Only in recent years has Francois Truffaut’s Two English Girls (1971) emerged as a noteworthy film. A critical and financial disappointment when first released, its two-hour and twenty-minute running time was subsequently trimmed by nearly half an hour. Truffaut restored the cut footage in 1984, shortly before his untimely death from a brain tumor at the age of fifty-two. Initially, Two English Girls was seen as little more than a failed distaff variation on the director’s much-admired Jules and Jim (1962). Both films were based on autobiographical novels written in the 1950s by septuagenarian art collector Henri-Pierre Roche (1879-1959), famed as the go-between who introduced Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso in Paris in 1905. There are superficial similarities shared by Roche’s two novels. Both concern romantic triangles. In Jules and Jim, a Frenchman and a German are in love with the same free-spirited woman during the era of the First World War. In Two English Girls, set several years earlier at the turn of the century, two sensitive English sisters engage in a complicated love affair with a callow Frenchman. To paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy menage a trois is unhappy in its own way. Roche’s respective threesomes are unique unto themselves, as are the narrative strategies he employs in each novel. Moreover, Truffaut himself significantly changed as a filmmaker in the decade that elapsed between the screen adaptations of the two books.
Jules and Jim was the director’s third feature, made when Truffaut was not yet thirty years old. Its success affirmed his growing stature as a key figure in the influential French New Wave film movement. A textbook of directing and editing ingenuity, Jules and Jim remains an exhilarating viewing experience. (A rare dissenter, critic Manny Farber, scorned Truffaut’s stylistic exuberance as “meaningless vivacity.”) By 1971, the year Two English Girls appeared, the New Wave had lost its luster and cohesion. Once allies in shaking up the movie-making establishment, core New Wave members Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard had taken divergent career paths, reflecting larger cultural schisms then coming to the fore in Western Europe and the United States. Godard embraced radical politics and underground filmmaking. Truffaut aimed his efforts toward increasingly mainstream fare, racking up ambitious flops and audience-pleasing hits in equal measure. Unnoticed, or at least unrecognized, during this period was the degree to which Truffaut’s themes were moving in the direction of darker complexities.
Where Jules and Jim was nimble on its feet and wistful, Two English Girls is somber and brooding. Gone are the emblems of Truffaut’s youthful audacity—the jump cuts, the freeze frames, the athletic handheld camera shots. In retrospect, it’s clear that Two English Girls has more in common with several stark Truffaut films whose protagonists are neurotically hamstrung and obsessed, movies such as The Soft Skin (1964), The Story of Adele H. (1975), The Green Room (1978), and The Woman Next Door (1981). Never as popular as the director’s light-as-air souffles like Stolen Kisses (1968) and Day for Night (1973), these challenging lesser-known titles have grown in reputation and come to represent for some critics, like David Kehr, the pinnacle of Truffaut’s work. The consensus on Two English Girls has changed markedly over the years. It is now routinely referred to as “one of Truffaut’s greatest achievements.” This of course begs the question: How to account for the film’s tepid reception thirty-three years ago?
While far from reactionary in tone, Two English Girls refuses to satirize or gild with irony its story of three characters whose behaviors are circumscribed by Victorian sexual repression. Truffaut neither ridicules the society in which the story unfolds, nor does he suggest that romantic love is perennially a victim of generational or institutional tyranny. The film’s original audience was thus denied the kind of self-congratulatory antiestablishment critique so prevalent in the cinema of the 1970s. Instead, Two English Girls is a peculiar and at times awkward blend of fragile directorial restraint and surprisingly raw psychological intimacy. Perhaps out of sync with 1971, the film’s air of controlled hysteria is perfectly suited to the nascent Freudianism of the story’s late nineteenth century milieu. Nowhere is this felt stronger than the scene in which the character of Muriel (Stacey Tendeter) reveals with fetishistic severity her deep shame and religious guilt over being a compulsive masturbator since childhood. She directly faces the camera (and us) in a cold-eyed verite monologue as she recounts explicit passages from her diary. The faux documentary close-up accentuates Muriel’s punishing masochism. It also encapsulates the disillusionment of the film’s three central characters, Muriel, Anne, and Claude: the nearer they approach what they assume to be emotional truth, the deeper they are mired in paralysis and despair. Rather than an expression of emancipation or love, sexual passion in Truffaut’s Two English Girls is a death throe.
Roche’s novel, on the other hand, is less harsh and pessimistic than Truffaut’s often bleak adaptation. Not found in the book is the scene of aspiring art critic Claude (played with subdued grace by Truffaut’s familiar alter-ego, Jean-Pierre Leaud) taking the cruel step of publishing Muriel’s unexpurgated diary in Paris. While in the novel Claude is humorously self-regarding in his untested love for Muriel and Anne, it is Truffaut who instills the character’s potential for betrayal. More controversial is the film’s tubercular death meted out to Muriel’s sister Anne (Kika Markham), a character who is alive and well and married at the conclusion of the novel. Truffaut has said he was inspired to fuse the lives of Muriel and Anne with those of the Bronte sisters. Anne’s death in the film, he claimed, was meant to parallel Emily Bronte’s 1848 death from consumption. Pauline Kael, in her 1971 review of Two English Girls, suggested a more startling impulse behind Truffaut’s decision: Muriel and Anne had come to be painfully associated in the director’s mind with two real-life sisters—the actresses Francoise Dorleac and Catherine Deneuve—with whom Truffaut had worked and with whom he had love affairs. Dorleac died in an automobile accident in 1967 at the age of twenty-five. Deneuve broke off a relationship with Truffaut in the fall of 1970.
The long-awaited biography Truffaut (1999), written by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, afforded a candid view of the director’s emotional state during the filming of Two English Girls. Production began while Truffaut was under medical supervision, following his release from a psychiatric clinic where he was being treated for depression. (“The colors of my pills have become my only landscape,” he wrote to a friend at the time.) De Baecque and Toubiana contend that Two English Girls “can be read as the intimate journal of its convalescing director.” Clearly, one’s admiration for the film ought not to be based exclusively on arcane behind-the-scenes knowledge. And yet, it was Francois Truffaut who coined the famous “auteur theory” with its proclamation that great movie directors bestow upon their work a distinctive and sacrosanct authorial voice. Is there any higher praise than to say that Truffaut’s melancholy soul haunts every frame of Two English Girls?
– Bob Wake