Paris, 1912. Jules (Oskar Werner), a German-Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a Frenchman, are two aspiring writers who strike up a close friendship. They enjoy a carefree life in the city, sharing a passion for the arts, sport, literature and women. After a trip to Greece, during which they become fascinated by a sculpture of a woman with an enchanting smile, they return to France, where they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the statue. She is delightful, desirable and dangerous. Both men are attracted to Catherine, but it is Jules she decides to marry. Then, abruptly, all three are separated, as war breaks out across Europe, and Jules and Jim are forced to fight on opposing sides.
After the war Jim goes to visit Jules and Catherine, who live in a remote mountain chalet in Austria with their little daughter Sabine, and discovers their marriage is under strain. Jules confesses to him that he fears Catherine will leave him and that she has had other lovers during their relationship. Catherine herself confides to Jim that she misses her freedom. She flirts and attempts to seduce Jim who still has feelings for her himself. Jules, desperate not to lose Catherine, gives his blessing to Jim to marry Catherine, as long as he may continue to visit them and see her. For a while, the three live happily together in the chalet, but tensions between Jim and Catherine arise because of their inability to have a child. Jim leaves and returns to Paris, and after several exchanges of letters, they break off the relationship. But Catherine is determined to win Jim back no matter what the cost…
Francois Truffaut was a twenty-three-year-old film critic when, one afternoon, browsing through the stalls of second hand books at the Librairie Delamain on Place du Palais-Royal, he came across seventy-six year old Henri-Pierre Roché’s first novel. The book had been published two years earlier and had gone more or less unnoticed. Truffaut recognised its quality immediately. “The book overwhelmed me,” he later recalled, “and I wrote: If I ever succeed in making films, I will make Jules and Jim.” In a review of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Western, The Naked Dawn, he drew a comparison: “One of the most beautiful modern novels I know is Henri-Pierre Roché’s Jules and Jim, which shows us the lifelong relationship of two friends and their common female companion, and the tender love they have for each other, with hardly any conflict thanks to a new aesthetic moral code which is constantly reassessed. The Naked Dawn is the first film to make me feel that a cinematic Jules and Jim is feasible.” Touched by this praise, Roché, wrote the young man a note of thanks and sent him a copy of his second novel Deux anglaises et le continent. After reading it Truffaut was even more convinced of the writer’s greatness and in the summer of 1956 he visited him at his little house in Meudon. A close bond developed between the two men, strengthening Truffaut’s desire to adapt Jules and Jim to the screen. He immediately set to work putting together a script, annotating, cutting, and restructuring the original novel, to create a simple linear narrative. But the truth was, he was not yet ready to adapt such a sensitive and literary work, and the project was postponed. However, he kept up his correspondence with the Roché until the author’s death on April 9, 1959.
Another friendship crucial to the eventual realization of Jules and Jim began the following year at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival; when Truffaut met Jeanne Moreau for the first time at a screening of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958). Moreau later described their close relationship: “Francois gave me Jules and Jim to read and we met regularly to discuss it. Francois wasn’t a very talkative person, but this did not prevent a deep bond from developing between us very quickly. Usually, when people first get to know each other, they exchange a lot of memories. For us it was silences – we exchanged a lot of silences. Fortunately, there was the correspondence; we soon talked a lot by letter.” At the same time Truffaut was making the transition from critic to filmmaker, winning plaudits and awards for Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and establishing himself at the forefront of the Nouvelle Vague. However, his second feature film, Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), was too experimental for most and had done poorly at the box office. With his production company Films du Carrosse on shaky financial ground, Truffaut couldn’t afford another flop. He decided at this point to revive his long cherished plan of making Jules and Jim, but remained uncertain whether it was the right move. In a letter to his American friend Helen Scott he wrote: “I’m dreadfully tense right now. This is certainly partly out of pride, vanity, careerism and God knows what other dishonourable but irresistible drives: I desperately want Jules and Jim to be an absolute success, not like Piano Player.”
