By Jake Triola
If ever there were a filmmaker obsessed with the relationship between film and literature, it’s François Truffaut, who is noted as saying “three films a day, three books a week, and records of great music would be enough to make me happy to the day I die.” A constant reader throughout his life, Truffaut became a devotee of Henri-Pierre Roché, who managed to publish his first novel in 1953 at the age of seventy-four. That book would become Truffaut’s greatest international hit of the same name, Jules et Jim (1962). But the New-Wave legend didn’t stop there, and Two English Girls, based on Roché’s follow-up novel, was released in 1971. The story follows a strewn-out love triangle between Claude (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young art critic, and two sisters, Ann and Muriel (Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter, respectively), the daughters of a friend of Claude’s widowed mother.
The film begins with some opening credits that are noteworthily fantastic and thoroughly postmodern, juxtaposed over the director’s own notes within his copy of the novel itself. A beautiful sequence of shots displaying everything good about the Welsh countryside follows. The Truffaut aesthetic may be summarized with “old books and fancy,” which is a fairly British concept, so Two English Girls is truly ripe material for the filmmaker.
But, despite the brilliance coming out of the French film industry at this time, there are several slip-ups that keep this film from soaring. For one, the narration comes off awkwardly, seeming like a cop-out when the auteur can’t get his point across visually. Like other New-Wave filmmakers, Truffaut likes to constantly remind the viewer that he is the one that made what they’re seeing; he is l’artist, but knowing so makes Two English Girls, at times, annoyingly anachronistic. Perhaps Truffaut should have done like his beloved Hawks and tried harder to be invisible.
Despite its flaws, Truffaut is a filmmaker skilled enough to accomplish some highly-cinematic scenes, even when they’re placed between the quotidian of upper-class European society. One such scene features Ann playing the piano as Claude awakes from an early-morning snooze. Despite my own problem of not being able to see Léaud as anything other than Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s fictional alter-ego, he’s still a gentleman, and Markham is quite the convincing period-piece player, a precursor to any role you’d imagine being portrayed by an early-2000s Keira Knightley.
And while the action tends to drag at times, the viewer is usually snapped back into it via talk of things like prostitutes and sincere emotion. I’m still unsure why Claude ever loves Muriel, who never manages to be kind to him. It’s often relationship drama for the sake of relationship drama.
I, admittedly, feel comfortable judging “the Gravedigger of French Cinema” a little more harshly than my optimism and starry-eyed-film-student genes would normally allow. As a great filmmaker, he could have done better than Two English Girls. Of course, I can only say that confidently because he did.