Two English Girls

(Les deux Anglaises et le continent aka Anne and Muriel, François Truffaut, France, 1971)


Tough Skin


Like many cinephiles, my feelings for the films of François Truffaut have been fickle. Jules et Jim (1961) is an overrated item that is great to see when you are 15 and first discovering cinema, but doesn’t hold up to repeated scrutiny (all those endless frolics through the greenery…). And so many of his works (including the later instalments of the Antoine Doinel cycle) seem like slight confections, hardly more thrilling than a routine comedy-romance-thriller by Stanley Donen.


In the ‘90s, commentary on Truffaut was routed, via the publication of his correspondence, a biography, and the documentary Stolen Portraits (1992), into speculation on his personality and motives (was he deep or callow? tender or calculating?): the paranoid side of auteurist fixation. And this carnival made me wonder if there was anything to really find or value in the films themselves other than clues to his secret autobiography.


The Soft Skin (1964) was the film that, when I re-saw it in the late ‘90s, rekindled my interest in Truffaut. At last I could sense for myself what so many of his best commentators (including Antoine de Baecque, Anne Gillain [see link at bottom] and Olivier Assayas) responded to: the secret emotional tension between the implacably clean shots, gestures, lines; the inner fire that melts the outer casing of ice. On the surface, Truffaut devoted his life to mastering a professional, utterly functional craft of cinematic storytelling; but this posture is also a kind of mask which both hides strong feelings and allows them to simmer until they explode, often fleetingly (as in the films of Howard Hawks). It is not for nothing that Truffaut’s cinema is one of fainting and dizzy spells, sudden blackouts, lights in the eyes.  


Two English Girls goes deeper into this choreography of psychosomatic hysteria than any other Truffaut film – he called it “not a film about physical love, but a physical film about love”. (1) I avoided watching it for years because, as an adaptation of the only other novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, it was designed as a companion piece to Jules et Jim. But it turns out to be among the severest and most minimal of the director’s works, almost an anti-Jules et Jim in its withdrawal of empathy from the characters, its clipped style, and its refusal to charm (especially in the direction of Jean-Pierre Léaud – whose posturing, alienated mannerisms are matched at every turn by the equally stylised and nutty gestures of Stacey Tendeter).


Claude (Léaud), Muriel (Tendeter) and Anne (Kika Markham) belong to one of the many ‘lost generations’ that mark modernity from the birth of industrialisation to Gen-X. Like Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935), the film (co-scripted by Jean Gruault) traces, without judgement, a giddy confusion; no twin-combination of these characters can ever make a successful connection, since no one can sort out libidinal impulses from sentimental yearnings, sophisticated arrangements from foolish mistakes. Truffaut’s mise en scène manages to be at once calm and logical, as well as obsessive and sensual: for De Baecque and Toubiana, it explores “the feverishness that binds human beings in passionate intimacy; the impulses that overpower the body and from which no one can escape”. (2)


The plot is a painful litany of misread motives, stop-go signals, ugly partings and awkward reunions. Truffaut, always alive to undertones of perversity, enters into both the delight and the frustration of a situation in which potential lovers are also ‘brothers and sisters’ to each other and the world, and where the still smouldering sexuality of the ‘old folks’ guarding the social order sometimes inadvertently breaks through the etiquette. The film builds through teasing skin games (a kiss through a chair in a parlour game, one body rocked back and forth between two others) to (in the context) ‘raw’ scenes of sexual congress that are disturbing in their intensity, and perilous in their consequences.


“Beginning here, things must go very fast”: these words, scribbled by Truffaut in the margin of Roché’s book and visible during the credits, betray the obsession peculiar to him with narrative speed, compression of information and tight, telescopic transitions. The iterative tense (‘every day they walked…’) is the hardest thing to signify in cinema, but Two English Girls is full of iterative scenes, because it is a profoundly literary film, with (in de Baecque’s words) “a novelistic flesh… literally filmed”. (3) The film goes fastest when it hits the pure plateau of letters written, sent, received, read, exchanged, discussed between the trio; in exploring varying ways to depict this great flow of words, Truffaut quietly radicalises the parameter of voice-over narration (before Terrence Malick’s Badlands, 1973, but well after Marcel Hanoun’s sadly little known Une Simple histoire [1959]). And this substitute ‘flesh’ ends up becoming another thick veil, another delicious but maddening wall of repression cocooning all the characters within their morbid symptoms.


Posters of and grabs from Jules et Jim are plastered over Vanilla Sky (2001) and Amélie (2001), but my bet is that Two English Girls has had the deepest influence where it really counts. Jean Eustache described it as the one and only work to provide a “deep justification” for the Nouvelle Vague, and his subsequent Mes petites amoureuses (1975) likewise plunges into the subtly kinky vibrations intertwining children, adolescents and adults. Malick may have got the idea of using Nestor Almendros as his cinematographer on Days of Heaven (1978) after seeing it; the films share similar, Murnau-like tableaux of vehicles and bodies meeting and parting in the landscape. Chantal Akerman borrows for Night and Day (1991) the spooky yet thrilling moments when a certain gesture of love is performed exactly the same way, and seen from exactly the same point, as with another lover. The insistent ‘text’ of written words and their bold staging as into-camera speech reappears in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Ian MacKillop’s invaluable book Free Spirits: Henri-Pierre Roché, François Truffaut and the Two English Girls (Bloomsbury, 2000) suggestively connects the film to David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy (1998) and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – which happen to be three of my favourite films about the vexed, erotic manners of today.


And how not to see today, in the ultimate spectacle of Claude/Léaud confronting his prematurely aged self in a reflective surface, the prefiguration of the same actor seen as he is today and also as he once was for Truffaut in 1959, in Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? (2001) – a film whose concerns with haunting and absence, initiation and disillusionment, the sense of space and place as permanent ‘dark passages’, the disquieting presence of a mother’s sexuality, and a cult of the dead, now all seem to me ‘very Truffaut’.

MORE Truffaut: Day for Night, Love on the Run, Mississippi Mermaid

book review:: Totally Truffaut: 23 Films for Understanding the Man and the Filmmaker

© Adrian Martin February 2002


1. Quoted in Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 284. back

2. Ibid. back

3. De Baecque, “Le Deux Anglaises et le continent”, in 100 films pour une vidéothèque, Cahiers du cinéma numéro spécial (December 1993), p. 49. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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