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Of all of François Truffaut’s greatest films, Two English Girls is perhaps the least well known and the one whose reputation has benefited the most from the passage of time. A critical and financial disaster upon release in 1971, Truffaut was so crushed by the reception of his film that he voluntarily removed it from circulation, slashing over 40 minutes from its running time. It was not until shortly before his death in 1984 that the director restored his original cut. The film was initially derided as being an example of the very thing Truffaut had spent his early career criticizing – the staid, moribund, “cinéma du papa” of the pre-New Wave establishment. And yet this diagnosis couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s likely that Two English Girls suffered under direct comparison with its obvious mate, Truffaut’s own Jules and Jim (1962). Both are adaptations of novels by Henri-Pierre Roché (the only two the author completed), and both involve the flowering and ultimate sundering of love triangles. But Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is the work of a young man, a man in his late twenties who learned all he knew about love from the cinémathèque. Two English Girls on the other hand, while less exuberantly full of joie de vivre than Jules and Jim, is the fully-developed work of an adult, an artist who has lived and suffered. Truffaut was under medical care when he began work on the film, having recently been released from a psychiatric clinic where he was treated for severe depression. It is the story of two sisters, both in love with the same man, one of whom dies. Truffaut himself was once in love with a pair of sisters, the actresses Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, one of whom had recently died. All of this sadness suffuses the film, deepening its emotional reservoirs, muting its colors and textures (wonderfully filmed by the great Nestor Almendros) and giving the whole a quality of desperate sorrow.

The French title of the film is Les deux Anglaises et le continent, “Le Continent” being the nickname given by the sisters to the French apex of this particular triangle – the would-be art critic, Claude, wonderfully played by Truffaut’s regular collaborator, Jean-Pierre Léaud. This was the first film Léaud had made with Truffaut where he wasn’t portraying Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s alter ego who’d first appeared in The 400 Blows (1959). The Doinel series is all about the painful process of growth and maturity, a subject that Truffaut had turned to time and again, most recently in Bed and Board, the fourth Doinel film, and The Wild Child (both 1970.) Truffaut is cinema’s great poet of childhood and romantic longing, the combination of the two strands combining magnificently in Two English Girls, which signaled the fruition and the ending of one phase of his development as an artist.

When Truffaut penned “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” the broadside essay that gave the world “la politique des Auteurs” in 1954, he was railing against a certain tendency of French cinema that treated the adaptation of novels as simply a matter of filming the words on the page. This is what those early critics had accused Truffaut of having done with Two English Girls, yet Truffaut clearly signals his intent during the opening credits of the film. He frames a series of overhead shots of the cover of the book (an idea Wes Anderson would borrow years later for The Royal Tenenbaums), as well as several shots of open pages across which he has scribbled various notes and marginalia for later use. In other words, Truffaut is giving the viewer a key to the strategy he will employ in his adaptation of Roché’s novel – he will adhere closely to the text, treating the words as sacrosanct, yet will ultimately be the auteur whose vision gives shape and meaning to the finished film.

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In fact, Two English Girls is one of the most striking examples of literary adaptation that I know. Truffaut foregrounds the literary origins of his film at every opportunity, using a full range of narrative techniques, including voiceovers of all sorts (third person omniscient, first person confessional, epistolary, monologic), sudden ellipses (fortunes change with the turning of a page), as well as the aforementioned shots of the book itself. And yet the film is so intensely cinematic – Truffaut gives us several stunning long shots of landscape, his characters blending with the hillsides and roiling waters off the coast of Wales. He employs fade-outs and superimpositions and iris effects (a technique he also used in The Wild Child), arranging the film into a number of short, punchy scenes that make the most of framing, set design and lighting effects to deliver meaning. And yet between these two languages of literature and film there is an epistemological gap – the two never quite fit together, which lends the film a terrific feeling of ironic tension.

The characters in the film are also separated by various gaps and barriers, both physical and emotional. Claude and the two sisters, Ann and Muriel Brown (Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter) are continuously being separated by barriers of different sorts. When they first meet, Muriel’s eyes are covered by bandages and sun glasses. Claude kisses Ann through the slats in a wooden chair (a shot of Muriel looking on, fire reflected in her dark lenses). There is the physical separation between Wales and Paris, of course. And the emotional distance between the three is endless, the two virginal sisters on the one hand – each with their own differing personalities and childhood traumas – while on the other is Claude, a boy who becomes a man over the course of the film, alienated and separated from his own feelings and trapped under the suffocating love of an overbearing mother (Marie Mansart). The missed opportunities and botched intentions between the three characters over the span of two decades outline the devastating emotional arc of the film. They are three children who forever lose the blessed innocence of that state, attaining the mantle of adulthood only through a process of painful, yet necessary change.

Two English Girls is a masterpiece, a summation to that point of all of Truffaut’s strengths as an artist and as a man. He would go on to make several other great films in his lifetime, many of which have been justly praised and celebrated in the years since. It’s time for Two English Girls to join their ranks. It is truly one of François Truffaut’s most brilliant creations.

by Shannon Gramas

See Also: Oeuvre- Truffaut: Bed and Board

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One Comment

  1. theodore edel

    August 16, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    I read your post just after seeing the film and reading the NY Times review (Vincent Canby) and the one by Chicagoan Roger Ebert. Yours is light years ahead of those two gentlemen, in terms of your perceptions, thoroughness, and detailed understanding of Truffaut’s artistry. Hats off!

    Reply

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