screened May 3 2008 on Fox Lorber DVD in Weehawken NJ
Long considered a stately (read: mediocre) gender-reversing rehash of Jules and Jim (TSPDT #40), Francois Truffaut’s second foray into the work of Henri Roche is in fact his most mature and fully realized work, and one of the very best films I’ve seen throughout the Shooting Down Pictures project. Instead of Jules and Jim‘s giddy, free-flying use of cinema to amplify the exuberance of its young lovers, here Truffaut’s techniques soberly and masterfully emphasize a tactile, constricting sense of place and time against which the desires of this ill-fated threesome continually struggle, charging the film with a steadily accumulating sexual tension that is never fully satiated despite two lengthy sex scenes. Truffaut builds and expands on Jules and Jim‘s vision of love as a dark descent into obsessive ownership killing off the sense of free discovery from which it sprung, while being equally deft, less ostentatious and more judicious in his stylistic approach (characterized by finely choreographed long tracking shots) to emphasize the dramatic core of each scene. The narration is dominated by a voice-over that emphasizes the film’s origins as a novel, but is by no means a reversion to the cinema du papa literary adaptation against which Truffaut made his name criticizing. Narration itself is the controlling theme of the film: it is both a behavior endemic to the film’s highly literate post-Victorian milieu, and an actualization technique through which the three leads formulate their respective identities, though largely at the expense of their innocence and friendship. It is hard to think of many films that are as vigorous and heartfelt in their consideration of the two sexes’ perilous relations as friends and lovers as this masterpiece, Truffaut’s finest.
Want to go deeper? The following votes were counted towards the TSPDT 1000:
Gerhard Midding, Steadycam (2007)
Kent Jones, Steadycam (2007)
Olivier De Bruyn, Positif (1991)
Cahiers du Cinema, The 100 Most Important Video Releases (1993)
Carlos F. Heredero, Dirigido Por: Best Foreign Films (Non- Spanish) (1992)
Danny Peary Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
Movieline 100 Greatest Foreign Films (1996)
New York Times The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
San Francisco Chronicle Vintage Video – A Hot 100 From Out of the Past (1997)
Take One Best European Films of the ‘Decade’ 1966- 77 (1978)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
“One of the top ten films of all time”…Todd McCarthy, Variety
François Truffaut’s adept handling of language and art, sex and caprice, is in full flower in Two English Girls, an adaptation of the Henri-Pierre Roché novel. Claude (Truffaut favorite Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a Frenchman persuaded by Ann (Kika Markham) to come to England to meet her sister, Muriel (Stacey Tendeter). Claude falls for both sisters, vacillating between the two with a kind of Brontë indecisivenes, but he ends up asking for Muriel’s hand. Complications arise, forcing all three of them to separate ends but with many reunions along the way. Truffaut said he wanted to “make not a film on physical love, but a physical film on love.” He teases and taunts, making pastoral scenes erotic and erotic scenes pastoral and never loses momentum or weight with the story. Largely dismissed or ignored after its release in 1971, the film has wisely been reassessed to take its place as one of Truffaut’s finest. It also includes a magnificent score by Georges Delerue (who appears briefly in the film) and stands as possibly one of the last cautionary cause-and-effect tales of the evils of masturbation and poor eyesight.
–Keith Simanton, Amazon.com
A bit too much will probably be made of the fact that “Two English Girls” reverses the central situation of “Jules and Jim,” in which the two heroes spend their lives being turned on and off by the liberated Catherine…
In many ways, however, “Two English Girls” is more closely linked to such later (and dissimilar) Truffaut films as “The Soft Skin,” “Mississippi Mermaid” and “Stolen Kisses,” each a variation on the conflict between a love that is obsessive (sometimes called pure) and a mortal one that is always aware of compromise.
“Jules and Jim” touches on this. “Two English Girls” is about nothing else. “Jules and Jim” also has to do with a number of other things, including social satire, and is and ambitious work of a much younger director. “Two English Girls” is less lyric, more spare, completely preoccupied by not only the the extremely complicated moral barriers to love, but also by the physical impediments.
