Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 44 (C)
I’m going to confess something: costume period dramas are just about my least favorite type of movies. Generally speaking, I’m more likely to be tempted by “fat guy fall down make funny”. “Frilly costume shit” and, when appropriate, “Stuffy British shit”, tends to be my dismissal of said genre. That said, there are noted exceptions, from Joe Wright’s fine adaptation of Atonement to Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous, deeply emotional version of The Age of Innocence, both of which take the genre and combine it with one of my favorite types of films- stories of love unfulfilled. Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Henri Serre’s Two English Girls and the Continent is both a period film and a tale of love unfulfilled, so it’s one I approached filled with hope. But the film feels trapped in amber, formally gorgeous but emotionally void, and one of Truffaut’s weakest films.
Claude (Jean-Pierre Leaud) befriends Anne (Kika Markham), a visitor from England who invites him to stay at her family’s mansion. Anne intends to introduce Claude to her sister Muriel (Stacey Tendeter). The three become fast friends as Claude falls in love with Muriel, but the two families think that a relationship between differing cultures is improper and demand the two spend a year apart before deciding to marry. Claude has many affairs during this separation before he decides to break off his relationship with Muriel, who falls into a deep depression. Years later, Claude and Anne meet in France, where the two begin an affair of their own.
There is much to admire about Two English Girls. Truffaut takes his inspiration primarily from Serre’s novel and from impressionist paintings, giving the film both an elegant literary feel and a picturesque beauty. Truffaut had also adapted Serre’s Jules and Jim into one of his very best films, and Two English Girls plays as a more removed, adult version of the earlier film, more contemplative than passionate. Its not a bad idea for a film, and it shows the director experimenting with new tones and rhythms halfway through his career. Truffaut gets a lot of mileage off of the early meetings between the three, and some of his touches when dealing with the mercurial Muriel (I swear I didn’t intend for that to rhyme) are downright brilliant, as she first denies her love for Claude before becoming overwhelmed by her feelings for him. He does an even better job when portraying the constrictive society that is more concerned with appearances and reputation than love.
But not much of it registers on an emotional level. Leaud, Markham, and Tendeter are all well-cast, but Truffaut’s narration does most of the storytelling to a point where it’s hard to get the sense of a performance. It’s almost as if Truffaut decided to transcribe the novel and open it up only with his pictures. As a result, the relationships feel quaint and undeveloped- it’s difficult to understand why anyone cares about anything that happens, let alone how these relationships consume everyone. Worse, Truffaut’s picturesque style feels too deliberate, aestheticized within an inch of its life to the point where the material can barely breathe. Two English Girls is never terrible, but it rarely registers as the sweeping love story it wants to be. It’s mostly a tedious disappointment.