It’s one you’re supposed to see, one that you should be embarrassed if you haven’t seen it, and its fingerprints are more than evident all over many films made since. If you don’t come out of Jules and Jim loving it, you feel a little guilty, knowing as you do that it’s a classic Truffaut film that broke rules when it was made and has been loved ever since by filmmakers who love to pay homage to it. It feels rather like watching a Fellini film, strikingly, at least in terms of dialogue. It’s non-stop, such that a non-French speaker is frustrated with the knowledge of how much s/he is missing visually just in order to keep up on the subtitles. Even the narration is break-neck and cuts out only long enough for the characters to ramble with an urgency almost never seen in their actions. Morally loose and laid back in lifestyle, Jules, Jim, and Catherine represent a very restricted variety of characters. (Is that a paradox or just a contradiction?)
That it is entitled Jules and Jim is apropos, since the lady Catherine is essentially the tennis ball in the match between the players; although a willful tennis ball she certainly is. This is no Broken Blossoms, however. Catherine is not victimized, though she be idealized. No one exactly is a power-holder in the film; if anyone is, it’s Catherine, by virtue of being such a fascinating object. But her own spirit of perpetual discontent prevents her from taking the sort of action that could give her more than a simply erotic hold over the men/boys. Jules is the German romantic, the pathetic Catherine-addict who would sooner see his best friend bed his own wife than be “separated” from her. (What else could separation entail?) Jim is the woman-addict who idealizes Catherine as much because she’s a woman as that she’s Jules’ woman (most of the time). An obvious homoerotic relationship is evident between the two males, but once again it’s the kind that demands the presence of or desire for a woman to keep it alive. It’s not a simple case of male repression or whatever they insist on calling it. Isn’t it possible (though a bit twisted) that two friends express their affection for one another most fully through a female proxy? The not-so-novel notion of polygamy, in this picture, finally makes an ounce of sense: instead of many women for a man, let’s be honest, many men for a woman might be more realistic.
Every imaginable cinematic toy is used to its fullest here, to a degree that Truffaut seems to be goofing off technically and formally as much as Godard tended to goof off with his content (Band of Outsiders, e.g.). The theory seems to have been, let’s start over by overwhelming the audience with every little cinematographical tool that’s ever existed; let’s make them dizzy and punish them a little for loving movies. Truffaut really seems to be daring his audience to love film as much as he does. Fitting, then, that films like Vanilla Sky and, oh, everything Wes Anderson has ever done contains some kind of nod to Jules and Jim. It’s not the tragic French New Wave film that 400 Blows is, and it isn’t the fun jaunt in the city and the snow that Shoot the Piano Player is. There’s plenty more to it than can realistically be explored here, however, and plenty more than can be gleaned in a single viewing.