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, October 12, 1972
It’s wonderful how offhand Francois Truffaut’s best films feel. There doesn’t seem to be any great effort being made; he doesn’t push for his effects, but lets them flower naturally from the simplicities of his stories. His film, TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, is very much like that. Because he doesn’t strain for an emotional tone, he can cover a larger range than the one-note movies. Here he is discreet, even while filming the most explicit scenes he’s ever done; he handles sadness gently; he is charming and funny even while he tells us a story that is finally tragic. The story is from the second novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, who began writing at the age of seventy-four and whose first novel, Jules and Jim, provided the inspiration for nearly everyone’s favorite Truffaut film. The two novels (and the two films) are variations on the same theme: What a terrible complex emotional experience it is to have to share love.
JULES AND JIM was a young man’s film (Truffaut was twenty-eight when he made it). TWO ENGLISH GIRLS is the film of a man some ten or twelve years down the road; it is still playful and winsome, but it realizes more fully the consequences of an opportunity lost.
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times, January 1, 1972
Although the film has its strengths (in particular the stunning photography), it has some very noticeable deficiencies. Despite the intrinsic power in the drama, its realisation in this film leaves an impression of artificiality and coldness which seriously undermines its emotional impact. Jean-Pierre Léaud appears far too reserved and dispassionate to be entirely convincing in his role, and his two co-stars often come across as stiff and as starchy as their Edwardian corsets. Some of the English dialogue used in the film is really quite poor, and when delivered with such perfect diction by the two English-speaking lead actresses, it ressembles a parody of a BBC classic drama serial – an immediate passion-killer.
- James Travers, Films de France
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.”
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, Culture Vulture
Bent on exploring both emotional and physical pain, Truffaut and his cameraman Nestor Almendros were determined to avoid the “picturesque” quality of so many Technicolor costume epics. “Both men distrusted the ‘postcard’ effect that ordinary colour brings to films.” Designed almost entirely in muted shades of brown, ochre and mauve, Les Deux Anglaises has the texture of bruised flesh. Worried that the linens and the lingerie might photograph too brightly, Almendros had costume designer Gitt Magrini soak all the white cloth in a bath of tea. Despite moments of heart-rending beauty and lyricism, Les Deux Anglaises is never pretty in the conventional period style of Franco Zeffirelli or Merchant-Ivory. Its look is a tribute to its creators’ longing “to make black-and-white films in colour”.
None of this did Truffaut any favours at the Parisian box-office. While his 1961 adaptation of a Roché novel, Jules et Jim, had been a sensation worldwide, Les Deux Anglaises proved a critical and commercial fiasco. Still in a fragile emotional state, Truffaut himself withdrew the film from distribution – cutting it from two hours and 12 minutes to just over an hour-and-a-half. The full-length version would not be seen again until 1984, just a few months before its director’s death. “It is almost impossible to imagine”, writes Jean-Michel Frodon, “what it must have meant to an artist… to repeatedly mutilate one of his ‘children’ to try and make it acceptable to others”.
Not that any of his efforts paid off. Les Deux Anglaises remains a prime target for sceptics, such as Peter Matthews in Sight and Sound, who dismissed Truffaut as “a failed iconoclast… who excoriated the proficient, bloodless cinéma de papa in his youth only to become a paid-up member of it in middle age.” If only this film had been a traditional French costume romance, in the manner of Christian-Jaque’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1947) or Claude Autant-Lara’s Le Rouge et le Noir (1954) – both of which deal with tragic love triangles, albeit in a more decorative and genteel way – it might well have been a roaring success. A failure in the genre to which it technically belongs, Les Deux Anglaises is a film that nobody (least of all its creator) has ever been quite sure what to do with.
It was a film fatally out of step with its time. In the years before and after the student riots of May 1968 (in which Truffaut had played a crucial if low-key role, rallying to the defence of Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque Française and helping to close down the 1968 Cannes Film Festival) the vogue was for films that glorified young love above all else. Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan (1967), Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), and even Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970) exalted their youthful protagonists, inviting audiences to weep at their destruction by a soulless middle-aged society. Not one of these films comes close to suggesting that young lovers, left to their own devices, are wholly capable of destroying themselves. Yet that is precisely what the trio of lovers do in Les Deux Anglaises. Not just once but over and over – in graphic, at times gynaecological detail.
