Sister Lovers: Truffaut's Two English Girls on TCM Tonight

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(As part of its monthlong salute to Francois Truffaut, Turner Classic Movies broadcasts two of the director's finest films, 1961's Jules and Jim (9 p.m.) and 1971's Two English Girls (11 p.m.), both based on novels by Henri-Pierre Roché. This piece on Two English Girls initially appeared in the June 8, 2000 Scene.)

First loves are haunting, as much for the immediacy of the initial rush as for the inevitable mellowing and fading of memory. For me, the sensation of falling in love will always be associated with the movies of François Truffaut. I was 15 and a high-school sophomore when a local college professor let me attend her screening of Truffaut’s 1960 crime-thriller reverie Shoot the Piano Player. It’s an ideal movie to see when you’re just starting to comprehend the vast possibilities of cinema: a fizzing brew of elevated technique and low comedy, lyrical tenderness and sudden violence. I came away with a lifelong love of movies and an awkward crush on the teacher in the bargain.

By that point, it was too late for me to grow up with Truffaut’s movies in sequence, the way young cineastes had done in the 1960s. (The closest equivalent for movie geeks my age was Woody Allen, who caused similar feelings of affection and frustration that went beyond mere appraisal.) But by starting with his first feature, 1959’s The 400 Blows — an autobiographical account of his delinquent childhood, made less than 10 years after the director was out of his own teens — cinephiles could’ve charted their development against that of Truffaut and his frequent leading man Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played the director’s alter ego Antoine Doinel from adolescence (The 400 Blows) to adulthood (1979’s Love on the Run).

Throughout those years, moviegoers could see their own romantic yearnings reflected in Truffaut’s films. Disarming trifles such as the Doinel films Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board made sweet sport of callow passion and indecision, and no movie has ever captured the exhilaration of young love as piercingly as his 1961 classic Jules and Jim. Yet for all their beauty and lyricism, Truffaut’s films are profoundly marked by a sense of the ultimate folly of romantic love. That he addressed this theme in some of the most stunningly romantic movies ever filmed — among them Two English Girls — is a fascinating paradox.

When released in 1971, 10 years after Jules and Jim, Two English Girls was treated as a holding pattern in Truffaut’s career, as if the director were so starved for ideas that he felt a simple gender inversion of Jules and Jim would do the trick. The comparisons are certainly there. Two English Girls is based on the only other novel Henri-Pierre Roché published besides Jules and Jim, and indeed it too concerns a love triangle. And like Jules and Jim, it’s a study of love among impulsive, artistic intellectuals in the years surrounding World War I — a love that ultimately ends in death and solitude.

Where Jules is among the most fleet and freewheeling of films, though, Two English Girls is a work of quiet, somber and devastating power. Like Hitchcock’s Marnie, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, it was unjustly slighted at the time it came out, in part because it didn’t deliver what audiences expected of its maker. Truffaut did himself no favors by shearing it of 14 minutes, which could only have destroyed the movie’s cumulative urgency. But the 130-minute version he restored just before his death in 1984 is a glorious thing: the ultimate expression of his theme that perfect love may be unattainable, but life without the attempt is untenable.

Two English Girls traces the lengthy relationship between a young Frenchman, Claude Roc (Léaud, more hesitant and birdlike than ever), and the Brown sisters, Anne (Kika Markham) and Muriel (Stacey Tendeter). During a visit to Claude’s mother, Anne suggests that he visit their country home in Wales. Claude is taken by Anne, but she sees him more as a mate for Muriel, who spends most of her days protecting her fragile eyesight. Nevertheless, it’s as a flirtatious, endlessly curious threesome that they’re happiest — the sisters grill him about his experiences at a bordello, and he’s charmingly shocked by their request that he take them sometime.

Once the girls’ mother gets wind of their frank talks, though, she banishes Claude to a neighbor’s house. As always in Truffaut, isolation and restriction are a can’t-fail recipe for obsession. Suddenly Claude falls in love with Muriel, who rebuffs him. He courts her ardently by letter. Their mothers, flustered, agree to enforce a year’s separation between the budding lovers; at the end of that time they can marry. In a wrenching passage, Truffaut contrasts the passing of months for Claude and Muriel. Back in Paris, his attentions have drifted elsewhere. She dwells in sleepless agony, driven to inexpressible rage and despair over his letters.

In time, Anne will become a sculptress, and Muriel will become a teacher. Claude will always love the two sisters, who represent intoxicating extremes of romantic possibility — free love and obsessive devotion. ”To choose between two things, you must know both,“ Muriel tells him early on. ”I can’t choose vice or virtue knowing only virtue.“ But Claude will never be able to choose between Anne and Muriel. And none will love the other as much, at any given time, as he or she is loved.

As Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana’s recent biography of Truffaut observes, the director himself was haunted by two sisters: Catherine Deneuve, who had broken off a brief but intense relationship with Truffaut just before the filming of Two English Girls; and Françoise Dorleac, the star of his The Soft Skin [screening 7 p.m. tonight on TCM], whose untimely death in a 1967 car accident saddened him. Whatever the cause, the movie has a sustained, sorrowful gravity that’s rarely present in his early films. In Jules and Jim, Truffaut’s whirling camera transmits the fleeting passions of his characters straight to the viewer, which makes the movie’s closing tragedy a real shock. It’s a young man’s idea of the impending ravages of time: the suddenness of loss without the heaviness of loss.

In Two English Girls, the sense of impending grief, for loves that cannot last, is a lengthening shadow. Thanks to the breathless narration, read by Truffaut at the pace and pitch of an auctioneer, we’re always told what the characters are thinking and feeling. With that knowledge, though, comes the awareness that their idyllic passions will inevitably fade. Throughout much of the film we’re kept at a literal distance from the characters: The lovers are specks against the rolling hills and seascapes.

But Claude, Anne, and especially the religious Muriel are also prisoners of the uncertainties of the time. Two English Girls is set in the period of transition near the end of the Victorian era and the birth of modernism. (As if to signify this clash, Truffaut uses compositions as formal as 19th century landscape paintings alongside spanking-new techniques from the onset of silent cinema, like the irises that zero in to end scenes.) The period isn’t repressive enough to stifle the characters’ curiosity about sex, but it isn’t permissive enough to let them live as a menage à trois, either. Yet even as we witness the contrast between 19th and 20th century values, the movie’s intensity of feeling is inseparable from its period detail. It has a depth of emotion born of a world with fewer distractions, when the smallest of social gestures was endlessly parsed for hidden meaning.

When I was in my late teens, I adored Jules and Jim but couldn’t make it through a chopped-up video of Two English Girls. I love them equally now. The speed and whirling beauty of the former makes the latter even more poignant; the sad, persistent ache of Two English Girls makes Jules and Jim seem even more buoyant. To choose between them would be to choose between your first and greatest loves — between the one that taught you how to feel, and the one that’s all the richer and deeper for the memory of the other. Unlike Claude, we can choose them both.

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