Saturday, June 22, 2019

Les Deux Anglaises et Le Continent ( 1971 )

While recovering at home from a leg injury, Claude ( Jean-Pierre Léaud ) meets Anne Brown ( Kika Markham ), the daughter of his mother's old friend, who has come to France to study art. She invites Claude to spend the summer with her sister Muriel ( Stacey Tendeter ) and her mother at their seaside cottage in Wales, an invitation that he accepts. Once there, Anne conspires to play matchmaker between Claude and Muriel and, over the course of the summer, succeeds. Claude wishes to marry Muriel but she feels that this is only a passing infatuation and declines his offer but later changes her mind. Their parents come to the decision that it is best if they were to separate for a year and then, if they still feel the desire to marry, they may do so. But once back in Paris, Claude has affairs with other women and does indeed realize that his love for Muriel was temporary. Anne, who is once again in Paris studying art, begins to see Claude more often and the two embark on an affair themselves. 

Les Deux Anglaises et Le Continent aka Two English Girls was based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Henri-Pierre Roché who also wrote "Jules et Jim". That novel told the story of a young woman who was in love with two men. "Les Deux Anglaises" inverts this premise. The book and the film center on Claude's indecision between his feelings for both sisters whom he met while yet a teenager. It is set during the early 1900s and spans nearly twenty years of Claude's life. It is a sad story but one which the audience can easily relate to. Claude obviously enjoyed his summer with both sisters and, as he got older, found it difficult to love one without the possibility of exploring his feelings for the other sister as well. Once having done so, he was all the more confused about whom he really loved the most. 

It is harder for the audience to sympathize with Muriel. She feels as though she is unworthy of Claude even though she knows him to be untrue to her, and so she continues to spurn him...which only serves to drive him away. 
The film is filled with many beautiful images symbolic of what the characters are feeling, but it is also very crude, very frank, and quite erotic. Director Francois Truffaut ( who also directed Jules et Jim ) acknowledged that "the film was so romantic, possibly even melodramatic, that it had to be balanced by some very physical scenes." This did not go over well with audiences. In France, the reception to the film was so bad that Truffaut pulled it from the theatres and re-edited it. Years later, he succeeded in adding back twenty minutes that he had originally cut. 

"Rather than a film about physical love, I have tried to make a physical film about love." - Truffaut

The harsh reception that the picture received disappointed Truffaut who considered it to be his best film up to that time. It has only been in recent decades that Les Deux Anglaises et Le Continent has been acknowledged to be the fine film that it is. 

Les Deux Anglaises is not a happy picture and it is devoid of humor, but it is beautiful, both in its cinematography ( by Nestor Almendros ) and in its soulful expression of despair. The film plays out like a novel. It is filled with numerous vignettes that resemble short rich chapters that you want to re-read again and again. Almendros avoids close-ups and, instead, stunning long shots of the Welsh landscape are mixed with medium shots and various techniques from Truffaut's bag of tricks which include superimpositions, lightning-fast cuts, fade-ins and the iris effect ( reminiscent of The Music Man ). 
"Between them was a dead girl whom they would not name. Only a child would restore the trio that they once were."

Kika Markham is excellent as level-headed Anne, as is Stacey Tendeter as Muriel, who appears to be more sensible than she acts. However, Jean-Pierre Léaud makes a rather childlike main character. His thin frame emphasizes his boyish features. Perhaps this was what Truffaut intended, but a stronger leading man would have made the film even more compelling. Claude, who puts on the airs of being a mature adult, seems to be only a boy who cannot make up his mind to what - or whom - he desires. 

Throughout the film, there is the voice of the narrator who acts as an omniscient presence to relate to us the feelings of the characters, primarily Claude. Without the authoritative voice of this narration ( the voice of Truffaut himself ), the film may have suffered from relying upon only Léaud's presence. 
While the characters in the novel were based on Henri-Pierre Roché's own feelings, Truffaut felt that the novel also reflected the situation that the Bronte sisters were in, with both of them longing for the love of their half-brother Branwell. Throughout the film, Claude and Muriel relate to going back to their "brother-sister" relationship, realizing they could never be lovers when they feel such a close sibling-like bond to each other. 

Truffaut also suffused the film with a sadness which he was experiencing at the time. Shortly before filming began, Truffaut had been treated for severe depression. Like Claude, he too was in love with two sisters - the actresses Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac - one of whom had died only three years before he began work on the film. 

Two English Girls is currently available on DVD in an excellent Criterion Collection release and through the Criterion Channel. 


  1. Any Truffaut film is worth viewing! As I read your opening sentence, I immediately thought of a reversal of JULES AND JIM...and you mentioned just that in your second paragraph. Truffaut once said that he wasn't interested in heroes, meaning that he found flawed people much more interesting. It sounds like this film is a nice example.

    1. I think you might like this one, Rick. It's true there are no heroes in the film and all of the characters are rather hopeless, but it has a nice "feel" to the film, melancholic as it is. I think it's the location scenery that makes it re-viewable.