Exploring the hurtfulness of male caprice and the inner lives of complicated women with a novelistic style, François Truffaut’s Two English Girls is intelligent and meticulously constructed, though that can be said of nearly all of Truffaut’s films. Yet Two English Girls lacks the special fire that enlivens Truffaut’s chilly storytelling approach in his best pictures. As he evolved, Truffaut largely eschewed the guerilla-style filmmaking of his debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959), opting for polished classicism that prioritized character and plot over bravura camerawork. Whenever he got his teeth into a great story, this modality was effective, helping viewers get lost in the thickets of provocative narratives. In projects such as Two English Girls, the mannered storytelling has a nullifying effect, as if the movie is a pretty picture contained by a frame instead of something more immersive. One cannot fault Two English Girls for its acting, cinematography, or editing, et cetera, but the total experience is weirdly bloodless.
Based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the picture opens in turn-of-the-century Paris. Handsome young Claude Roc (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his mother receive a visitor from England, Ann Brown (Kate Markham). She’s charming and lovely and worldly, so Claude happily accepts her invitation to visit the Brown family in Wales. Once Claude arrives, Ann tries to forge a romantic match between the Frenchman and Ann’s peculiar sister, Muriel (Stacey Tendeter). Despite her eccentricities, Muriel makes her way into Claude’s heart, but then Claude’s mother—fearing the possibility of an inappropriate mate for her only son—demands the couple spend a year apart. The remainder of the picture explores the impact of the separation, which has a liberating effect on Claude but leads to heartbreak in the lives of the Brown sisters.
Two English Girls tells a small story, and the idiosyncratic nuances that Truffaut inserts into the movie aren’t quite enough to make the picture feel special. Scenes of Muriel talking directly to the camera seem false, and the intrusive narration—spoken by Truffaut—drains the movie of subtlety by providing overly detailed explanations for what people feel and think during important scenes. It’s all very clinical, but not to any notably meritorious end; simply letting the characters and story breathe would have delivered something more intimate and resonant. Still, the technical execution is up to Truffaut’s usual high standards, and the performances are generally good. Léaud, best known for playing Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego in the Antoine Doinel movies, offers an opaque screen presence, so it’s hard to know whether we’re meant to perceive Claude as a cad, a naïf, or something in between. Markham is alluring in a buttoned-up sort of way, and Tendeter is fairly good at conveying quiet desperation. Alas, the moments when her character’s repressed emotions burst forth underwhelm, like so many other elements of this ultimately forgettable film.
Two English Girls: FUNKY