by Robert Garrick on Sep 24, 2021

The 13th Annual Robert Classic French Film Festival celebrates St. Louis’ Gallic heritage and France’s cinematic legacy. Prior to the August 29 festival screening of François Truffaut’s Two English Girls (1971), Lens contributor Robert Garrick provided an introduction to the film. A written version of this introduction is presented below.

Two English Girls: Last Year at the Rodin Museum

By Robert Garrick

1971 / France / 130 min. / Dir. by François Truffaut / Opened in U.S. theaters on Oct. 15, 1972

By 1971, when he made Two English Girls, François Truffaut had become the face of the French New Wave in America. Jean-Luc Godard was, then and now, more beloved by the scholars, but the students and urban intellectuals who went to America’s foreign-film cinemas preferred Truffaut. In the words of Dave Kehr, Truffaut had come to represent a “life-loving, lightly romantic view of the world as a place filled with pretty girls, adorable children and heroes illuminated by a wise, warm understanding of the fleeting nature of love.” Truffaut’s films were often sad; sometimes they were disturbing. But that was part of the appeal. Truffaut’s films felt comfortably substantial, complex, and grown-up. They weren’t too abstract. They were engaging.

Truffaut had created a market for his work, and a new Truffaut film came with certain expectations. Expectations were particularly high for Two English Girls, because it was said to be a reworking of Jules and Jim (1962), one of Truffaut’s most popular films. Both films tracked a love triangle over a period of years; both films were written for the screen by Jean Gruault (and Truffaut); both films had memorable musical scores by Georges Delerue; and both films were based on novels by Henri-Pierre Roché.

Roché had been a noted figure in the French art world. It was Roché who introduced Gertrude Stein to Picasso, leading to Picasso’s 1906 portrait of Stein, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Roché’s two novels — there were just the two — came in his final decade, in the 1950s, and they were based on his youthful romantic adventures. Truffaut discovered Roché’s Jules and Jim by accident in a used-book store. He mentioned it favorably in Cahiers du Cinéma, the influential journal for which he was a major critic in the 1950s. Roché, delighted by the notice, sent Truffaut a copy of his second novel, Two English Girls and the Continent.

Roché would have been thrilled to see Jules and Jim on the screen, and he probably suspected that Truffaut might turn it into a movie. Alas, Roché was an old man, and he died in 1959, three years before the film’s release. (The real-life Catherine from Jules and Jim, played by Jeanne Moreau in the film, was able to attend the film’s premiere in 1962, incognito.)

For Two English Girls, Truffaut drew from both novels, and also from Roché’s personal letters and diaries, which inspired some of the film’s most intimate scenes.

It wasn’t just Roche, though, whose real-life experiences made these films “semi-autobiographical.” All of Truffaut’s films were, to some degree, a kind of self-medication, a working-out by Truffaut of the emotional issues that plagued him for his entire life. When Truffaut made The 400 Blows in 1959, everybody knew that it was based on Truffaut’s difficult youth, and when the male star of that film, Jean-Pierre Léaud, appeared in a number of other Truffaut films in the 1960s, people knew that he was a stand-in for the director.

What people didn't know was that Two English Girls was the most personal film Truffaut would ever make. Truffaut himself considered it his masterpiece. He was devastated when the film got bad reviews and did poorly at the box office. In a desperate attempt to make the film more palatable to the masses, Truffaut cut out a big chunk of it.

It didn't work. The film was a failure on its initial release. (Shortly before he died, in 1984, Truffaut supervised the restoration of the cut footage.)

Two English Girls was what Truffaut would call a “sick film” — a movie that was so personal, so raw in its emotional power, that it would be rejected on first release, only to be more fully appreciated later. A short list of other “sick” works might include Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958); Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939); Joyce’s Ulysses; Nabokov’s Lolita; Picasso’s paintings, particularly of women; and Rodin’s “Monument to Balzac” sculpture, which we see in Two English Girls at two crucial moments.

Two English Girls can be an overwhelming experience, but it didn't come with a warning label. When viewers went to see it, 50 years ago, most knew that it was a love triangle, set in beautiful locations, stunningly photographed by Nestor Almendros. They knew that it starred familiar Truffaut actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. They fully expected the usual sexy, challenging, bittersweet product from Truffaut.

What they got instead was a beating at the cinema. Truffaut said he “wanted to make a physical film” about physical love; he said he “wanted to squeeze love like a lemon.” Two English Girls is lovely to look at, but it’s unpleasant to experience. There are bodily fluids; there are myriad rejections; there are death, failure, and chaos.

Two English Girls is commonly compared to Jules and Jim, but a better point of comparison would be Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a groundbreaking work of abstract art from another New Wave director, Alain Resnais. In Last Year at Marienbad, the leading character repeatedly approaches a woman and assures her that they met, the year before, at Marienbad. She says no. The scene ends, but later he tries again. And so on, for the entire length of the film. It’s a dark film, even a frightening film at times. It becomes clear, fairly early on, that the approaches will always yield the same result. The man will never reach the woman, and we won't find out what (if anything) happened last year at Marienbad.

