30 December 2009 | rolls_chris
Flawed and tender
The actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, the child star of Truffaut's breakthrough '400 Blows' and who plays the protagonist Claude in 'Deux Anglaises et le Continent' symbolises the flawed and tender charm at the heart of this 1971 film. Leaud can't act. Nevertheless, by dint of his solemn Gallic charm and beauty, there is something deeply moving about this turn-of-the- century cross-Channel menage-a-trois.
The story is an adaptation of a novel by Truffaut's beloved author Henri Pierre Roche who also wrote the novel which inspired 'Jules et Jim'. 'Deux Anglaises et le Continent' is written in diary form from the points of view of three characters, Anne, Muriel and Claude who make up the narrative's central love triangle. The story is basically one of thwarted love. Both English sisters develop strong feelings for their French 'brother' Claude, which eventually turns into destructive sexual passion. As such, the film is an inversion of 'Jules et Jim', which was a comic celebration of love between two close male friends and one girl. Stories of doomed love appealed to Truffaut.
When it appeared in cinemas, the film was a critical and commercial flop. In '71 society was in the grip of sexual liberation, and here was Truffaut, who had reflected the zeitgeist so perfectly six years earlier with a whimsical celebration of liberated passion in 'Jules et Jim' serving up a period piece more reminiscent of the buttoned-up prudery of a Bronte novel.
There are many things wrong with the film. There is an odd tension between the acceptance of Claude's promiscuity as a French fait accompli on the one hand, and the sisters' chaste Victorian values on the other. The film also contains anachronisms throughout which it's fun to spot, including modern electricity pylons. The first half of the film is set in Wales but you can tell it was filmed in Normandy (Truffaut didn't want to travel to a non-French speaking location.) There are several scenes in English in which the dialogue makes you squirm. And, in my opinion, it was an error of judgement on the film maker's part to record the voice-over narration himself in such a hasty, lacklustre tone.
And yet, and yet... There is something moving and wonderful at the heart of this film because it is naive. When it was made, society had moved on and women were taking the pill and changing history; the last thing it wanted was a pastel mood-piece about two thirty year-old virgins. But there is an innocence at the film's heart which is not sentimental but you could call it very male. On the one side you have Leaud's truly shocking moments of ham acting, stilted dialogue, unbelievable period settings and a generally plodding tone, but in the balance these are outweighed by the beauty of the cinematography, the fine performances from Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter, the music, and Truffaut's genuine feeling for the intricacies of love in all its colours.