Art, Books, Film

Deux Anglaises et le continent

Recently I watched for the first time the film Deux anglaises et le continent (1971) directed by François Truffaut, and then I wrote this.

Truffaut, the key figure of the French New Wave, directed in 1962 the film Jules et Jim. Set in the first years of the twentieth century it examines whether love can find more success outside the bourgeois couple. It was based on a novel by Henri Pierre Roché who had lived a three way, non jealous, open love affair of serene turbulence with the German writers Frank Hessel and Helen Grund between 1907 and the early 1920s. The film explores passion and abundance, misunderstandings and missed opportunities, couplings and decouplings, silent tenderness and hesitations: three people trapped in love but remaining individuals with no wish to hurt the others. Truffaut was the master of films that show the tragicomic consequences of restrained impulse. It was, he said, a ‘hymn to life and death’. A dynamic and vivid film interweaving farce and pathos, reflection and slapstick, anarchy and tragedy; it rolls with a subtle disruptive energy. It is a film about love and tolerance and its morality is for nuanced understanding, never condemnation. Unusually it is a period piece that opens the door onto a summer of modernity. It is my favourite film and I have written about it before: La vie obscure de Henri-Pierre Roché.

Gertrude Stein describes Roché in The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas as having “done a great many things, he had gone to Germany with the germans, Hungary with the hungarians, England with the english”. If Jules et Jim is Roché in Germany with the Germans, what of when he was in England with the English? Deux anglaises et le continent, his second novel, recreates his relationship with two English sisters, Margaret and Violet Hare, in the years after 1900. It was filmed by Truffaut in 1971 and it has many of the same tropes as Jules et Jim: the three way love affair, the male narrator voice-over, period detail discarded for concentration on the feelings that bind the protagonists, the first world war leapfrogged in an ellipsis. He used the same script writer (Jean Gruault) and composer (George Delerue) and distinctive film grammar (superimpositions and contracting iris shots). Bicycle rides, water, dominoes and sculpture are among the motifs of both films. Although Jules et Jim was filmed in black and white Deux anglaises uses desaturated colours (Truffaut required white garments to be soaked in tea), there is nothing luscious or picturesque here.

Anne and Muriel Brown, the two sisters, love at different times Claude Roc (one of Roché’s pseudonyms), whom they nickname ‘Le Continent’. Anne visits Paris, meets Claude and takes him back to her family seaside home on the Welsh coast introducing him to Muriel and encouraging their love. “They stopped by a river full of torrents. They decided the tumbling water was like Anne, the eddies like Claude and the peaceful pools like Muriel.” He returns to Paris. Love blooms for a decade first with Muriel, then Anne, then Muriel again. This tender love triangle is blocked by physical distance, strong willed mothers, reticence. Letters are sent back and forth between countries, expressing longing and desire. It is not unrequited love as such, but these lovers never love each other equally at the same moment. This is a film about waiting and long distance desire: “I am the cliff, enamoured with the waves that crash against it”. When the relationships are eventually sexually consummated Claude is rejected by each sister in turn. Anne (the bolder of the two) delays and delays the inevitable sexual act, then leaves him afterwards for another man. Muriel (the more diffident of the two) boldly takes control in a Paris hotel room before rejecting him after the act.

There is hidden within the film a tribute by Truffaut to two other English, artistic, impassioned sisters. Portraits of Charlotte and Emily Brontë”s can be seen on walls early on in the film. Muriel has hair modelled on Charlotte’s and like her ends up teaching children in Brussels. Anne is given Emily’s 1848 death from tuberculosis and her final words on dying “my mouth is full of earth.” As in Jules et Jim death, not happy fulfilment, is the solution to the impasse of a stuttering love triangle.

The protagonists, in the absence of the objects of their love, pour desire into words instead. Feverish letters are exchanged, journals are written, even swapped, diaries filled. The lack of physical connection is overcompensated for by linguistic excess. Where there is a physical lack, words rush in. And, as so often, articulation of desire rather than extinguishing it, enflames it. Desire transcribed into words fosters even more desire necessitating even more words to be written.

This is not a film about physical love, but it is a film about how love can be physical. Misunderstandings fraught with tension and frustrated desire wreak havoc on Muriel’s body. She is uncompromising: “I want all of Claude or nothing. If it be no, let it be like death” and her body has no defence against her emotional sacrifice. It leads to her collapse, illness, vomiting and even partial blindness. When she loses her virginity the sheets and the screen turn red with her blood. Muriel’s body overflows with overreactions. Her bandaged eyes and dark glasses are explained as too much reading in half light, but there is more than a hint that her own thwarted emotions are the source. There is a physical toll on the other characters as well. At one point Claude, after Anne has rejected him, is bed bound for days.

Claude heals himself by writing an autobiographical novel about the love between him and the sisters. We see the press printing multiple copies of his book (called Jèrome et Julien). In this film writing both harms and heals. Anne becomes a sculptress and channels her energies into plastic arts. She creates a bust of Muriel in her Parisian studio. She significantly places a cloth over the bust’s eyes to prevent her and Claude’s kiss being seen by it. (Muriel had lifted her blindfold when first introduced to Claude). We see their genesis as creators as they start to mix with the avant-garde artistic set in turn of the century cosmopolitan Paris. For Anne and Claude the impossibility of the situation makes them into artists, rooted in desire and a never ending curiosity. Paris is an epoch, but for Claude and Anne it is also a quest. The voice over says at one point: “Their program was simple, live first and define it later”. In doing what was essential, that is the act of defining what was happening to them, Claude and Anne imaginatively create their way out of the impasse. Claude, tries in vain to do the same on Muriel’s behalf: her journal about compulsive masturbation and early lesbian experiences which she sent to him becomes the monologue and her voice takes over enunciating the film for a scene. We then cut to: “Claude thought it was marketable. He wanted to publish it in a limited edition” and see him ludicrously dictating it to a typist. But for Muriel, who has no artistic outlet, it is her body back in Wales that must take the toll.

Jules et Jim was a worldwide sensation, Deux anglaises was an abysmal commercial failure. The dates of release (1962, 1971) may explain that to some extent. The anarchy of Jules et Jim with its open morality and heady sexuality was perfect for the early sixties. The sexual restraint and delayed sensuality of Deux anglaises failed to impress post May-1968 audiences. The idea of morality through aesthetics was now defunct, morality was instead on the march with the politics of solidarity. The early seventies was not a time for a reflective examination of sexual repression and its relationship to art. Political not emotional manifestos were now in vogue. Other films released that year, Russell’s The Devils, Roeg’s Walkabout and Performance, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, even Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, suggest that any fashion for poignant longing had long passed.

Timing is important; Roché (who spoke four languages) was the first to translate Chekov’s masterful play Uncle Vanya into French (in 1915) but no one there wanted anything to do with it. In my view it is time for a reassessment of Deux anglaises: how are we to live and love? Roché, to my knowledge, never wrote the novel about being in Hungary with the Hungarians. If it is ever discovered in the archives who remains with the wit and understanding to film it?

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