The importance of Two English Girls lies in its sheer vitality. The film is an extraordinary cinematic conjuring trick in which Truffaut draws the viewer both physically and visually into his own personal pleasures. He does this on a multitude of levels—if the pastoral scenes salute the work of Jean Renoir, then the washed pastel colors of Nestor Almendros’ Impressionist-influenced cinematography perfectly evoke Truffaut’s delight in the paintings of Renoir’s father, Auguste. But the pleasure that Truffaut most literally saved for himself, by choosing to use his own voice for the narration, was the prose of Henri-Pierre Roché, the novelist whose work served as the source for Two English Girls As Truffaut once observed, “If the beauty of a literary work lies in its prose, there is no reason not to let this prose be heard in the cinema.”
A decade earlier, Roché’s novel Jules and Jim had been the source for one of Truffaut’s signature films, but it was not until 1971 that the filmmaker felt capable of bringing Two English Girls to the screen. Both films are set in the early part of the 20th century, and both focus upon mismatched romantic trios and central figures who deal with life through art, rather than living it directly. But Jules and Jim is a youthful effort, less an expression of Truffaut’s deepest sensibilities than those of a filmmaker still learning how far his work of the moment can take him. Two English Girls is a more complex and mature film, a virtuoso work by the 40-year-old Truffaut, deeply passionate but suffused with a regret that the younger Truffaut could not fully explore.
Claude Roc (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a writer so painfully detached and passive that upon publication of his first novel, Jerome and Julien (a clear homage to Roché’s Jules and Jim he says that the book’s characters suffered for him. This detachment reflects Truffaut’s own feelings of alienation, expressed throughout his career, and which dated back to his youth as a borderline delinquent. His childhood rebellions culminated in his desertion from the French army and his subsequent imprisonment. It was through the intervention of André Bazin that Truffaut—a lover of movies and literature from childhood—began writing about film, eventually publishing the article that established the “auteur theory” of filmmaking in Bazin’s seminal film journal Cahiers du cinéma.
The autobiographical component of Truffaut’s work is obvious in films like The 400 Blows, which was his debut, and his subsequent Day for Night, but by 1971 this personal aspect of his art had achieved a daunting complexity, emphasized in Two English Girls by his casting of Jean-Pierre Léaud as the protagonist Claude. Léaud had become Truffaut’s cinematic alterego, portraying Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s on-screen “stand-in” in The 400 Blows, and later in Love at Twenty, Stolen Kisses, and Bed and Board.
Claude lives through his book, and his life becomes art, or actually, literature. This is similar to Balzac, the other literary figure pictured in the film, who constituted a personal literary touchstone from Truffaut’s childhood and is seen in the guise of Rodin’s statue at the film’s beginning and end. Claude’s passion recalls the way in which people “become” books in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451—on different levels, both Claude and the “book people” in the earlier film literally give their lives to art. Indeed, Fahrenheit 451 seems to point the way toward Two English Girls, not only thematically but visually. Two English Girls’ opening credits, for example, are built on multi-angle close-up shots of copies of Roché’s novel, and deliberately recall Truffaut’s striking close-ups on books in Fahrenheit 451
In adapting the film, Truffaut devoted himself not only to the book, but to the thought processes and biographical detail behind it. The screenplay, written by Truffaut and Jean Gruault, was based not only on the novel but also on Roché’s unpublished private diaries, to which Truffaut had access, making the textual influences and the inter-penetration of diary, novel, and film all the more fascinating and complex. The film resounds with themes and elements that interested and obsessed Truffaut throughout his career, but many of these themes flow directly from Roché: the incalculable complexity of love between men and women, the detached protagonist and the mismatched romantic partners, locked in love and crippled by its consequences. But Two English Girls sets itself apart by its sheer grace and palpable beauty, and if the film is a monument to Truffaut’s most prized and personal pleasures, our greatest pleasure is simply in observing the conjurer at work.