Truffaut rewrote his previous adaptation, but after several weeks work, was still not satisfied. He decided to hire Jean Gruault, whose recent theatrical adaptation of Diderot’s La Religieuse had very much impressed him. In January 1961, the two men set to work restructuring the story so that it focused more clearly on the love story between the three main characters. Their adaptation was faithful to the novel using voice-over commentary entirely lifted from the text. With the screenplay now in place, Truffaut set about casting. He chose Henri Serre to play Jim after seeing him performing as part of a comedy duo in Cabaret and being struck by his close resemblance to the young Roché. For the part of Jules, he wanted a foreign actor because he felt that an accent and hesitant speech would make the character more sympathetic. Out of faithfulness to the book he decided on Oskar Werner, a famous stage actor in Germany and Austria, who had impressed Truffaut by his appearance in Max Ophul’s Lola Montès (1955). As for Catherine, there was never any doubt in Truffaut’s mind that Jeanne Moreau was perfect for the role. Before preproduction and shooting he went to stay with her in the house she owned at La Garde-Freinet in the south of France. Here he got to know Moreau better, made friends with her easygoing ex-husband Jean-Louis Richard and her neighbours Daniele and Serge Rezvani (Truffaut ended up casting Rezvani as Albert in the film under the name Boris Bassiak, and incorporating his original song “Le Tourbillon de la vie” into the story). In these happy, carefree surroundings, the film began to take shape in his mind. “It was a time when everything was possible and nothing was solemn,” Jean Moreau said later, “as though Francois were discovering joie de vivre: Serge’s songs, car trips, going to the market… Time was devoted to reading, to making discoveries, rather than foreseeing the future or making ambitious plans.”
Jules and Jim began filming on April 10, 1961 on a low budget that was still only partially confirmed. Marcel Berbert, the producer, had been turned away by hesitant financiers and distributors who had no faith in the film. As a result the film was made very inexpensively. Many of the locations were loaned by friends, while the crew, which included previous collaborators Suzanne Schiffman as ‘continuity girl’ and Raoul Coutard as cinematographer, was kept to a minimum. The early stages of the shoot were difficult because of the many locations and set changes. The actors too had problems – Marie Dubois twisted her ankle, Jeanne Moreau had a throat infection, and Henri Serre wounded his left heel in one of the World War I scenes. As the shoot progressed, however, things began to go more smoothly. The most important scenes were shot between mid-May and early June in a German-style chalet in the Vosges mountain region of France. The mood on set was at times euphoric, at other times emotionally painful, reflecting the state of the fictional characters. Jeanne Moreau’s commitment and talent continually raised Truffaut’s spirits. He became fascinated by her: “Jeanne Moreau gave me courage each time I had doubts. Her qualities as an actress and as a woman made Catherine real before our eyes, made her plausible, crazy, possessive, passionate, but above all adorable.” By mid-June, as soon as the filming was over, Truffaut became worried that the rough cut, at two and a half hours, was too long. With the help of his editor Claudine Bouché and a trusted friend, Jean Aurel, he was able to tighten the film up and bring it down to an acceptable length. By the end of four months of post-production, Truffaut was exhausted but satisfied that he had completed his most difficult and daring film yet.
Early screenings of the film were encouraging, in particular the response of his friends and even some of his heroes. Jean Renoir wrote to say he had been very moved by the film. Jean Cocteau, who had been a friend of Roché, congratulated Truffaut on giving the author the recognition he deserved: “He was the most delicate and noble soul.” Roché’s wife Denise wrote: “I wish I could have seen your Jules and Jim with a fresh eye, but in spite of wanting to create a vacuum I watched your film as though I myself were Pierre – and I know he would have felt great joy and a passionate interest.” Most moving of all was a letter that arrived unexpectedly sometime after the film’s release. “I am, at 75, what is left of Kathe, the awesome heroine of Pierre Roché’s novel Jules and Jim. You can imagine the curiosity with which I waited to see your film on the screen. On January 24, I ran to the movie theatre. Sitting in that dark auditorium, in the dread of veiled resemblances and more or less irritating parallels, I was soon swept along, gripped by the magical power – yours and Jeanne Moreau’s ¬– with which you revived what had been lived through blindly. The fact that Pierre Roché was able to tell the story of the three of us and kept it very close to the actual events has nothing miraculous about it. But what disposition in you, what affinity, could enlighten you to the point of making the essence of our intimate emotions perceptible? As far as this goes, I’m your authentic judge, since the other two witnesses, Pierre and Franz, are no longer here to express their ‘yes’ to you. Affectionately yours, dear Monsieur Truffaut.” The letter was signed Helen Hessel, Roché’s real-life Catherine.
