Jules et Jim review – Truffaut’s love triangle is a whirlwind masterpiece

The French New Wave classic chronicles the lives of two men and the dangerous object of their affections

François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim from 1962 is the love triangle that feels like it’s happening in the swinging 60s present moment, like Godard’s triple-header Bande à Part. Actually, it’s set before and after the first world war, and the three principals finally reunite by bumping into each other at a Paris cinema showing a newsreel about the Nazis’ book-burning. (It’s based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, who wrote another love-triangle story, Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, which Truffaut filmed as Two English Girls in 1971.)

Appropriately for this film’s internationalist ethos, neither male hero has a homeland-appropriate name. Oskar Werner is Jules, a diffident young Austrian living in 1912 Paris: scholar, translator and Francophile. He befriends the rather more worldly Frenchman Jim, the journalist and would-be author played by Henri Serre. They are instantly as thick as thieves, a couple of jaunty swells and elegant flâneurs, devoted to art and avowedly uninterested in money – though each, apparently, has some modest private income. They drink in cafes, discuss poetry, box together at the gym and in a rather desultory way pursue women, including the madcap Thérèse (played by Truffaut stalwart Marie Dubois) who has a party trick of puffing a cigarette from the wrong end like a steam train.

Thérèse, too, turns out to be a journalist, revealing that she has sold a memoir of her amorous adventures to the Sunday Times magazine in Europe – presumably referring to the New York Times, though maybe it’s an anachronistic nod to the British Sunday Times magazine, that had just launched in the same year as the film. Whichever is meant, it’s a startling newspaper appearance in French cinema, to go with the New York Herald Tribune in Breathless and the Daily Telegraph in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.

Both men fall for the same bohemian, beautiful force of nature, Catherine (played by Jeanne Moreau) having persuaded themselves that she resembles a beautiful Greek statue that they have seen; like a sculpture, Catherine is revealed to them without a past. She entrances them both with her beauty and wild freedom, and Jim instantly starts writing a roman à clef about the intensity of their three-way romance. When war breaks out, Jules and Jim must fight on opposite sides.

So is Jules et Jim a secret queer love story? Or is their friendship an antiwar fable, Catherine symbolising what they vitally have in common? She is arguably a fatuous male creation, the original manic pixie dream girl, whose function is to showcase the men’s more substantial nobility. Yet perhaps her passion and restless unhappiness point up the essential flimsiness and mediocrity of these men. At any rate, Jim is on the winning side in the war and has the more flourishing career (although his novel doesn’t find a publisher) and there is something very literary about the film, with dialogue line-readings that often sound like the voiceover narration by Michel Subor.

The dangerous quality of Catherine is obvious from the outset. She flings herself in the Seine on a whim while the trio are on a nighttime stroll, just to make them rescue her. And before they go on an impulsive trip to the coast, she empties out a bottle of sulphuric acid she had been meaning to take along in her suitcase (“for the eyes of men who tell lies”). It is a truly strange moment; the writing is on the wall. Moreau’s most remarkable scene comes when she insouciantly sings in front of Jules and Jim a song of her own composition, accompanied on the guitar by another of her lovers: Le Tourbillon de la Vie, or The Whirl of Life. (“She had eyes, eyes like opal / That fascinated me … The oval of her pale face / Of a femme fatale who was fatal to me.”) Moreau sings with a delicate, birdlike, non-fatale chirrup.

And perhaps the film’s meaning resides in that idea of a fatal whirlwind. Before the war, Catherine asks Jim to meet her in a cafe at seven, and doesn’t show up. Later, she explains something about a hairdresser, and reveals she is marrying Jules. If she had made it to their date, and Jim had the courage to get his proposal in first, would things have been different? Happier? Or even more unhappy? Do love and destiny hinge on something as random as a missed date? Catherine is missing from the title but she dominates the movie.

• Jules et Jim is released on 4 February in cinemas.