François Truffaut and Friends: Modernism, Sexuality, and Film Adaptation
Reviewed by Richard Neupert

Two English Girls

Two English Girls

by Robert Stam. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006. 239 pp., illus. Paperback: $23.95.

In François Truffaut and Friends, Robert Stam is actually less interested in Truffaut’s friends than in the real-life models for Jules and Jim—Henri-Pierre Roché, Franz Hessel, and Helen Grund. Their lives, loves, and writings, including Roché’s novels Jules and Jim and Two English Girls, influenced Truffaut’s career directly and indirectly. Anyone familiar with Robert Stam’s previous work will not be surprised that his attachment to the postmodern, Freud, and intertextuality strongly influence this book’s subject and structure. There are parallels between the real people, who leap from bed to bed, and Stam’s critical approach, which strives “to go beyond a one-on-one monogamous fidelity model.” As a result, François Truffaut and Friends is a cluster of twenty-two chapters, many as short as four to eight pages, that introduce a wide variety of perspectives on the active sexual and literary lives of Roché (1879-1959), Truffaut, and key figures from their personal and creative worlds. Stam also makes connections to the larger sphere of early twentieth-century modernism, including Roché and Hessel’s friendships with major figures such as Marcel Duchamp and Walter Benjamin. This accessible text often reads as if it were a transcription of a course investigating how to conduct an adaptation study by focusing on Jules and Jim (1961) and Two English Girls (1971). François Truffaut and Friends follows a number of leads and tangents before providing an interesting and ultimately valuable test case.

Stam explains in the “Prelude” that he is out to explore a “vast intertextual circuit” including the sexual experimentation, diaries, and fictions from Roché, Hessel, and Grund. He offers Truffaut as a sort of descendant of their 1910’s and 1920’s bohemian avant-garde world, their “erotic and writerly territory.” Interestingly, these three all wrote compulsively. Roché, whom Truffaut championed in the 1950’s, himself wrote over 7,000 pages in diaries. In addressing these lives and works, Stam avoids strict chronology, preferring to “mingle various temporalities…to rethink the debates about adaptation by moving from a language of ‘fidelity’ and ‘infidelity’ to a language of ‘performativity’ and ‘transtextuality.’” Nonetheless, his time line in the appendix often proves helpful. Meditations on adaptation and “sexual/textual” experimentation in modernist culture permeate the book, with Jules and Jim and Two English Girls as the anchoring narratives. A stronger introduction, however, might also have acknowledged the degree to which this study owes to—or breaks from—previous work by others on these figures and films.

Chapters 1 and 2 briefly introduce Truffaut and the New Wave’s creative ambivalence toward literary adaptation. Stam also looks into Truffaut’s and Roché’s mutual interest in complicated mother-son relations, connecting their writing and filming with sexual anxiety. The absent fathers and strong mothers in the novels and films are central motifs for Stam. The oedipal undercurrents in the films Stam addresses here are reminiscent of the oedipal flavor of the relationships among the members of the New Wave which Stam dealt with in his earlier book Literature Through Film (Blackwell, 2005). Next, Chapters 3 through 9 reflect more directly upon Henri-Pierre Roché and his relations with Helen Grund and her husband Franz Hessel. Chapter 3, “Prototype for Jim,” summarizes Roché as a diarist of love, a collector of art and women. Chapters 4 and 5 recount the time Roché spent with Duchamp in New York’s artist salons, exploiting “the rhetoric of seduction,” by emulating Don Juan. Roché led an intense existence and Stam offers fragmentary sketches of the man and his times.

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 on Franz Hessel, “the prototype for Jules,” provide a glimpse into this quiet, troubled fellow, a German Jew who married Helen Grund, and was actively involved in the ménage-à-trois with Roché. Hessel, “the eternal outsider,” brings more homoeroticism into the group, which Truffaut never pursues in Jules and Jim. After fleeing the Nazis, Hessel died in France in 1941.These three chapters together fill barely nineteen pages, and could have been rolled into one more coherent and compelling chapter summarizing Hessel’s significance for Truffaut.

By the time of Chapter 9, “Prototype for Catherine,” readers have already been exposed to many facets of Helen Grund’s life and her relations with Roché and Hessel. Stam points out that in the film this vibrant, intellectual German is changed by Truffaut into an emotional, homicidally unstable French woman, though Grund apparently did brandish a pistol, threaten Roché, and leap into the Seine during an argument. However, Grund, who outlived both men, never took anyone’s life, as her fictionalized version does in both novel and film.

