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It may be that what we talk about when we talk about Francois Truffaut is first his inescapable and seminal fictionalized-memoir classic The 400 Blows (1959), and then perhaps you'd consider the subsequent films in the Antoine Doinel series, or his tongue-in-cheek Franco-noir Shoot the Piano Player (1960), or the hugely popular romantic tragedy Jules and Jim (1962), or the Oscar-nominated The Story of Adele H. (1975). (Or you simply remember his sweet performance in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977.) But in the tumult of his abbreviated just-over-two-decades career, and the liberating fire of the New Wave era, and the subsequent reevaluations of both, Truffaut's most singular masterpiece has been overlooked. Two English Girls (1971) is often the Truffaut title fans forget about entirely, and its initial release was met with shrugging comparisons to Jules and Jim. But whereas that earlier, snazzier film basks in sensual nostalgia and objectifies Jeanne Moreau's bipolar vixen just as the eponymous men do, Two English Girls is a faultless, analytical examination of romantic destruction that often plays like the best Edith Wharton adaptation she never wrote. Unsentimental yet heartbreaking, Truffaut's film could trade body blows with any art film of the '60s and '70s, and stands as one of the most underappreciated movies ever made.
Truffaut was the most beloved and accessible of French New Wave demigods, and so therefore has suffered a predictable critical backlash in the last few decades - 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. Indeed, compared to the singular voices of Godard, Rivette and Rohmer, Truffaut tried a little bit of everything, experimenting with strategies, and mix-matching the influences of his two North Stars, Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock, naturally sharing the warmth and responsiveness of the former and straining, sometimes absurdly, to emulate the icy narrative engineering of the latter. But what's been ignored is how this tension became exactly what makes Truffaut's best films throb and ache, especially in Two English Girls, whose cool narrative formalities barely disguise an epic ardor for the tragedies of ephemeral love and youth.
Adapted, like Jules and Jim, from a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roche - they were his only two books, and they echo each other like a diptych - the movie inverts the earlier story's set-up - here, it's 1902, and young intellectual Frenchman Claude Roc (Jean-Pierre Leaud) meets young Englishwoman Anne (Kika Markham), and is soon invited to vacation at her family manse on the Welsh coast (actually shot in Normandy) with her mother and her sister Muriel (Stacy Tendeter). There the three teens quickly bond, with both sisters nudging the eligible bachelor towards the other, and all three trying to be as modern, and as Romantic, as possible. It's this quest for modernity that turns out to be the taint in the soup - as the three overanalyze each other and their own feelings, waiting for thunderbolts and sweeping passions that don't arrive (but then do, but not soon or intensely enough), indecision becomes reflexive, and the story becomes a kind of anti-romance, in which nothing but folly and disappointment is destined, and love is so mythologized that it proves disastrously elusive. Claude's initial proposal of marriage to Muriel is simply the first major contractual debate, negotiated by the whole family (including Claude's severely judgmental mother) like a real estate deal that eventually falls through.
Years pass, and Claude matures and bounces from one unjealous sister to the other, with the story being told rather masterfully via their letters and stories they tell each other and copious narration, all of it fusing into a kind of sympathetic but faux-clinical vision of life and love hobbled by "modernist" ideals (among them, "free love"). Every character, and the film itself, is driven to make sense of what's going wrong in the trio's lives by way of story: tales told and retold, scenes explained as we're watching them, letters reread aloud, speeches rehearsed alone, the visuals often recalling the storytelling tools of the silent film era - irises, super-impositions, pregnant dissolves, etc. Is life a story? The proliferation of narratives and narrative perspectives is an integral part of the romantic fallout - as in Wharton, these are people who cannot stop trying to rationalize their own emotional climates and explain themselves as an author might explain his or her characters - which is of course who and what they are.
It's a seemingly stoic film, but the accumulation of woe and regret is devastating, and while the action seems sober and suppressed, the Georges Delerue score sobs. Truffaut exercised a restraint and delicacy here that's missing in most of his other work - it's as close as he ever got to the potent rigor of Bresson or the just-the-facts poetic plainness of Rossellini. (And for Truffaut, an ex-film critic, neither proximity was accidental.) The cast is uniformly excellent, given the contents-under-pressure style of the film; we should not underestimate the contribution of Leaud, whose tense canine watchfulness carries the dramatic current of the film as clearly as the dialogue. It's also an entrancingly evocative period film, intersecting with the Impressionist era (Claude grows into an art dealer) but, despite lovely imagery by way of master cinematographer Nestor Almendros, avoiding being Impressionist per se. Instead, it captures that art movement's poignant and conflicted ardor for transient beauty, and its implicit mourning over the unstoppable passing of time.
By Michael Atkinson