Nearly all the critics gave the film excellent reviews. ‘A Celebration of Tenderness and Intelligence” read the headline in Arts. ‘The first engaging film of the New Wave’ wrote another critic in L’Express. Despite the positive response the official French censor restricted the film to audiences over eighteen, limiting its commercial prospects. Truffaut appealed against the decision, but even testimonials by Renoir, Cocteau, Alain Resnais and others vouching for the film’s ‘non-immoral character’, failed to change the censor’s mind and the film was released with the restriction in place. In the end it had a relative success in France, helped by some energetic promotion by Truffaut himself. He continued to promote the film internationally, travelling to most of the major European cities – Brussels, London, Munich, Berlin, and Stockholm – and later to South America and finally to New York. These efforts paid off: the film was a great success wherever it went. In New York it enjoyed an exclusive four week engagement and received laudatory reviews with one critic hailing the ‘Return of Movie Boy Wonder.’ Audiences loved the film, making it one of the biggest arthouse hits of the early 60s.
In retrospect it seems somehow ironic that a period costume drama adapted from a novel written by a 75-year-old should have struck such a chord with the youth of its time and come to be seen as one of the archetypal films of the New Wave. On the face of it, it seems to have more in common with the mainstream ‘tradition de qualité’ that Truffaut had railed against in the pages of Cahiers du cinema. However, once seen, it immediately becomes apparent why the sixties generation identified with Jules and Jim. The main characters – brought vividly alive by Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre – are attractive and charming and defy conventional morality. Catherine, in particular, is a free spirit, moving freely from one sexual partner to another. She is the ultimate representation of the modern woman, constantly fighting for equality with her male counterparts. While the two men put their talent into their art, she puts her genius into living. Whether jumping into the Seine or carrying around a bottle of vitriol, she elevates unpredictability into an existential principle. Yet, while giving in to these impulses, she longs for love and security, which she hopes to find in Jules. Sadly Jules cannot satisfy her passion for adventure. The two can never be reconciled and in the end she destroys everything, even the idyllic friendship of Jules and Jim.
While the complex characterization and subject matter of Jules and Jim reflects a growing maturity in Truffaut’s work, so too does the stylistic verve of his direction. The fluid, swirling camerawork, fast-paced editing, and vivacious music of the first half, perfectly complements the playfulness, and exhilarating emotions of the characters and high-spirited sequences. In the second half the pace slows as we are drawn more deeply into the intimate world of the characters. Here Truffaut shows another side to his brilliance as a director, evoking vivid, moving performances from his three leads. Complementing the action is an array of accomplished editing techniques including freeze-frames, jump cuts and old-fashioned style transitions. One of the most audacious and successful uses of the freeze frame occurs during the scene in the South of France when Jules and Jim are playing dominoes and a bored Catherine tries to win their attention. She tells them that before she met them she was often sad. As Catherine frowns to demonstrate her previous moods, Truffaut freezes several poses for a second or so each, while the sound of laughter continues over the still frames. While these techniques are familiar from his earlier work, Jules and Jim has a polish to its style that represents a transition for Truffaut, away from the freewheeling, spontaneous staging of his previous films toward a more refined and pictorial visual form.
Today Jules and Jim remains a cult classic. Truffaut was not yet 30 when he made it but many people consider it his greatest film. It was both a transitional film and a masterpiece and its central themes are ones the director would return to again and again. Ten years on, faithful to the memory of Henri-Pierre Roché, and again with Jean Gruault, he was to adapt the author’s other novel into the film, Les Deux anglaises et le continent.