The 1961 viewers of Last Year at Marienbad knew, going in, that the film would be strange, and challenging. They’d read the reviews. Marienbad caught nobody by surprise. It was, on its face, unconventional and “unrealistic.”

The audience was “ready” for Last Year at Marienbad, but it was not prepared for Two English Girls — and that’s exactly how Truffaut wanted it. In Psycho (1960), Hitchcock knew what the audience’s expectations would be, and he used those expectations subversively to make the film more shocking, and more powerful. Truffaut (a major Hitchcock scholar) did the same thing in Two English Girls. He made a film that looks (superficially) like a conventional romance but that is actually a highly stylized piece of modern art.

Truffaut’s ability to straddle conventional film structure and abstraction is precisely why the film is so upsetting, so emotionally disturbing.

Two English Girls begins with Claude Roc (the character played by Léaud) falling from a swing, and breaking his leg, while showing off in front of some girls. For the duration of the film, Claude and the two English girls (whose names are Muriel and Anne) engage in a series of romantic adventures, all of which end, abruptly and often for no reason at all, in failure. After each dead end, the characters pick themselves up and try again, always with the same result: failure.

The failures seem arbitrary, almost cosmic. The film’s first romantic scenes involve Claude and Anne, both very young, at the Rodin Museum in Paris. They're walking together in the sculpture garden. Will romance flower between Claude and Anne, who seems lovely and nice? No. Anne wants Claude to meet Muriel, her sister.

Claude visits Anne and Muriel at their home in Wales, and after a summer of play he writes a marriage proposal to Muriel. She rejects it in a letter: “I’ll never be your wife.”

Later, Claude and Anne have an idyllic sojourn at a cabin in the woods, where they make love for the first time. Does this lead to romance? Anne says: “I should have other lovers, and you should do the same.”

After Claude’s mother dies, Muriel kisses Claude. For the puritanical Muriel, this is a dramatic gesture. Claude’s response: “I have to leave immediately.”

There’s much more, and it’s always the same story. Something happens that feels like a breakthrough. We’re hopeful. And then, out of nowhere, comes rejection. These rejections are not organic. We do come to expect them, but they don't flow from the narrative.

We stick with the film, expecting the “story” to lead us somewhere. Truffaut grabs us, with his distinctive style, right in the opening credits. We see a book, with pages turning. The music is ominous, intense. Things are happening quickly and we dare not look away. This is Truffaut’s mise-en-scène. He doesn't want the viewer to relax or to think. Truffaut is in charge and the viewers are like passengers on a dark ride at an amusement park. It takes all of the viewers’ resources just to hang on and process everything that is passing before their eyes.

Anne Gillain, in a great book on Truffaut (François Truffaut: The Lost Secret) argues that Truffaut’s films cannot be understood with conventional analysis. She uses a psychoanalytical approach, and she compares his films (and especially Two English Girls) to dreams.

Truffaut himself said that films should be “ivory eggs” — enjoyed but not broken into. In Truffaut’s criticism, he never wrote about what a film “meant.” Instead, he wrote about a film’s impact on “the receiver” (the viewer). The spectator (Truffaut said) must be intrigued, stunned, fascinated ... moved.

Truffaut believed that narrative should paralyze the conscious mind — resulting in the experience of emotion — while feeding the unconscious, resulting in the experience of pleasure. He wanted to block the spectators’ conscious mind to force them into a mode of unconscious perception.

Truffaut was aiming for something close to hypnosis. He said: “I want my audience to be constantly captivated, bewitched. So that it leaves the theater dazed, stunned to be back on the sidewalk. I would like my audience to forget the place and time in which it finds itself…. I want above all emotion.”

So here, in Two English Girls, we have modern art, with elements of surrealism, masquerading as a romantic period piece. Gillain calls the film “oneiric” — relating to dreams. We think we’re watching a story unfold, but we’re not, really. Instead we’re watching symbols and action that always lead to the same place: Love will never work. Men will never get along with women. Every romantic approach will be a dead end.

In a film without a conventional story, Truffaut uses archetypes to push things forward:

  • Fire represents passion and physical love. In one powerful scene, Claude and Anne kiss through the bars of a chair while the fireplace blazes. Muriel watches, and we see the flames reflected on her glasses. (Bars, gates, and other barriers are also used in the film to block human contact.)
  • Muriel’s eyes are, essentially, genitalia. We go to extreme close-up of her eyes when she’s talking about masturbation or sex. When she’s closed off, she’s got the sunglasses on. When she bares her eyes, by removing her glasses or bandages, it means she’s open.
  • What about stairs? They represent transition, and possible danger. (Truffaut knew Lotte Eisner’s writing on the use of stairs in the German Expressionist films of the 1920s.) There are crooked stairs in Anne and Muriel’s house in Wales, with a picture of Charlotte Bronte (who is connected to Muriel) visible on the wall. We see stairs when Claude tells Anne that she must let Muriel know about their affair. When Muriel arrives in Calais by boat, she descends the stairs and sees Claude.
  • Trains, in film and literature, also bring change, and often bring death or bad news. Claude’s first trip to Wales was by train, with Claude’s mother’s face superimposed on the image. That was ominous — though we didn’t fully appreciate how ominous it was at the time. Claude’s mother was looming, watching, unavoidable. Once there’s a prospect of marriage between Claude and Muriel, we see Madame Roc arriving by train even as Claude’s proposal letter to Muriel is still being read. (Madame Roc will never tolerate any woman possessing her son exclusively, thereby replacing her.) And at the very end of the film, Muriel arrives in Calais by boat, and leaves by train. All of the transportation in the film provides movement away from a serious connection with another person.
  • Anne and Muriel play tennis outdoors in the first half of the film, batting the ball back and forth, just as they take turns “playing” with Claude, passing him back and forth, working together to keep anything serious from happening.
  • There is no sky in the film (save a few fleeting shots). The camera is always pointed down, trapping the characters in a prison that they  aren't aware of.
  • The film is driven by words — by offscreen narration and by the reading and writing of letters and diaries. (One of the narrators is Truffaut himself.) At the start of the film, we are told that we’re about to watch past events that will someday be turned into a book. The film is beginning but the story, and the characters in it, are already “finished.” It’s yet another sign that Claude, Anne, and Muriel are trapped. Gillain says: “The characters, caught like insects in the honey of words, show themselves incapable of getting free of them.”

Some of Truffaut’s films are overtly autobiographical, and some of them are not. But they were all inspired by his troubled life, none more so than Two English Girls. When Truffaut made it, in 1971, he was an emotionally broken man. The film was a catharsis, an attempt by Truffaut to make sense of his past.

Truffaut’s youth was traumatic — spectacularly so — but he nevertheless found success and a measure of happiness in the 1950s and early 1960s as a husband and father, and as a critic and film director. Truffaut’s happiness would prove to be fleeting:

  • While still married and during the production of The Soft Skin (1964), Truffaut had an affair with his beautiful star, Françoise Dorléac.
  • Then in 1965, Truffaut divorced his wife, leaving a broken home for his two young daughters.
  • In 1967, Dorléac was killed in a car crash. Truffaut was devastated.
  • In 1968, Truffaut’s mother died. She was in her 50s. For Gillain, mothers were the “lost secret” in Truffaut’s work. Truffaut regarded his own mother as beautiful, unapproachable, mysterious, and more than a little frightening. He never spoke with her about some of the most important issues in his life such as, for example, who his father was. (There are no fathers in Two English Girls.)
  • Then, in 1969, while making Mississippi Mermaid, Truffaut began an affair with Catherine Deneuve, one of the film’s stars. Deneuve was the sister of Dorléac, and every bit as beautiful. They had a two-year affair, which ended when Deneuve walked away in 1970. Truffaut became so depressed that he checked into a sanitarium and underwent a sleeping cure for severe depression. Truffaut was still at the clinic, and heavily medicated, when he re-read Two English Girls and started to plan the film.

Truffaut’s new film would parallel his recent life. An intimidating mother would die, and two sisters would be romanced without success. One of the sisters would die, while the other would leave and promptly have a baby with someone else. (Deneuve, after rejecting Truffaut, had a baby with her new boyfriend, Marcello Mastroianni, while Muriel, in the film, would marry and have children after rejecting Claude for the last time.)

Was Truffaut self-medicating? He said: “When one is writing, when one is filming, it is satisfying to make others suffer in your place.”

Truffaut’s film of Two English Girls is much darker than the novel on which it is based. There's far less death in the novel. There's no talk of suicide. There are no “masturbation diaries.” In the novel, there are marriages; there are children; there is happiness.

The darkness in the film comes from Truffaut. When the film ends, after Muriel’s final rejection, Claude walks out of the scene and we’re left with a long corridor, with stairs at the end. It’s the last shot of the film. It’s not as elegant as one of the hallways in Last Year at Marienbad, but it leads to the same place.

Final shot of Two English Girls

There is an epilogue. Claude is 15 years older. Anne and both of the mothers are dead. Muriel has married and has children; Claude has not seen them. He’s walking in the sculpture garden of the Rodin Museum, a bookend to the film’s first scene, when Claude and Anne were having what seemed at the time to be a promising “first date.”

But now it’s all failure. The camera moves in a circular fashion around Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss.” Andrew Sarris, when writing about that scene, said that he had never before been so moved by Truffaut. Claude knows that his chance is over. He will never marry; he will never know love; he will never have children. Remember, near the end of the film, Muriel said to Claude: “You never were, and never will be, a husband."

Claude sees his reflection in a taxi window, and he thinks he looks old. He sees children at the sculpture garden and wonders if one of them might be Muriel’s daughter. There’s no way to know. Finally he walks, with the group of laughing children, through two large black doors. The children are young and happy and distracted, but for Claude, it’s a walk into oblivion.

Claude is a failure, but there’s no moralizing about Claude in this film, nor does Truffaut judge his other characters. There’s no “message.” Remember, Truffaut didn't want his films to be analyzed. He wanted his viewers to watch, experience emotion, and enjoy. This was simply the way the world was, or at least the way it appeared to François Truffaut, in 1971.