Jules et Jim is considered by many to be Truffaut's best work. I've been working on it again with two groups of A-level students and I'm hoping to get them to share in my enthusiasm. But I remember myself that when I first saw this movie I was slightly underwhelmed. I recall that little emotion was communicated from the screen, the film seemed episodic and that the lead character, Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau was simply not very appealing.
But what you have to remember with Jules et Jim is that it is, above all, a hommage to a book which inspired Truffaut after he came across it by chance at a second hand book shop in Paris. The autobiographical novel, with its charming simplicity and clipped sentences, is faithfully rendered on the screen, thanks to the superb acting, particularly of Jeanne Moreau and Oskar Werner, the use of the original text in the dialogue and voice- off narration, and the rapid editing and new wave camera tricks which reflect the style of the novel. It is also a rather beautiful film to look at, with its pastoral scenes; and a lovely film to listen to, with its uplifting, sometimes bitter-sweet score by Georges Delerue. With several viewings you also appreciate Truffaut's enormous attention to detail.
As for that lack of emotion, that slightly detached flatness, Truffaut said that he did not want to over-dramatise events which were the memories of a writer in his seventies, Henri-Pierre Roché. The film should be like an old album of photos, memories recalled fondly, but with the detachment of time passed. A good example is when Catherine suddenly jumps into the Seine to grab back the attention of the two men in her life. The event takes the viewer by surprise and is accompanied by a melodramatic twist in the score, but then immediately Truffaut goes to a voice-off narrative which distances us from the scene and reminds us we are looking at a filmed book.
This degree of subtlety is hard to communicate to students, as is the principal theme of the film, that the couple is inadequate, that alternatives are worth exploring, but that happiness is always fleeting. The pleasing title of the book (which is what first attracted Truffaut to it) reflects the fact that the most long-lasting and reliable relationship is that of the two men. The complicity between the male characters of the film, who all vie for Catherine's attention, is striking.
If you haven't seen the movie, read the book first. There is a nice interview with Truffaut about the film here: