on makeup while the narrator tells of the immediate future between her and Jim. Like Cuarón’s film, the use of future-tense narration juxtaposes with the present to convey the emotional state of the characters, which is unflinchingly honest and almost painfully sad.
The cast in this film is remarkably good. Henri Serre as Jim and Oskar Werner as Jules imbue a feeling of weary resignation in two men who meekly grasp for a semblance of a time when they could attack the day with aplomb and even a tinge of youthful arrogance. Yet the legendary Jeanne Moreau rightfully steals the film from both men as Catherine, and hers is the hardest role to pull off. She makes Catherine a sympathetic tyrant, a woman who loses touch with reality while never succumbing to being a raving lunatic or a two-dimensional villain. Her last words in the film continue to haunt me, even after two viewings. I doubt they’ll lose their power after a third.
During February, as a means of commemorating Valentine’s Day as well as the film’s fiftieth anniversary, I screened the film for a small group of college students. There were bemused titters as the screening began, with some thrown off by the film’s style, yet any remarks from the audience were silenced as the story cast its spell. By the third act, I could hear one student in particular muttering under his breath, hoping against hope things wouldn’t end badly. As the credits rolled and the lights came up, I asked everyone what they thought. The one verbal student brusquely remarked, “It was really good, but it was frustrating. But that’s what made it so good.” I’d like to think Truffaut would have been proud to hear that.