Much has been written of Francois Truffaut’s classic love triangle, Jules et Jim, and rightly so. The film stands as one of the greatest movies of the Twentieth Century, a carefree, freewheeling romance that descends into the horror of The Great War and emerges into one of the most powerfully accurate portrayals of depression ever committed to celluloid. The ultimate “Bromance” movie, made decades before that phrase was even coined. Once seen it is hard to forget.
Introverted Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner), an aspiring novelist meets extrovert French writer Jim (Henri Serre) in pre-war Paris and immediately the two become inseparable friends, sharing words, drinks and women. Into their breezy, intellectual lives floats the translucent, impulsive Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), the first woman that either of them has ever truly loved yet neither will ever be able to truly possess. Separated by war, the friends eventually reunite years later to find that Jules and Catherine have married and borne a child, Sabine and, as Jim is soon to discover, what they had both thought of as Catherine’s impetuousness has transformed into something far darker and far more dangerous.
Although Moreau was the star of Louis Malle’s debut feature Lift to the Scaffold (US: Elevator to the Gallows) (1958) it was her radiant performance as Catherine that truly cemented her talent in the eyes of the world: A woman who is loved by both men but tortured by the knowledge that she can never be a part of what it is that binds them together. Catherine becomes a lever, forever trying to force a space in their friendship so that she might squeeze herself in and, when she finally realises there is to be no crack into which the crowbar of her need can find purchase, she takes a devastating and tragic course of action that will destroy all three of them. It is a performance of internalised madness, of the bipolar extremes of tears and laughter, the good days and bad that anyone who has ever suffered the misery of depression cannot help but recognise. Lesser actresses might have ranted, screamed, torn at their hair and clothes, Moreau keeps everything inside until her feelings force themselves through the tiny cracks in her psyche, exploding in brief, unpredictable moments of utter joy and terrifying, uncomfortable anger.
Jules will do anything to keep Catherine happy, even going so far as to allow Jim into her bed, “If you love her,” he tells his friend, “don’t think of me as an obstacle.” But this is not what Catherine really wants, what she really needs. There is an argument that the three of them are forever chasing the carefree days of their youth, that they are struggling with the disappointment of adulthood and responsibility and whilst this is true of the film, I think a deeper reading reveals a much more complex and complicated psychological level which gives Jules et Jim an eternal, enduring resonance. Like the enigmatic statue Jules and Jim travel to the Adriatic to admire, that consumes their thoughts, Catherine is something they will never completely understand, she is immediate yet forever unattainable. Likewise, because they share the same thoughts of admiration and love for both the statue and Catherine she can never come between them, to own one or the other or, indeed, like a piece of stone, beautifully carved as it is, become integral to what they already have. In one of the film’s most famous sequences she even dresses as a man which, as gaily as it is shot, just reinforces the idea that there is no possible way that Catherine can ever be anything but an eternal fifth wheel: even as a man she cannot possess that which she most desires.
There are moments of freeze-frame, almost unnoticeable in the fluid nimbleness of Truffaut’s camera, snapshots of time that support the assertion that, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote in The Go-Between, “The past is another country: they do things differently there”. But to stop there, to go no deeper denies the viewer the richer thematic tapestry of Jules et Jim.
It is a beautiful film, there are moments of luminous virtuosity that live forever in minds of all its viewers. It is a challenging film, not just in terms of subject matter and themes but also in terms of laying down a gauntlet to the cinematic grammar so established at its point of release. It is a vital film, alive, strong, powerful and timeless. It is everything film should be but, sadly, rarely ever is.
(This article was within seven days of the news that Moreau has passed away and, watching Jules et Jim again as my own quiet tribute to her, I cannot overstate what a tremendous loss this is)