TWO ENGLISH GIRLS (François Truffaut, 1971)

Les deux anglaises et le continent, based on Henri-Pierre Roché’s autobiographical 1956 novel, is one of François Truffaut’s most melancholy and deeply affecting films. Bending to a producer’s demand, Truffaut mutilated this impressionistic turn-of-the-century masterpiece by diminishing the roles of the “deux anglaises”—a decision he regretted and reversed, restoring the film to fullness shortly before his death.
     A wonderfully muted Jean-Pierre Léaud plays Parisian Claude Roc, who is pressured into believing he is in love with Muriel, a puritanical, half-blind girl who lives in Wales, has a love affair with Ann, Muriel’s bohemian sister (who dies of tuberculosis, uttering the haunting line, “My mouth is full of earth”), and who finally, after seven years, has sex with Muriel, by this time a 30-year-old virgin—the one time that Muriel will allow. Renewing his conviction that he is in love with her, Muriel Brown abandons Claude, confusing his sense of identity and consigning him to lingering regret. In a 15-year-later coda, the film expands this individual loss to include a nation’s devastation and bereavement over losses suffered in the Great War.
     Let me cite two things that make this one of Truffaut’s most brilliant achievements. One is the delicacy and poise of its human gestures, which suggest the pressure of time’s passage on these remembered events of the distant past. (Consider, for example, the “nun’s kiss” between Ann and Claude through the bars of the back of a chair.) Another is the heartrending discrepancy and tension between Truffaut’s firm, confidant voiceover, which glosses the action, and the sad and tragic things that this action comprises. The result is an overwhelming sense of our collective attempt to control the uncontrollable vicissitudes of our lives.
     Remarkable elements: Nestor Almendros’s exquisite color cinematography; Georges Delerue’s haunting score.

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