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Movie Reviews

Two English Girls  

We have been taken through this territory before by Francois Truffaut. The love triangle was the key plot in his famous Jules and Jim (1961), in which the two title characters are in love with the same woman, and what we have here in Two English Girls (1972) is the reverse, a man and two women. Not only two women, but sisters. Yet these are not sleazy stories, but serious examinations of an unusual kind of love. And while I wasn`t always very crazy about Jules and Jim, I liked Two English Girls a lot better, and was more convinced by what Truffaut tried to do here.

Buy a Two English Girls!
Buy a Two English Girls !

Claude, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows, Last Tango in Paris), is introduced to Anne, the daughter of his mother`s British friend. The two become fairly close, as they go on outings, and talk about art and books. And Claude, being a young guy, starts thinking about her in more than platonic ways. But before anything serious can develop, he is invited to go to Anne`s country. He stays at the family house, which also includes her mother, and her sister, Muriel. Claude soon becomes fascinated with both of the sisters, and this is where the emotional adventure truly begins. He slowly, possibly unknowingly, shifts his feelings to that of Muriel, helped along by Anne`s subtle actions, usually of leaving him and Muriel alone to get to know each other better. Eventually, this leads to Claude proposing marriage to Muriel, and Muriel facing much torment and confusion. This situation forces the mothers of both parties to agree on the two young people to separate for a year, allegedly so they can more soberly reflect on their true feelings for each other. But I think the truth is that neither mother thinks that the two lovers are suited for each other, and that time spent apart will extinguish those passionate feelings.

Years pass, but instead of three people moving on to their own lives, there is torment and intrigue. Muriel still holds a torch for Claude, and waits for Claude to make up his mind about marriage. Claude, however, seems to have gotten on with life, and does the French thing, which is to take up a lot of lovers. But then Anne enters the picture, and this is where things become more complicated. Anne and Claude have an affair in France, but of an contrasting nature to that which Claude experienced with Muriel.

One element of the film I was rather amused by was the battles over sexual morality between the French and the English. After talking to my French friend a number of times, I no longer feel too much like a narrow-minded fool (even though I probably am) by saying that the French really are pretty loose, while the English are a bunch of uptight prudes. This moral conflict is key to the story, because the fate of the relationships depend on this. The girls, being English, have their own sets of difficulties in loving a man with a French temperament, in a culture where men and women have a number of lovers, and are expected to be blasé about such promiscuity. At the same time, the girls are fascinated at Claude`s frank discussions about sexual habits, especially the acceptance of prostitution. The French influence on this proper British household is what forces the mother to separate this arrangement, for fear that he and one of the girls may move much too quickly, before sober thought and decision enter the picture. That French influence doesn`t go away, however, as the arrangement that Anne and Claude have is closer to "free love" than that of the sort of spiritual, chaste love which Muriel demands.

Besides talk about love, there is much which Truffaut shows. This is not a completely chaste film, and we do see a number of explicit scenes. But this ultimately is part of the depth in which this story has on the subject of love. And on the subject of unchaste situations, I, being of naughty mind, was rather impressed by the whole idea of staying in a secluded lakeside cottage for a week, as Anne and Claude do, and of making love in the hay. And it would sound like a good deal for a person to have two equally interesting people as lovers. But the message is that there is ultimately a price to pay for having more than one lover, because we all want our lovers for ourselves, and don`t like the idea that somebody else has shared them. Only heartache can happen in these situations.

Two English Girls is presented in much the same way as Jules and Jim. The narration detaches us from the melodramatic experiences of the main characters. Truffaut uses similar techniques, like the iris shot. And, of course, the subject matter is similar. Yet I liked this movie a lot better; somehow, I feel that the characters are more rich, more maturely developed. And I can actually say that I was very interested in at least one of the characters, and that character was Muriel. This woman is a much more troubled one than we might expect, due mainly to a shocking secret which is the key to her repression and romantic turmoil. She is disdainful of physical love, due to her religious beliefs, but this masks a fear and a need for passion in her life. And this conflict leads to a number of very amazing and somewhat disturbing scenes, especially the scene where Muriel finds out about her sister`s affair with Claude.

I still can`t say that I fully understand this movie. But I enjoyed it enough to say that it is certainly interesting, and more involving than Jules and Jim. If I didn`t fully understand, or appreciate, everything that happened, well, then I`m just a complete ignoramus, who doesn`t know anything about love. But Truffaut seems to understand, and that is what makes this film a very interesting one.

David Macdonald

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