A Strange Game: Two English Girls (1971)

Game

Early on in François Truffaut’s 1971 film Les deux Anglaises et le continent, or Two English Girls, sisters Anne (Kika Markham) and Muriel Brown (Stacey Tendeter), their mother (Sylvia Marriott) and their house guest, Claude Roc (Jean-Pierre Léaud), get caught in the rain. After the group takes shelter in a small cave, Mrs. Brown suggests that they play a game called citron pressé (“squeezed lemon”) in order to pass the time until the weather improves. Her daughters agree eagerly and sit down on either side of her, their backs against her arms while she faces forward, and begin to rock her to and fro, first one leaning backwards and then the other. Laughing and out of breath, Mrs. Brown soon invites Claude to take her place, which he does — but what was merely an innocent diversion for the Browns becomes something quite different for the young Frenchman. “Suddenly he was a pawn in a strange game. Squeezed between the girls, he didn’t dare breathe. He’d never even touched their hands. Now their supple backs thrust against him. It was like an indiscretion,” the narrator (Truffaut himself*) says as Claude is pushed from side to side, surprise, pleasure and uncertainty flickering across his face.

This is hardly the first game that Claude and the Brown sisters have played since his arrival. Their mothers were childhood friends, and it’s through his mother (Marie Mansart) that Claude first meets Anne while the aspiring sculptress is staying in Paris. The two bond over their shared interest in art, and when Anne suggests that Claude visit the Browns’ house in Wales and meet her younger sister, Muriel, he takes her up on the offer. Before long, Claude, Anne and Muriel are an inseparable trio, filling their days with language lessons and book discussions, but also painting, cycling, tennis and what the narrator terms “silly games,” such as spinning one another around in a field and posing like statues.

Claude Anne

As this indicates, there’s a certain innocence, even a childlike quality, to their relationship, despite the fact that they all seem to be about twenty. The girls, though open-minded and intellectually curious, have had a sheltered upbringing, as befits proper young ladies in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Britain; Anne, for example, admits that she didn’t know the meaning of the word “virgin” until she read Émile Zola’s Germinal. Even the comparatively worldly Claude, who has visited a brothel (if only to talk to the madam) and attempted suicide when he was fifteen†, sometimes comes across as rather juvenile. He’s first shown performing acrobatics on a trapeze for a group of children (two of whom are played by Truffaut’s daughters, Laura and Eva‡), and in the next scene, he steps back in alarm when he finds Anne sitting in his parlor, then waits for his mother before entering the room. “Can’t you introduce yourself?” his mother asks.

Still, Claude, Anne and Muriel are young adults, not children, and although he calls them his sisters and they call him their brother, there are some decidedly non-platonic feelings at work. Almost as soon as she meets Claude, Anne becomes determined to spark a romance between him and Muriel. Claude is aware of this and goes along with it willingly, yet it’s clear that he’s attracted to both girls. This makes things particularly awkward during a game of charades when Claude must “pay a forfeit” by kissing Anne through the bars of a chair. He looks at Muriel first, and it’s not until she averts her gaze that he turns back to Anne. The kiss is a careful one on the cheek, and because it’s only part of a game to boot, it’s met with total approval by Mrs. Brown and the various friends and neighbors in the room.

Muriel Claude

Similarly, the more extensive physical contact of citron pressé goes unquestioned by Mrs. Brown, and seemingly by the girls as well, since it’s all in the context of harmless fun. They laugh, but this childlike innocence won’t last much longer. Soon, Mrs. Brown will grow concerned about her daughters’ reputations, sending Claude to stay at a neighbor’s house after the locals start to gossip about his taking a late night walk with Muriel. This, ironically, makes his growing romantic feelings for Muriel impossible to ignore, and nothing will ever be the same from that point on.

In fact, the citron pressé scene encapsulates the ever shifting relationships and emotions among Claude and the two sisters throughout the rest of the film: Anne pushes Claude toward Muriel; Muriel, unsure whether she loves him as more than a brother, resists by pushing him away, sending him toward Anne; Claude goes back and forth, pondering the situation, stirred but slightly detached. “What matters is that Claude always looks on his love affairs with an aesthetic eye, even when he is leaving women gasping for breath, broken,” Truffaut explained. Claude even takes note of Mrs. Brown as she joyfully watches the game. “He saw that she had once been pretty,” the narrator says, suggesting the role that time will play in the story, the changes it brings about and how quickly it passes.

Mrs. Brown

The citron pressé scene does appear in Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel Les deux Anglaises et le continent, but there it takes place on a cable car. By shifting it to an outdoor setting, the film emphasizes the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of love, passion and relationships — unpredictable and uncontrollable as a sudden rainstorm. As Muriel puts it, “Love doesn’t complicate life, but the uncertainty of love.”

Notes

* In a 1978 letter to director Bernard Dubois, Truffaut described his own voice as “rather unusual” and noted that “my voice-off narration in Two English Girls was a contributing factor in that film’s failure.”

† Although the film is based on Henri-Pierre Roché’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, Claude’s attempted suicide story is derived from another semi-autobiographical Roché novel, Jules et Jim, the inspiration for Truffaut’s 1962 film of that name. Truffaut and co-writer Jean Gruault drew on both books for both movies; for instance, the minor character Thérèse from the film Jules et Jim is an acquaintance of Claude’s in the novel Les deux Anglaises et le continent.

‡ The other two children in this scene are played by Mathieu and Guillaume Schiffman, sons of assistant director Suzanne Schiffman. Both went into the film industry, and cinematographer Guillaume was Oscar-nominated in 2012 for his work on The Artist.

Sources

Roché, Henri-Pierre. Jules et Jim. Trans. Patrick Evans. London: Penguin, 2011.

Roché, Henri-Pierre. Two English Girls and the Continent. Trans. Walter Bruno. Cambridge: Cambridge Book Review Press, 2004.

Truffaut on Cinema. Ed. Anne Gillain. Trans. Alistair Fox. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.

Truffaut, François. Correspondence 1945-1984. Trans. Gilbert Adair. New York: Cooper Square, 2000.

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