Henri-Pierre Roche’s novel about three friends during World War I was long out of print when Truffaut came upon it in a secondhand book store and then turned it into a landmark film of the French New Wave Cinema.
François Truffaut first appeared in this country a year or so ago with The 400 Blows, a lyric but almost documentary study of a Parisian boy in deep trouble. Now in Jules and Jim he offers a work of decadent high romance—a tour de force carrying hints of terror beneath its gay, melancholy and noble surface.
The protagonists of the title (Jules is Austrian, Jim is French) are first seen as Bohemian youths in the Paris of about 1910. They share money, enthusiasms and girls, roistering arm in arm through the late night streets. This is exquisitely nostalgic material, the cinematic methods, even the grainy film itself, recalling the work of such an early master as Rene Clair. Then Jules meets Catherine, and the principle of all pleasures shared comes to a quick end. He introduces her with a shy warning to his pal, and the pal understands. In any event, it is now 1914 and war breaks the idyll (again the film offers remarkable period material, much of it I think resurrected from World War I signal corps annals). Jules and Jim both fight, fearing death for themselves less than that each may kill the other.
When peace comes, Jim goes off to visit his now-defeated comrade, and finds him living in a chalet, surrounded by the gentlest of mountain scenery and engaged in gentle nature studies. Catherine is with him, and there is now a little daughter; but, as Jules soon explains, his marriage has become a Calvary because Catherine is openly—disdainfully—unfaithful. He has always taken her back, and always will, because she has become his definition of life and he must accept her on whatever terms. One sees him, though, not as a man in love, but as one in thrall.
It soon becomes plain that Jim is to be Catherine’s next lover, and indeed he moves from a neighboring inn to the chalet for, the purpose—Jules helping to carry his bags. But this affair is brief, as apparently are all of Catherine’s affairs. She cannot be faithful to Jules because he is her slave, and she cannot remain long with any man who is not her slave.
The picture spins dizzily from this point—its early gaiety increasingly lost in an enveloping fog of catastrophe—to the death of Jim and Catherine, as contrived by Catherine. It ends in a macabre, almost surrealist, series of detailed scenes at the crematorium, from which Jules walks away with his shoulders visibly straightening in relief from a heavy burden long carried: the burden of ‘obsessed love for Catherine, obviously, but also perhaps the burden of an unacknowledged love for Jim. Because there are moments when the relationship between the two men is at least equivocal, and I think Catherine’s relentless behavior may be in part explained by her sense of being excluded from an intimacy which her intense femininity savagely resents. Back in the early, days she had once jumped into the Seine to divert Jules and Jim from each other; at the end she carries Jim with her into a river from which they do not return. It is she who decides which of the possible unions shall be forever.
Aside from that, the two men represent the romantic and generous love of life that recalls the Greek ideal, Catherine springs from an older and darker cult, in which power resides in fertility, in which passion and slavery, ecstasy and death, ‘are allied in mystery. Catherine is not only beautiful, she is almost supernaturally deserving of love. But it is a love that consumes to bear fruit.
Visually, Jules and Jim is a superb film. Truffaut has a marvelous sense of period, both in decor and in technique, and he moves his action with a feverish staccato that serves the violent pressures beneath his sometimes frivolous, sometimes poignant surface. His cast, which performs with the rich ease and suggestiveness of actors completely caught up in the situations are Osku Werner, Henri Serre and Jeanne Moreau.