Landmark film from French New Wave player François Truffaut about the evolving relationship between two friends and the woman they both love
Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a Frenchman, are best friends, young carefree bohemians sharing intellectual and physical pursuits and, eventually, a love for the capricious Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). At the end of the First World War, in which the friends have fought on opposing sides, Jules marries Catherine and takes her to the Rhineland, where they have a daughter.
This ambitious film, based on a novel by Henri Pierre Roche and vaguely inspired by Goethe’s ‘Elective Affinities’, covers some 30 years, beginning in the early part of the 20th century and culminating in the Depression-era with Hitler’s rise to power. The early, more joyous, third of the movie has Truffaut revelling in technical tricks; jump cuts, frozen frames, zip pans. There are a few failed experiments, but far more that has passed into cinema lore. When he succumbs to the influence of Renoir in the latter part, the filming becomes languorous, melancholy and humanism taking over as the wilful Catherine brings about a clash in the relationships. For all it’s technical audacity it’s the fundamentals - expert storytelling, a fantastic script, beautifully realised characters and a fine cast - that really contribute to the film’s enduring appeal. Jules and Jim are instantly likeable, their friendship utterly convincing (if bizarre). Catherine is bewitching and flawed, one of cinema’s greatest enigmas and quite rightly the role that has ensured Moreau’s lasting fame.
And of course, there’s the skill of the director himself. The unconventional morality of the love triangle and emotional turmoil of the later stages of the film are beautifully rendered. Truffaut’s calm, detached approach, with wistful narrative interjections and the leisurely emergence of domestic detail, is unusual, but very effective. He later described it as like “an old photo album”: the audience is made to feel as if it’s reminiscing over events long past. It’s sad and evocative rather than immediate; gentle rather than histrionic. We’re left to wonder and to judge the events for ourselves, countless questions are raised and remain open - the mark of a fine work of art.
Truffaut’s most popular work, and for good reason. A gentle understated triumph.