Two English Girls (1971) is the 11th of François Truffaut’s 21 features and the director seemed preternaturally aware that he was at the midpoint of his career. "I prefer to regard (this film) as my first," he said, "the first of the next 10 movies I plan to film in the years ahead." And 10 more movies is what he made, before dying of a brain tumor in 1984 at the age of 52.
That, of course, was a coincidence. What Truffaut was referring to when saying that he wanted to see this as a "first" film was his awareness that the glory days of the French New Wave were over – most of the battles having been won – and that after a decade of early success and faltering follow-ups he was ready to combine his ideas of personal film making with a story told in a near-classical mode.
The result is an epic variation on the director’s consistent theme that love can be necessary, desirable, punishing and destructive all at the same time. Girls is a deceptively calm film with a tense undercurrent that ultimately punctures its placid surface, erupting in the emotional violence of love thwarted, released and misdirected.
For his source, Truffaut returned to Henri-Pierre Roche, who had written the novel Jules and Jim. Again there’s a ménage à trois, this time consisting of the titular girls, Anne (Kika Markham) and Muriel (Stacey Tendeter), and a young Frenchman, Claude (Jean-Pierre Léaud).The setting is turn-of-the-century and the girls are English provincial, naive but intelligent and curious about their visitor from the continent, who is amoral but civilized and charming. At any given point in the story one of the three is passionately in love with one of the other two, but only rarely are their feelings in sync.
The movie was not successful when it first came out and shortly after its release Truffaut cut its 132-minute running time by 14 minutes. This was the version that was released in America, to generally middling reviews. The film’s footage was restored in 1984 and since then it’s slowly found an audience.
There’s no getting around the fact that Girls is "difficult" – not because it’s obscure but because its slow accretion of painful situations becomes nearly unbearable (assuming, that is, that you connect – its detractors invariably describe it as cold, remote, even clinical). Though the story isn’t unusual, one can’t imagine anyone else making this movie. Truffaut can come across as both analytical and swept away in equal measure, and here the desolate poetry of his mise-en-scène is both unique and fully realized.
With his remaining 10 films, Truffaut fluctuated between attempting to reach an audience and his original desire to make personal films. The two goals came together most notably with The Last Metro (1980), which stars Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. Ostensibly the story of a theatrical troupe during the Nazi occupation of France, it’s yet another tale of people loving both not too wisely and too well.
Truffaut followed this commercial hit with The Woman Next Door (1981), starring Depardieu and the director’s discovery, the remarkable Fanny Ardant. It’s another tale of mad love, this time with the insidious emotion exploding in the perfectly delineated context of bourgeois blandness, symbolized by a sleepy suburb which seems to consist mainly of a row of identical abodes and a tennis court. It’s a classic Truffaut scenario – temptation is the engine, death the destination.
The picture of Truffaut that emerges from a survey of his oeuvre is a complicated one and the documentary François Truffaut: Stolen Portraits (1994) is admirable in the way it doesn’t fudge that essential point. At times Truffaut comes across as a calculating bastard, at others as kind and loving. He was an artist in love with a popular medium and, unlike Godard who wanted to re-create it, audiences be damned, he wanted to find his niche and reach as many people as he could.
The talking heads in the film include the directors Olivier Assayas, riffing like a French Quentin Tarantino, and the elusive Eric Rohmer, who seems to be in a continual state of distracted bemusement. One wishes it was longer and more detailed, but it’s still a must-see for anyone who’s read this far.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].