Jules and Jim (Truffaut’s third film as a director, not counting one in which he was a co-director) follows two best friends, Jules and Jim, throughout the years. In that time they go to war and fall in love with the same woman, Catherine.
Jules first meets Catherine and quickly falls in love with her, but we sense something off about her. At first she’s just a little impulsive, but it also makes sense. Jules and Jim subscribe to conventional notions of male and female roles in a relationship, and they (particularly Jules) expect Catherine to fit right in. But she doesn’t want that, and Jules is blind to that fact.
In one scene, after the three of them attend a play together, they walk home late at night, and Jules and Jim discuss infidelity as it pertains to men and women. The gist of their discussion is that it is more normal for men to stray than it is for women. Tired of the conversation, Catherine jumps in the river, and on the ride home neither of the men talk about her dive.
Suddenly World War One (aka the Great War) breaks out, and Jules and Jim go to fight for their respective countries (Jim for France and Jules for Russia). Each man has a fear he might accidentally kill the other, and Jules conveys this fear in frequent letters to Catherine. Jules and Catherine grow closer together through just the letters.
When Jim finally reunites with his old pal, Jules and Catherine are living in a countryside home with a daughter named Sebine. Jim quickly learns that not everything is at it seems. Despite their marriage, Jules and Catherine are unhappily married. Jules worries that Catherine will leave him as she has already done so previously.
It turns out that Catherine fell in love with Jules’ letters, and they had a child (who might not even be Jules’), but the more time they spent together, the more suffocated she felt. She has had multiple affairs (that Jules is well aware of), and there’s another man, Albert, pining for her affections.
Albert tells Catherine that he will gladly marry her and take in her daughter as well. This terrifies Jules who doesn’t want to let Catherine out of his life. Because of this, he’s willing to compromise and give her to Jim, so long as Jules can remain their friend.
It’s a bit odd, but fortunately for Jim, he’s already in love with Catherine. They get together, and Jules stands back to let him in, so long as he gets to keep Catherine and Sebine in his life.
Everything’s great until Jim has to return to Paris to take care of a few things. He writes letters to Catherine that Jules reads to her aloud, so he’s very clear on what Jim’s and Catherine’s relationship is. This is also where Catherine’s neuroses come to the forefront. She feels shoved aside when Jim decides to stay in Paris a bit longer. Once he returns, Catherine runs away only to return shortly after. It’s a move designed to make sure she has the power in the relationship. She tells Jim that she slept with another man while he was away, and she’s aware that he slept with a former lover while he was in Paris. They are on the same page, and they believe it means they have a fresh start.
The camera glides over the treetops of their pastoral home, but then the shot goes in reverse as a narrator explains that the “fresh start” didn’t last for long.
Catherine has trouble getting pregnant, and a rift develops between them. Jim decides he’s had enough, so he leaves to go back to Paris. All the while Jules is dutifully there, acting as the most giving friend of all time to both Catherine and Jim.
So Jim is back in Paris, and Catherine writes him that she’s pregnant. She says she wants to try again. He angrily tells her the kid is probably not his (due to her promiscuity), and his angry letter gets crossed up in the mail with a wonderfully tender letter she writes. After some miscommunication, she begs for him to come meet her at her new home.
He goes to see her to tell her off and explain how he really feels. She pulls a gun on him and he grabs it and runs away.
A few months pass, and Jim runs into Jules by surprise. They decide to get together, all three of them, and everything seems… pretty nice, you know? They all got over themselves and their differences and we see them enjoying a nice lunch at an outdoor patio.
Well, then Catherine asks Jim to join her in her car, for no apparent reason. Jules is just sitting there, but he doesn’t object. He’s probably thinking they’re in love again and that’s just swell. Catherine drives across a damaged bridge and straight off that bridge, killing both her and Jim.
We then see Jules following both of their coffins after the funeral. Then we are shown the removal of the bones from the incinerator as they are then crushed into ashes. In the final shot of the film, Jules walks away from the camera in the cemetery, remembering how great his friendship with Jim was because they accepted each other whole-heartedly, flaws and all.
So another downer ending, huh? Well I guess that’s very common for French New Wave films. It’s more common than I remembered. It makes sense, though. The New Wave films are a reaction against Hollywood films that promote a fantasy tale untrue to real life. Truffaut and other directors aren’t simply trying to portray a reality (though he came close in The 400 Blows), rather, they’re going to the opposite extreme to rebalance the playing field.
Like Lena’s death in Shoot the Piano Player, Catherine’s and Jim’s demise is rather unceremonious. It just happens very quickly and quietly.
Taking a step back, the entire film is pretty melodramatic. The scenes move very quickly from one thing to the next, jumping forward in time with great leaps and bounds. One moment the three of them are having lunch together, the next the two men are fighting on opposite sides in The Great War. Then, just as quickly, Jules has a child.
The idea is that a lot of time passes, and Jules and Jim’s friendship survives it all, the war, shared attraction over the same woman, etc.
But yeah, the film is melodramatic. The characters aren’t overly emotive. If anything they’re just talking mannequins, saying their lines as written so the story can move on. Narration tells us what we need to know, and the story speeds through it all. I think the point wasn’t to show actors as these emotional beings, but rather to tell stories as wild as the films they’re reacting against, just… different types of stories.
It’s a bit surprising because The 400 Blows did take time to let Antoine’s character breathe, even as the point was to show how suffocated he was. Whereas in Piano Player and Jules and Jim the characters say what they need to say so the scene can end as quickly as possible, in The 400 Blows, we spend time with Antoine as he wanders the streets, cries in the back of the police wagon and then runs to the ocean. It’s about this one character and his hopes and fears. These last two Truffaut films are more like genre pieces, like they’re his spin on a particular type of film. That seems to be more true because each of these last two films was based on a novel.
I have to have more to say about this. I’m trying to learn more about the French New Wave film movement, and I’m starting with Truffaut, so I might spray a lot of misinformation in these write-ups. I hope to be more knowledgeable if and when I tackle other directors of this time period.
What I know about the movement is that these films were made on very tight budgets, they filmed on location and experimented with the film medium. That’s why the downer endings make more sense. They’re playing on the audience’s expectations of how a film should end. Truffaut gives us what we want and anticipate and then pulls the rug out from underneath. It’s completely jarring, but that’s the point.