- David Melville, Senses of Cinema
The characters are victims of their own free will, their youth presenting options they haven’t the experience to fully comprehend the repercussions of. This leads to a series of ill-fated and irrational decisions, which in the spur of the moment seem to hold a worthy reward, but in hindsight are dangerous and often hurtful folly. Each tries to reconcile their feelings through instinctively reactive means, guarding against their own insecurities, but at the same time exposing the others to jealousy, rejection or abandonment. Their innocence is both their saving grace and their downfall, as seemingly simple courses of action build an emotional web that grows increasingly complex. Underlying the fabric of their relationships is a vapid commitment to each other, as the guarded nature of their entanglement seals its fatality. The observation is neutral, allowing the audience to seek its own judgments on their characters.
- Jeff Ulmer, Digitally Obsessed
“The picture is perhaps Truffaut’s most visually beautiful work. The soft palette (Nestor Almendros shot the film) evokes the impressionist paintings, and looks – perhaps deliberately – a bit like the old two-tone Technicolor.” – Chris Dashiell, Cinescene
About the score by Georges Delerue
For Les Deux Anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls) the composer brought to perfection the unique orchestral formula he’d merely outlined In Henri Colpi’s Mona, l’étoile sans nom : at a moderato tempo, the sound of a levitating sitar brings out a totally graceful melody in layers that swell like sails in the wind. This Petite île, a pure concentrate of poetry, is one of the most moving themes born with Truffaut’s pictures. And in another sequence from the same film, the director even disrupts the sound-treatment he’d initially envisaged : at the dockside, Claude (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is waiting for Muriel (Stacey Tendeter) to disembark. “The sun was making waves of light on the hull, recounted cameraman Nestor Almendros. I said to François : It would be beautiful if you could get them to meet in front of those vibrations in the light! He said to me : “When you have a picture with light like that, it’s worth a whole line of dialogue!” So we shot the scene and later, during the editing, he cut the dialogue; he only kept Delerue’s music. It was as if the passion, the inner vibration, had been projected into the scene.”** It was proof, if proof be needed, that Truffaut took great interest in form; that he knew how to conjugate music and photography together, especially when expressing a mood where words could no longer suffice.
- From the official website of Georges Delerue
About the DVD
A comparison between the Fox Lorber Region 1 and the MK2 Region 2 discs
About Henri-Pierre Roché
Born in Paris, France, Henri-Pierre Roché was a respected journalist as well as an art collector and dealer. At the turn of the 20th century, he became close friends with a number of young artists from the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris including: Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, Marie Vassilieff, Max Jacob, and Pablo Picasso.
Henri-Pierre Roché was also a friend of Francis Picabia, Constantin Brancusi, and Marcel Duchamp, with whom he traveled to New York city in 1916 following his discharge from the French army. There, he and Duchamp teamed up with Beatrice Wood to create “Blind Man,” a magazine that was one of the earliest manifestations of the Dada art movement in the United States.
Noted for his womanizing, Roché married twice. In his later years, he wrote two successful novels. Biographies of Beatrice Wood traditionally link Roché’s first novel (and the consequent film), Jules et Jim, with the love triangle between Duchamp, Wood, and himself , . Other sources link their triangle to Roché’s unfinished novel, Victor, and Jules et Jim with the triangle between Roché, Franz Hessel and Helen Hessel , . Beatrice Wood commented on this topic on p. 136 of her 1985 autobiography, I Shock Myself:
Roché lived in Paris with his wife Denise, and had by now written Jules et Jim…Because the story concerns two young men who are close friends and a woman who loves them both, people have wondered how much was based on Roché, Marcel, and me. I cannot say what memories or episodes inspired Roché, but the characters bear only passing resemblance to those of us in real life!
His second major novel, also based on an episode of his life, was published in 1956 as Les deux anglaises et le continent. Both novels, although written by a man who was quite advanced in age, exude a surprising amount of vitality and freshness not often seen in French romantic stories of the time. French director François Truffaut was so impressed by them that he went on to adapt each to the big screen.
