“Jules et Jim,” which debuted in 1962, was hailed as the cutting edge of the French New Wave and became an art house hit all over the world. It’s not surprising that the film, with its triangle of young, free-spirited, attractive lovers, appealed to early ’60s audiences. Jules, Jim, and Catherine were Bohemians, loved art and cinema and dressing up, and were invested in re-inventing the rules as they went along. It immediately earned an over-18 only rating from the censors, though Truffaut lobbied long and hard to have this revoked on the basis that it was not an immoral tale. In fact, the film—and Roché’s novel—both turn out to be somewhat moral stories, or at least honest ones. The lovers’ ménage is fated to fail—not in any traditional self-righteous way, with transgressing characters punished by the gods or the authorities, but rather undone by their own very human vulnerabilities. Truffaut took his cues from Roché’s autobiographical story, treating the push and pull of loyalty, love, jealousy, and neediness with sympathy and an almost elaborate delicacy.
One wonders what, exactly, prospective audiences made of the picture’s trailer. Opening in rapid succession with mortar fire, the claim “This is a subject no one dared touch,” and carnival music, it is still confounding and oddly random, even after having seen the entire film several times. The voice-over goes on to ask, “Can a woman sincerely love two men?” and presents the film, disconcertingly, as a slightly sentimental romantic comedy. And while it certainly depends on elements of sentiment, romance, and comedy, “Jules et Jim” is far more than the sum of those parts; it’s a smart, dark work whose edges are muted by the director’s affection for his characters.
As film critic John Powers points out in his 2005 essay for the Criterion Collection reissue,
Truffaut was not yet thirty when he made this film, and decades later it’s still astonishing that one so young could be so open-hearted, so willing to give everyone’s motives and passions their due. But if Jules and Jim casts a mature eye on the limits of freedom (by the end, everything seems uncannily, but satisfyingly, preordained), it remains indelibly a young man’s movie.
A young man’s movie, but with something of an old man’s soul; without it, “Jules et Jim” could easily have lived up to its trailer’s promise and turned out to be a cheerfully risqué period romance. Fortunately, the collaboration between the old man and the young one gave us a film that still beguiles, more than half a century down the line.