Truffaut exploded on the scene in 1959 with The 400 Blows, as fine a movie as ever has been made about childhood. It signified the true birth of the French New Wave and with it, an era of unprecedented creative outgrowth in French Cinema began. It would be a time that would forever alter the world's views about cinema, in terms of what it was and what it could be. The members of the movement took the commercial form of filmmaking and made it acceptable to call it art, recognizing the greats of the Hollywood studios while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of what film had been. Advances in technology and narrative and thematic form poured out of
At the center of this life are three people, Jules, Jim and Catherine, involved in a romantic triangle that lasts decades. The relationship is endlessly frustrating, as Catherine is shared between the two men, best friends for years. Catherine is a complex and difficult character. She is unfaithful and never seems to fully commit to either Jules or Jim but rather just lead them along, until she senses a moment when she can gain an upper hand in the relationship and usually does so. It is equally frustrating that both Jules and Jim are blinded by their love for this woman, who doesn't seem to deserve anything anyone could offer her. It is the miracle of Truffaut though, that by film's end, the audience has developed a strong emotional bond with each of these characters despite each have such glaring personal faults. The characters in Truffaut's screenplay, adapted from the book by Henri-Pierre Roche, are painfully human and are richly drawn and developed. In a time where so much of mainstream filmmaking, American or otherwise, is completely devoid of not only legitimate characters but also any sensible narrative complexities, Jules et Jim still feels like a breath of fresh air, an invigorating watch that reminds the audience as to what film can be in the hands of a capable master, a title that certainly applies to Truffaut.
By the end of it all, I found myself most attached to Jules, who throughout the film has to deal the closest with Catherine, having been married to her. When it becomes clear that Catherine has been unfaithful and continues to be, Jules is left facing the prospect that the woman he loves, his wife, the mother to his daughter, doesn't love him anymore. In an effort to keep her in his life, he asks, pleads Jim to marry Catherine so that he can still see her. Jim obliges having loved Catherine all along. However, Jules, knowing Catherine's devious ways, is cautious with Jim, trying to warn him of the consequences of the relationship. Of the three, Jules seems to worry the most about the well being of his friends. Thanks to a wonderful performance by Oscar Werner, Jules comes alive, jumping vibrantly off the screen. Love or hate her character, Jeanne Moreau is nothing short of stunning, giving a well rounded, thoughtful performance as Catherine. Much like Jules, Catherine seems to leap off the screen and into the hearts and minds of the viewers. Finally, Henri Serre is great as the last part of the triangle and his reserved performance is a welcome foil to Moreau's manic energy. The combined three contribute a ensemble performance for the ages, one that elevates the film to another level.
The film is a tad disconcerting, with the characters (at least for Jim and Catherine) cavorting in complete disregard for other's feelings. This (as evidenced by the appearance of its poster and various clips throughout) was a huge influence in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, and fans of that film should most definitely take the time to sit down and watch Jules et Jim as it is vastly superior. While this is a seminal film of the one of the most important cinematic movements of all time and deserves to be seen by anyone remotely interested in film, I would not recommend it as a starting point to the French New Wave. As I mentioned above, it can be difficult to find entry into it and I wholeheartedly admit that I had trouble getting into the film until I realized I couldn't stop watching it. Truffaut sutures the viewer in almost without them noticing, an invisible stitch that will stick with you for the rest of time. If one is looking to get into the New Wave, it is easiest to start with The 400 Blows, another Truffaut feature and then move onto Breathless before venturing into the world of Jules et Jim. However, once one hits that point, prepare yourself for a splendid, magical trip that is worth every minute of its duration.