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Bad and Bored

Two English Girls, at the Plaza in Brookline Village

By Michael Levenson

IF NOTHING DRASTIC is done. Francois Truffaut will soon pass quietly into insignificance. And that is too bad--it was not so very long ago that he was turning out some of the most accomplished little films of the past decade. It was Truffaut's 400 Blows after all, that launched the New Wave back in 1959 and Truffaut's name on the credits that got Godard's Breathless released soon afterwards. Now thirteen years and nine features later, he has tripped into the pitfalls of artistic self-satisfaction--into the flaccid, the superficial and the frivolous.

Even as-an angry young man. Truffaut never got very mad Back in the fifnes he and his critical colleagues filled the pages of Cahiers de Cinema with polemical prose and then, cameras in hand set out to stand French cinema on its head But Truffaut never took that revolutionary temper quite to heart, and his traces of bitterness were always carefully wrapped in nostalgia. At his best--in Jules and Jim Shoot the Piano Player Stolen Kisses-- he manages sufficient wit and irons to keep this side of sentimentality. But of late wit has faded irony has lapsed and nostalgia has Truffaut all to her mawkish self I wo English Girls is not only a failure it is an embarassment.

WELL INTO HIS SEVENTIES. French writer Henry Pierre Roche wrote companion novels of life and love in-pre World War I France In 1962. Truffaut adapted the first of these, Jules and Jim and that probably still ranks as his greatest critical success I wo English Girls is an adaptation of the second novel After ten years. Truffaut has gone back to the well but this time the bucket leaks

In story outline I wo English Girls is an almost precise parallel of the earlier film. This time it is two women sisters in love with the same man not two men with one woman, and here the nationalities are French and English and not French and German. But there is the same prewar period and the same complicated triangle of inter-relationships Claude Roc (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a timorous young Frenchman of a slowly eroding fortune and an over-fond mother meets a young English girl. Anne Brown, visiting Paris. The two become friends, and in time Claude makes a reciprocal visit to the Brown home in Wales. There he gradually, but inevitably, falls in love with Muriel. Anne's younger sister. Romantic adolescent, unsure, Claude proposes marriage. Muriel wavers. Mothers are summoned.

After much discussion, the two agree to separate for a year. Claude returns to Paris, becomes an art dealer and falls out of love. Muriel suffers; time passes. Meanwhile, Anne grows beautiful, becomes an artist in Paris, falls in and out of passionate love with Claude, turns consumptive, dies. Claude writes a novel. Muriel, a thirty-year-old virgin schoolteacher, returns for one last evening with her first and only love who obligingly and summarily deflowers her. One could go on, one needn't.

AS BANAL AS ALL this must surely sound, there is no reason for it to appear any more or less hopeless than any other Truffaut plot. Like others it is simple; like others it is conventional. But where formerly Truffaut could somehow turn the seemingly uninteresting into the surprisingly charming, Two English Girls turns out to be quite as vapid as you would expect.

It is not that Truffaut suddenly has nothing to say. Truffaut has never had very much to say. But once he said things well. Here he simply loses all ironic distance and falls list into sentimentality. At one point. Muriel is seen running at twilight over hills and through trees, shouting into the wind in her Welsh-French accent. "Claude, jetadore" while Georges Delerue's weepy score rises to crescendo. It is the sort of scene more expected to spill from the pens of masturbatory adolescents or nineteenth century novelists.

Jules and Jim could work as well as it did because Truffaut was still given to a young man's scepticism. And Jeanne Moreau at the center of the film held it together through a flamboyance and taste for the absurd that kept the love story where love stories belong between the lines. The comic suicide that ends Jules and Jim--Moreau's Katherine driving off an unfinished bridge--is the sort of outrageous gesture that Truffaut cannot even begin to approach in Two English Girls. Simplicity has turned to simple mindedness and tenderness to tripe.

Vainly, Truffaut tries to recapture the formulas of past success. He uses a novelist (Roche) who once served him well and an actor (Leaud) he has often depended upon. He repeats his old formal mannerisms: voice-over narrative, camera rising, softly-focused backgrounds, and minute attention to period decor. In a cafe sequence there is even an exact duplication of a shot from Jules and Jim. But Truffaut is only going through the motions. At times he seems bored with his characters and one can hardly blame him. They are tedious people of a dull class in a dying culture.

So the film wanders aimlessly from the hills of Wales, to the streets of Paris, to the lakes of Switzerland, but it really goes nowhere at all. It is not that one would want powerful intellection or epic scope or even moral paulon from Truffaut. One would merely like something more substantial than tender-minded emotionalism. Truffaut is too young to be wistful and too old to whine.

RESPONSIBILITY for his failure can be traced in all too many directions. A small part of the problem is Truffaut's unfamiliarity with the English language, so that the scenes outside of France simply strike the ear wrong. And part of the problem is that Truffaut has never been at home in color. With the exception of Stolen Kisses, all his color films have been many cuts below the black and white.

But these are minor problems by themselves not enough to scuttle the film. A far more serious difficulty lies in the characterization, where Truffaut's once sure instinct for just the right gesture and just the right tone of voice has now deserted him. Most notable is the failure of Jean-Pierre Leaud's performance as Claude.

Leaud began his career at age fourteen playing Antoine Doinel in 400 Blows the first installment of Truffaut's autobiographical trilogy. He later continued the role in two more episodes and was consistently adept in his portrayal of Truffaut's shy and awkward screen persona. For the first third of Two English Girls. Leaud offers one more variation on that character. But as the film progresses, Claude matures, grows callous then regretful, and Leaud's performance becomes unconvincing. "I look old," says a pensive Claude toward the end of the film, but it is only wishful thinking. Jean Pierre Leaud may never look old, and at least in Truffaut's hands, he seems destined to be always an adolescent schiemihl, never a middle-aged bastard.

APART FROM WHAT this implies about Leaud's acting range, it raises some serious questions about Truffaut's limitations as writer-director. In thirteen years of filmmaking, his consistent theme, with remarkably few exceptions, has been the problems of adolescence--maturation, identity, introspection, loneliness, sexual confusion and so on. Even his middle-aged characters are generally adolescents in disguise. At times he has handled this theme as well as anyone, but in Two English Girls, when he makes hesistant attempts to break new ground, he fails completely. He has begun to take his characters too seriously, and they don't deserve the compliment.

The malady is perhaps not fatal. A few more failures like this one, and Truffaut may begin to lose his ease of mind. That can only be to his advantage. As matters now stand, he is too complacent to make good art and too successful to have to care.

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