I’ve always preferred François Truffaut to Jean-Luc Godard. The two main proponents of the French New Wave have vastly different styles, and Godard is arguably the more influential of the two (A Bout De Souffle, Le Mepris and Bande A Part are effortlessly cool). But Truffaut’s films speak to me on a personal level; an unapologetic film enthusiast, whose love of cinema is infectious in all his films, not to mention his writing in Cahiers Du Cinema and the wonderful Hitchcock by Truffaut.
Based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, Jules et Jim was Truffaut’s third film, (he was still only 29) and it’s a deceptively light film that handles some heavy drama, with a lightness of touch that belies the often deeply sad subject matter. This is both an anomaly among the Nouvelle Vague and one of its quintessential films; it’s also one of the few period pieces of the movement, set just prior to World War One, but Truffaut’s wry direction and evocative use of mise-en-scène and editing makes the whole thing feel refreshingly modern.
The story follows the enduring friendship between two young men; the Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the French Jim (Henri Serre), who enjoy a bohemian, decadent lifestyle. They spend their days discussing philosophy, literature and cinema, admiring works of art and picking up women. This changes when they meet the beguiling Catherine (the perfectly cast Jeanne Moreau) and immediately become besotted. Over the following years (including the outbreak of the First World War, where the friends find themselves on opposing sides) Jules and Jim each form relationship with Catherine, without ever letting their feelings get in the way of their friendship.
While Serre is wonderfully laconic as the worldly Jim, Werner gives the more touching performance as the hopeless romantic Jules, whose understanding of Catherine’s personality comes only too late – he begins the film as a boyish innocent, and ends it as a broken man, passively standing by while Catherine cheats on him. Werner plays all aspects of his character perfectly, and is heartbreaking towards the end.
Despite strong performances from the two leads, Jeanne Moreau shines as the quintessential Nouvelle Vague heroine. Her character serves as a melancholy deconstruction of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl‘ before the term existed. The traits that make her so desirable to Jules and Jim are shown as being destructive, and even dangerous as they grow older, leading to a devastating finale. The scene where she serenades a new lover with a song she has written, in front of Jules and Jim, is beautiful and iconic, and remains a stand-out moment.
Truffaut’s films were often autobiographical (the seminal Les Quatre Cents Coups is essentially the story of his childhood) and he seemed less concerned with being cool than telling interesting stories or deconstructing preconceptions (see Shoot The Piano Player, where he parodies the Hollywood notion of a romantic gangster). He directs this film with a lightness of touch; using stylistic flourishes that would become synonymous with the French New Wave, but it never feels ostentatious. Take Catherine’s introduction; as she appears onscreen the narrator describes her features, and Truffaut uses a quick succession of jump-cuts to reveal her face, and then it’s over. Truffaut doesn’t linger on these moments, instead using them as a cinematic shorthand. The same goes for the memorable race across the railway bridge, shot with a frenetic energy that perfectly captures the exhilarating breathlessness of a new relationship.
Often cited as one of the defining films of the French New Wave, Jules Et Jim has lost none of its exuberance or charm. It’s a film that effortlessly captures the vitality of youth and the ephemeral melancholy of nostalgia, of trying to recapture the feeling you had at the start of a relationship that’s forever gone. As Roger Ebert puts it, “their tragedy is that they shared a magical youth and that adulthood will not and cannot accommodate it.” In other hands the material might have been overwrought or melodramatic but Truffaut’s direction means even the darkest moments are full of life.