|Les enfants terribles is fascinating primarily as an unexpected meeting of two brilliant, but vastly different minds: the iconic independent French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, who is best known for his numerous crime films, including Bob le flambeur (1956), Le samouraï (1967), Le cercle rouge (1970), and Un flic (1972), and the poet and painter Jean Cocteau, whose own films, including Blood of a Poet (1930) and Beauty and the Beast (1946), were avant-garde and experimental, resting in the gray zone between dreams and reality.|
The film was based on a 1929 novel by Cocteau (probably his most famous), and Melville directed it as if Cocteau were behind the camera, even if that actually happened on only one day of shooting when Melville was too sick to work. In this respect, Les enfants terribles seems to be much more a Cocteau film than a Melville film, even though Melville maintained control during production and, at one point, reportedly had Cocteau removed from the set because he was too distracting. Yet, even if the dreamlike atmosphere and patent unreality of Les enfants terribles doesn’t immediately evoke the hard stylings of Melville, we can see traces of his influence, particularly in the brutally fatalistic ending that would become a key component of his later films.
The story concerns the warped relationship between a brother and sister. The brother, Paul (Edouard Dermithe, Cocteau’s then-lover who was cast despite his limited acting ability at Cocteau’s insistence), is several years younger than his sister, Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane), and in many ways more conventionally feminine. Early in the film, Paul is hit in the chest by a snowball flung by Dargelos (Renée Cosima), a recurring character in Cocteau’s work who represents schoolboy virility at its most untamed. For reasons that are never fully explained, this incident causes Paul great physical damage, and he spends the rest of the film in a state of weakness, usually bed-ridden even if he frequently shows no overt signs of sickness. Elisabeth tends to him just as she does their invalid mother (Maria Cyliakus), which makes her a sister and a mother figure to Paul, thus further complicating their already disturbingly incestuous relationship.
The early passages in the film seem rough and unfocused; it’s hard to see where the story is going, even as we are consistently unsettled by Paul and Elisabeth’s interactions, which often catch their friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard) in the middle. The plot starts coming into better focus in the final third with the introduction of Agathe (also played by Renée Cosima), a young model who comes to live with Paul and Elisabeth and becomes a crucial new addition to the romantic entanglements that have already ensnared Gerard and the two siblings. It is at this point that the characters’ traits fully cohere and we recognize just how weak and easily manipulated Paul is and how remorselessly treacherous Elisabeth is.
As a fantastical psychological study, Les enfants terribles has a captivating quality, with the action seemingly taking place in an alternate universe composed primarily of enclosed spaces (the only time it feels truly open is during a dream sequence). This gives the film a starkly claustrophobic feeling, even when scenes take place in enormous, almost empty rooms, which reflects the narrative’s insularity (when Elisabeth marries at one point, she is immediately widowed, suggesting that death and disorder awaits anyone from the “outside” who gets too close).
Melville, who was directing only his second film, but had already established his complete independence from the French studio system, seems far more interested in the film’s visual textures than narrative coherence or flow (the cinematography is by Henri Decaë, who would become central to the French New Wave). His camera flows throughout the film, gliding to the music of Bach and Vivaldi. This fluidity of movement is often juxtaposed with static shots in which Melville positions the camera behind objects, which gives them an uneasy voyeuristic quality. He also frequently allows bars and poles and other lines to segment the frame, producing a sense of fragmentation and distance between characters.
Unfortunately, the film’s more poetic visual tendencies are frequently undermined by the unnecessary narration written and performed by Cocteau himself, which informs us of emotions and psychological states that are mostly evident on-screen (sometimes, as in the climactic dream sequence, Cocteau literally narrates the action as if describing it to a blind viewer). With few exceptions, the narration feels like an intrusion, a stating of the obvious that undercuts the lyricism. For a film that is filled with ambiguities, paradoxical moments, shifting emotional states, and constant dislocation, the directness of the narration feels like either a horribly misplaced mistake or the filmmakers’ overcompensation for poetic license.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3)
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