A week ago we celebrated our Independence Day, which is always a good reason to reflect on one of our most sacred American values: freedom. Like many of us here, I believe that people should have the freedom to be who they want and do what they want, but I acknowledge absolute freedom is an impossibility. Logistically, it’s immediately obvious that giving one person that platonic ideal of liberty would inherently limit someone else’s; I cannot be free to eat all the hamburgers if you want to eat hamburgers too. But even beyond that, you have to admit that we are born into bondage: we have no say in our skin color, our abilities or susceptibilities, who our parents are, where we’re born, or even the times we live in. From the very beginning, we must compromise.
François Truffaut’s third film, Jules and Jim, begins as a story of joyous youth. Jules (Oskar Werner) is an Austrian living in Paris in the early 1910s who becomes fast friends with Jim (Henri Serre), a Frenchman. The men are each other’s intellectual matches, both of them being Bohemian writers who love the city and time they are living in, and are soon inseparable. Really their only regret is that Jules has struggled with his love life in Paris, which leads them to the first calamity of their shared lives, although it will take a while for them to know it.
One day at a slideshow, Jules and Jim see a beautiful sculpture of a face and become infatuated with it, leading them to travel to an island in the Adriatic Sea to see it in person. Later, at a party, they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a free-spirited woman who is the striking image of that statue. So they begin to spend time together, with Jules taking the initiative and warning Jim to let him pursue her; “not this one,” he says. Nonetheless, the three spend all their time together until Jules and Catherine move to Austria to be married shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.
While Jules and Jim end up fighting on opposite sides of the war, they both survive and resume their friendship in peacetime. Jim goes to Austria to visit Jules, Catherine, and their daughter, and ends up spending quite a while there. Because as much as Jim loves Jules, Jim also sees the cracks in Jules’ marriage to Catherine, and starts to believe she would be a better match for him. But this is not a typical love triangle, and the passion and emotion you’d normally expect from this kind of story is nowhere to be found.
This is not a love story, this is a story about the sheer act of survival. These are three people who are deeply broken and desperate to stop being unhappy: Jules suspects Catherine’s infidelity, but can’t help loving her and needing to maintain his relationships with her, Jim, and his daughter. Catherine is restless and uncompromising, someone who cannot and will not ever be content. Jim has some of that in his nature too, but it’s tempered by his indecisiveness and fondness for Jules. But all of them clearly were altered by WWI, a conflict that was so terrible it destroyed the innocence of anyone with the strength and luck to actually survive it. They lost true happiness, and so they compromise.
While the horror of WWI dramatically accentuates the difference between youth and middle age for Jules, Jim, and Catherine, that doesn’t mean it’s not relatable to other generations. I mean, it’s not nearly to the same extent, but who today would not admit that we live in troubled times? That the innocence that we took for granted as normality even just a couple of years ago is now gone for all of us? And even if you disagree with that, the difficulty of aging and mortality is still undeniably human. No matter who you are, you’ll have to deal with the fact that you’re getting older and that every choice you make means another opportunity is lost.
The first scenes of Jules and Jim are frantically edited and narrated by Michel Subor, who seems to be reading his lines as fast as he possibly could. At the time, I thought that was just to show how delightful the times of Jules and Jim were. In retrospect, I see it is instead meant to show how fleeting they were. There is a recurring motif of an hourglass in those halcyon Parisian days, Jules uses it because it’s more fun than a clock. And he didn’t need a clock then, did he? He thought they had all the time in the world. But the truth is that for them, and for all of us, the sands of time are pouring already, and the hourglass cannot be flipped once the last grain has fallen.