There are also two short chapters that include her painful discovery of Roché’s secret marriage and child, and her apparent lesbian relationship with writer Charlotte Wolff. Stam often returns to how sexual experimentation, writing, and roaming the modern urban terrain typified these people and their era. This part is wrapped up with Chapter 11, “The Polyphonic Project.” Roché had planned to write about the defunct threesome from six perspectives, exploiting a play of voices; for Stam it is vital to relate their daring sexuality to their modernist literary strategies.

The book’s middle section arrives at Jules and Jim. Stam explains that after Truffaut applauded the novel he was given access to Roché’s diaries, a fact that retroactively adds more weight to many of the book’s earlier anecdotes. The novel “articulates the tensions between law and desire” and conveys the exhilaration of breaking rules, but Stam points out that Roché skipped over real-life jealousy, abortions, and estrangements: “In real life all these relationships left a terrible legacy of bitterness, especially on the part of the women.” Stam is attentive to the fact that it is the men, Roché and Truffaut, who finally tell the lasting tales, and both heap blame onto the Helen/Catherine character, representing her as a siren and femme fatale rather than as a suffering lover.

Truffaut’s film is explained as a creative adaptation that includes dialog and anecdotes from Roché’s Two English Girls and diaries, as well as other sources: “By re-orchestrating preexisting texts, he ‘auteurs’ the novel, imposing his authorial signature.” Truffaut also reduces the forty women of the novel down to Catherine and Gilberte, who become collages of many other figures. The plot is streamlined, and Truffaut increases the film’s polyphony via modernist cinematic New Wave devices. Surprisingly, Stam spends little time acknowledging the work of other important scholars on Jules and Jim. Engaging with these other voices would have provided valuable perspectives on the transtextuality at play here. Still, Stam clearly loves the film and he seems happy to report that the aged Helen Grund saw the movie and told Truffaut he had faithfully captured their intimate emotions.

Chapter 15, “Polyphonic Eroticism,” begins a five-chapter section on writing and sex that seems a bit out of place. These chapters, which include titles such as “Sexperimental Writing” and “Sexuality/Textuality,” offer more bits and pieces of the writings and real-life experiences from Roché and Grund. Many of these observations could more productively be included up front during the chapters that introduced these people. But Stam does reassert how their writing and sexual activity were interrelated: “The eroticism of language and the language of eroticism, then, have mutual intercourse.” Truffaut tamed their inventive sexuality and labyrinthian écriture, a point made clear in the final section on Two English Girls.

With Two English Girls, the labor of creative adaptation first occurs when Roché goes back to old letters and diaries to recount his early experiences with two English sisters he seduced and abandoned long before the Jules and Jim days. He first thought of writing a novelized version of his experiences in 1903 at age twenty-five, but only wrote it all down in 1955. Truffaut was supposedly struck with the cruelty toward the girls, so makes them more sympathetic than Claude in his filmed version. Nevertheless, Truffaut seduced his own lead actress, Kika Markham. He also added other literary influences: “A crucial aspect of the art of film adaptation of novels is the multiplication and interbreeding of intertexts.” The section on Two English Girls emphasizes the role of family, desire, and art for Roché and Truffaut. Readers interested in a very detailed account of Roché’s affairs with the young women may want to consult Ian MacKillops’s Free Spirits (Bloomsbury, 2000).

During the final chapter, Stam asserts that for Roché, Truffaut, and friends, “Art and writing are fired by a desire that is both sexual and more than sexual, at once metasexual and metatextual.” The Man Who Loved Women (1977) too is “imbued with the memory of Roché’s life and work” and Stam finds him encoded in Love on the Run (1979). Stam is truly fascinated with Roché, Grund, Hessel and Truffaut’s personal and professional lives, and makes the network of connections between them come alive within his own “broader, ramifying transtext.” The “Postlude” reinforces Stam’s conviction that “Both texts and selves…are revealed as partial creations of the other’s gaze.” This adaptation study is thus about much more than tracing direct lines from one novel to one film.

Readers interested in learning more about the people behind Truffaut’s life and career will still need Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana’s detailed biography Truffaut (Knopf, 1999). But those curious about the back and forth, productive processes of adaptation study will find much to admire and contemplate in Robert Stam’s François Truffaut and Friends. It may also motivate some to go back to Two English Girls and The Man Who Loved Women, two of Truffaut’s less appreciated films, to see whether they too deserve a new look.

Copyright © 2006 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.