So, even though I haven’t seen many classic films before this, I’ve heard about several. Some films just become so much of the cultural zeitgeist that even if you haven’t seen them, you might have seen another film reference them, or heard people discuss them; at least you know they exist and are supposed to be good. This 1962 French New Wave film was one such oft-mentioned classic for me. And now that I’ve finally seen it…I’m kind of let down.
Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) meet as students in Paris in 1912, and throughout a breathlessly-paced early montage we watch them becoming friends – they teach each other their respective languages (Jim is French, Jules Austrian), they work out together, they review their studies, they hit the bars. The gregarious Jim often plays wingman for the shy Jules, but even more often the pair just trade girls every so often without either getting fussed about it – until they meet freewheeling Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who’s as much of a bohemian as they are.
Jules is instantly smitten and takes Jim aside to call dibs; out of love for his friend, Jim agrees. (He’s back on-again with his on-again off-again girlfriend Gilberte anyway.) But Catherine loves having both of them on hand to dine with, go for walks with, go to movies with, go on vacations with…so when World War I breaks out, and Jules wants to marry Catherine and bring her back home to Austria, she first asks if she can talk to Jim….to get his advice, she says. But they never have their chat. Catherine heads off to marry Jules anyway, and then war divides the friends for several years.
At their reunion, Jules invites Jim to visit him and Catherine at their cottage in the Black Forest. They have a little girl named Sabine, they have a couple of friendly neighbors…and they have marriage trouble, thanks to Catherine’s infidelity. Marriage never really suited her, it seems, and after putting up with several of her affairs, Jules is pretty much giving up on them staying together. In fact, he takes Jim aside to ask him to marry Catherine, so at least Jules can keep in touch with her. Catherine seems into the idea as well, inviting Jim to move in with them all. She even suggests Jim father a child by her, to go with her daughter fathered by Jules. But even this arrangement gradually sours, and when Jim eventually gets called to Paris on business, he quietly decides to stay. Jules and Catherine return to Paris themselves a few years later, and run into Jim again, and Catherine asks to see Jim privately one afternoon…
….And, yeah, it’s just a love triangle story, pretty much.
It’s not a bad one, mind you. There’s absolutely good work in this – Moreau in particular is excellent as the capricious Catherine, and director Francois Truffaut’s style keeps things fresh and breezy, particularly at the beginning when the three are all young and spunky. In fact, the beginning bits ooze with so much charm that it seems unfair to just call this a “love triangle story”, rather than a story of three friends who can’t handle the fact that they had to grow up.
That would have been a much more interesting story to me, actually. The free-and-easy lives we lead when we’re in our 20s can’t always be sustained, particularly when those lives are on the unconventional side – and not everyone ages with grace. But a sorta-threesome aging into a love triangle is not the only way to tell that story.
This may be a film I appreciate better over time, but for now, it hasn’t quite lived up to the hype.