Friday, 5 August 2016

Two English Girls

"Two English Girls" (or "Anne and Muriel") is the fifth Truffaut effort I have seen now, and as I watch more I begin to see the threads and themes that run through his work. As a director he seems predominantly concerned with people whose natures are their ultimate undoing. In Shoot the Pianist I observed that it was an inability to act which led to the protagonists' downfall; in Jules and Jim, famously, it is the central characters love of each other which ends up undoing their relationships; in The Soft Skin, Pierre's enigmatic approach to his own emotions results in tragedy; The Man Who Loved Women loved them too much to maintain his own lifestyle.

And now we have this film, set at the turn of the 20th century, starring Jean Pierre Leaud as Claude, a young man whose slavery to his whims is his undoing romantically. As the film begins he is young, fresh-faced, and hopeful, and he enters into his quasi-tryst with the two sisters of the title cheerfully and without reserve. They are young, English, and Claude is staying in their cottage, at the behest of his mother, to teach them French, and vice versa. Anne (Kika Markham) is the older sister, bold, with dark hair, who worries about her sister, Muriel (Stacy Tendeter); she spends a lot of time in bed, and has problems with her eyes, leaving her preferring the indoors. The two girls are overseen by their mother, Mrs Brown (Sylvia Marriott), a wayward but fair woman who trusts Claude. And Claude's mother (Marie Mansart), arguably the only woman he truly loves, is similarly wayward but also much more permissive of Claude's eventual womanising lifestyle.

These are the five characters in just about all the scenes of the film, and the film explores their different relationships over the many years they know each other. Adapted from the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, (who wrote "Jules") the screenplay deftly covers a great expanse of time, never feeling busy, but always riding a gentle current of shifting relationships, allegiances, loves. But this is more than a gender-inverted Jules Et Jim; where that film was busier, brisker, playing the wife-swapping like moves in a chess match, this is paced much more glacially, and it benefits from it. The moments in the film where Claude realises he loves someone different, or has fallen out of love with someone, carry genuine weight and heft.

And whilst it does have the typical sprightly Truffaut nature, this is an elegantly and classically composed affair, with the feel of a genuine period piece. The locations are superb; the girls' cottage by the sea is picturesque, a homely den decorated in blue, beset on all sides by comforting greenery and woodland, and vast rolling hills; Claude's flat, filled with art and books, feels like an extension of his character; the various gardens which are dined in feel real. The use of colour is masterfully sustained, and the film has a persistent painterly feel at the same time as indicating the inner states of the characters.

It also contains two scenes of lovemaking which work as a contrast and prop up the film; one frankly erotic, and the other harsh and detached. They define the different relationships that Claude has with the two sisters at various points. When he sleeps with Anne, it is probing and exploratory, he seduces her over a number of days in a cabin, and when the time eventually comes, they fall into each other. When he sleeps with Muriel, it is instead a much more rugged affair, like he is planting a flag inside of her. Her screams could be of pleasure, or pain; it is never spelled out. In both instances Claude makes a reference to "making a woman" of these two. But what of the effect on him?

And this question is the central irony of the film, which reveals itself in the very last shot, as Claude, fifteen years later, old and weathered, looks into a mirror and seems to see himself for the first time. It's ironic because he entered this affair with the least to lose, and seemed in control at all points; Muriel was timid, but comes into her own later on. This twist, and juxtaposition, provides the point of the film. We realise that this aloofness on Claude's part hides an inability to move on. We see, finally, that it is his inherent nature that has betrayed him.

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