About Francois Truffaut
Senses of Cinema biography by Juan Carlos Gonzalez A.
“François Truffaut was one of five young French film critics, writing for André Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinema in the early 1950s, who became the leading French filmmakers of their generation…Unlike his friend and contemporary, Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut remained consistently committed to his highly formal themes of art and life, film and fiction, youth and education, art and education, rather than venturing into radical political critiques of film forms and film imagery.” – Gerald Mast (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
“A passionately romantic humanist like Renoir, Truffaut was also a devout admirer of the skills of Hitchcock, which he attempted to emulate in several of his own thrillers. He published a book of a series of interviews he conducted with Hitchcock, whom he repeatedly identified as his idol, but temperamentally and emotionally his affinity with Renoir seemed to be the stronger side of his split artistic personality” – (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
“In his lesser films, he tended to rely too flagrantly on sentimental charm, melodramatic contrivance and romantic whimsy, and an insistent fascination with the mystery of women…His finest work, however, is precariously but deftly balanced between sympathetic involvement with his characters’ doubts, frustration and confusion, and gently ironic detachment; accordingly, he favoured the medium close-up and medium-shot, linear but subtly elliptical narratives and, occasionally, voiceover narration, literary in tone.” – Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“A seminal director in the French New Wave, Truffaut is a master at illustrating the small joys and sorrows of human existence, with a particular talent for understanding children.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure.” – François Truffaut
When Francois Truffaut was working on his now-classic book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, he developed an inferiority complex. By then, in 1963, he had made “The 400 Blows,” “Shoot the Piano Player” and “Jules and Jim.” Still, as he wrote in a letter to his friend and translator, Helen Scott, he had just one consolation in the shadow of Hitchcock’s brilliance: “I at least am able to make the public feel sympathy for a young kid who steals everything he can get his hands on, for a selfish little coward of a piano player, for a turn-of-the-century bitch who sleeps around.”
That wily Truffaut. Who else could have tossed off such a wry, astute comment, part sincere hero-worship and part deft self-promotion? Who else would have described his most emotionally engaging characters in such cool, comic terms? Jean-Pierre Leaud as the mischievous Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows” and Jeanne Moreau as the irresistible, destructive Catherine in “Jules and Jim” are among the truly adored screen creations of our time, though they are, as Truffaut says, a thief and a slut.
In that casually self-aware remark, he defined his own brilliance. Truffaut could turn reprehensible creatures — madwomen, lotharios, murderers, crooks and a feral child — into people we love.
- Caryn James, writing on the 1992 Truffaut retrospective for the New York Times
It seems that this most emblematic and accessible of the New Wavers is weathering an obligatory backlash. Indeed, compared to the singular voices of Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer, Truffaut seems troubled, mired by success, overburdened by genre. He’s been criticized for romanticism, for wanting to please his audience, for being too enraptured with children, for obeying a cinephilia he couldn’t quite control. He is the New Wave’s Steinbeck, beloved by the middle class, formally outbid by his own Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and eventually dismissed by a cognoscenti more enraptured by the restless reinvention of the art than by its heartfelt expression of humanity.
It’s easier to discern greatness in an artist whose ambitions follow a single, sometimes unforking track—the careers of Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer have been relentlessly of a piece, and films of theirs made 30 years apart are plainly analogous. Truffaut wasn’t so lucky. If his career seems handicapped today, it’s by his divided allegiance to both Renoir and Hitchcock, naturally sharing the warmth and responsiveness of the former and straining, sometimes absurdly, to emulate the icy narrative engineering of the latter. Still, his Hitchcockian action editing turned The Soft Skin‘s melodrama into a leveling study of domestic cataclysm, while The Bride Wore Black‘s cold-blooded psychomania is made bizarrely melancholy by Truffaut’s helpless empathy for Jeanne Moreau’s wounded beauty.
If Truffaut is to be properly reevaluated, however, it should be upon the crucible of Two English Girls, a sober, exhaustive, heartbreaking inquisition into romance and folly whose cool narrative formalities barely disguise an epic ardor for the tragedies of ephemeral love and youth. Isn’t it time for the people’s New Waver to enter the pantheon?
- Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice, April 20, 1999
Unlike his friend and contemporary Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut remained consistently committed to his highly formal themes of art and life, film and fiction, youth and education, and art and education, rather than venturing into radical political critiques of film forms and film imagery. Truffaut seemed to state his position in Le Dernier Métro, his most political film, which examines a theater troupe in Nazified Paris. The film director appeared to confess that, like those actors in that period, he could only continue to make art the way he knew how, that his commitment to formal artistic excellence would eventually serve the political purposes that powerful art always serves, and that for him to betray his own artistic powers for political, programmatic purposes would perhaps lead to his making bad art and bad political statements. In this rededication to artistic form, Truffaut was probably restating his affinity with the Jean Renoir he wrote about for Cahiers du Cinéma. Renoir, like Truffaut, progressed from making more rebellious black-and-white films in his youth to more accepting color films in his maturity; Renoir, like Truffaut, played major roles in several of his own films; Renoir, like Truffaut, believed that conflicting human choices could not be condemned according to facile moral or political formulae; and Renoir, like Truffaut, saw the creation of art (and film art) as a genuinely humane and meaningful response to the potentially chaotic disorder of formless reality.
- Gerald Mast, Film Reference.com
When one takes into account Truffaut’s intelligence and sensitivity, his encyclopedic film knowledge (he claimed to have seen 4,000 films between 1940 and 1955, many of them repeatedly) as well as his grounding in literature, and his obvious skills as a director, his work does present itself to a considerable degree as a disappointment. At their best Truffaut’s films possess many positive qualities—lightness and informality, tenderness, sensuality, the personal touch. Positive, but perhaps not enough to sustain an artist in complex and difficult times. Particularly when they seem at least as much the result of a conscious plan to exclude certain human problems—specifically the problems of social organization—from consideration as they do the outpouring of a spontaneously lyrical personality. One almost always has the feeling that Truffaut has limited himself to the insubstantial as part of a larger artistic and intellectual scheme.
The recent biography of Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana ( Truffaut, 1999) provides some flavor of the confused situation that prevailed in the early and middle 1950s. It is worth citing a couple of paragraphs:
“In Cahiers, he fought against supporters of ‘films with a message,’ praising form and mise-en-scène [direction] over the screenplay. But this cause was considered reactionary; lack of political commitment was associated with individualism, egoism, formal innovation, dandyism—so many attitudes denounced as impeding the values of cultural, political, and moral reconstruction inspired by the Liberation.”
What a mess! It becomes less difficult to see how Truffaut lost his way on some of these issues, or never found it in the first place, and, specifically, why he so persistently associated the analysis of social reality in art with heavy-handedness and worse. As the material circumstances of his life improved, of course, this hostility to making sense of social life became increasingly anchored in self-interest.
Truffaut’s artistic life represents something of a cautionary tale. Whatever the external circumstances, the artist who chooses with a certain degree of calculation to explore only those aspects of life that seem most appealing to him, most likely to yield their secrets, has not studied “the human problem in depth in all its forms” (Breton). Truffaut’s films deserve to be seen and their real merits appreciated, but most viewers, if they are honest with themselves, will find on their lips at some point that terrible word: “Disappointing!”
- David Walsh, The World Socialist Website, 1999
Richard Neupert reviews Francois Truffaut and Friends by Robert Stam (2006, Rutgers University Press) in Cineaste
For Truffaut, love disregarded intentions or effort. To the light-floaters — the late arrivers, even the long dead — there is a comfort in failure and in all things thinking, asking and unsure. When death is no more inevitable than sadness or sex or love, it’s made into an action only. We become fearless.
Truffaut’s movies convince us of that. He liked to say that he was a 19th-century novelist making films in the 20th century. On grey days, the old writers went to sea. The movies wash and stir, and push refracted light into the corners of a dark room. Like Antoine Doinel, we are unafraid, and still so unlucky in love.
- Nathan Kosub, “What Truffaut Meant by Love,” Stop Smiling