Judge Ben Saylor is rethinking whether he wants to have a family someday after seeing Les Enfants Terribles in action.
"Thus Cocteau's greatest novel has become Melville's greatest film."—Francois Truffaut
Long before Jean-Pierre Melville distinguished himself with elegantly made thrillers such as Le Samourai and La Cercle Rouge, he teamed up with the multi-talented Jean Cocteau for a film adaptation of Cocteau's famed 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles. The result is a fascinating and well-made, if flawed, film rife with the tensions of two very different artistic sensibilities.
Facts of the Case
The fair-haired Paul (Edouard Dermithe) engages in a snowball fight with several other boys outside his school, and is knocked out by a snowball tossed by the bully Dargelos (Renée Cosima). Far from being upset, Paul obsesses over Dargelos.
Bedridden, Paul is cared for by his domineering sister Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane). Elisabeth acts angry and put-upon as nursemaid to the petulant, whiny Paul, but her attitude changes with the arrival of Agathe (Cosima), a boarder who comes to live with Paul and Elisabeth and threatens to break the siblings apart because of her attraction to Paul. The jealous Elisabeth begins manipulating both Paul and Agathe, along with Paul's chum Gérard (Jacques Bernard), to make sure the status quo is maintained. But even the supremely confident Elisabeth can't predict what her machinations will drive the others to do.
It surprised me to learn that Les Enfants Terribles was based on a novel, not a play. The action is so confined—in Paul and Elisabeth's room at the beginning, in a giant mansion Elisabeth inherits toward the end (with a few excursions outdoors here and there)—that it would have made more sense to me if it had been a play. However, on the DVD's commentary track, writer Gilbert Adair says that the novel itself contained very little dialogue (which probably helps explain the omnipresent voiceover narration in the film). Still, the movie doesn't feel stage-bound, and it's important for the action to be confined in order to immerse us in the hermetically sealed universe of Paul and Elisabeth, as it enables us to better understand how Gerard and, more importantly, Agathe, are intruders in that world.
Les Enfants Terribles is a strange film. Paul and Elisabeth maintain a generally antagonistic relationship, but this is frequently punctuated by moments that very much suggest an incestuous relationship. They are two parts of an inseparable whole, and their prickly but mutually dependent relationship reminded me a little of the Mantle brothers in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. Paul and Elisabeth drive each other crazy, but can't seem to live without each other. One minute Paul is throwing milk all over Elisabeth; the next Elisabeth lovingly feeds her sleeping brother crayfish meat, inserting her fingers into his mouth slightly in order to do so.
Acting-wise, the film belongs to Stéphane. Her character is the best developed, and Stéphane's performance is, accordingly, the most fully realized. By turns overly dramatic, bossy, bitter, vain, and envious, Stéphane goes through many different emotions as Elisabeth. She perfectly conveys the cocksure exterior of Elisabeth's that conceals an unhealthy devotion (many, including myself, would say attraction) to her brother. Elisabeth is one of the more complex cinematic characters you're likely to see.
The rest of the cast really pales in comparison (more on that later), but I will say that Dermithe is not as bad as he is apparently considered to be by most critics. Physically, he may not be right for the part (he's too old, big, and strong for the weak, meek character he plays), but his performance still works, as he generally nails the wounded, passive-aggressive nature of the character.
The film is also a visual marvel. Refusing to allow the film's minimal characters and sets to inhibit them, Melville and cinematographer Henri Decaë (who would become an important figure of the French New Wave) place the camera at many different angles, including extreme lows and overhead shots. Melville expertly moves the camera to follow what's happening, and even manages a great crane shot at the very end of the film. One particularly noteworthy shot features Gérard in the foreground, with Paul and Elisabeth receding in the background, while Gérard is standing still.
Melville frames his shots very deliberately, as Adair says on the commentary track. Paul and Elisabeth are frequently featured in the frame together, as for many of their scenes Melville eschews the standard operating procedure of over-the-shoulder and reaction shots for filming two people in conversation. As Paul and Elisabeth are two people who cannot be apart, this framing device is very effective.
In addition, Decaë lights the film brilliantly in the first two thirds, as Adair points out. The film is bathed in white until Decaë's palette turns shadowy to match the encroaching darkness of what is transpiring onscreen.
There are also two aural elements of Les Enfants Terribles worth mentioning. The first is the use of music. Melville chose selections by Bach and Vivaldi as the soundtrack to the film, and from its first appearance in the film it's easy to see (or hear, rather) that he was dead right. On the commentary track, Adair says the classical music offers up a good contrast to the comparatively mundane, provincial trappings of the film. I have to say I agree.
The second is the voiceover narration, which is performed by Cocteau himself. To me, the narration feels like a harbinger of what would pop up fairly often in New Wave films, particularly those of Truffaut. Cocteau's somewhat unpleasant but insistent voice works very well for the film, and the words he speaks, while in violation of the old "don't use voiceover that repeats what's happening onscreen," are so poetic and well-used (an instance where it is used to describe part of a wrecked car is especially lovely) that I think the film would have suffered without it.
Criterion's DVD presentation is, not surprisingly, very good, with an excellent transfer and sound mix. Decaë's afore-mentioned use of light and dark extremes show up very well and never appear blown out or underexposed. Extras include the very solid commentary track alluded to above, which is very informative and insightful, although Adair is admittedly a bit fawning in his admiration of Cocteau. In addition, there are three short featurettes concerning the film. The first, appropriately titled "About the Film," features interviews with producer Carole Weisweiller, Jacques Bernard, and assistant director Claude Pinoteau. The second is a French television interview with Stéphane from 2003. The third and most interesting of the three is called "Around Jean Cocteau," where filmmaker Noël Simsolo asks film scholar Dominique Païni and critic Jean Narboni whether the film belongs more in Cocteau's body of work or Melville's. Finally, Criterion has included the film's theatrical trailer, which amusingly markets the film as an overwrought melodrama, and a small stills gallery. The DVD's booklet contains a short remembrance by Stéphane, an essay by critic Gary Indiana, drawings by Cocteau and an excerpt from Rui Nogueira's Melville on Melville in which the iconoclastic director speaks frankly and thoughtfully about his and Cocteau's creative differences.
All the supplements are interesting in that they help shed light on this unique cinematic collaboration. At the time of filming Les Enfants Terribles, Cocteau was revered practically as a god, we are told in the supplements, whereas Melville was a beginning filmmaker with just one feature under his belt, La Silence de La Mer. However, despite that and the fact that Cocteau was already an established, acclaimed filmmaker in his own right, he allowed Melville to direct the film. Cocteau was heavily involved in the production process, we are told. In addition, we learn that it was he who had Dermithe, a novice with no interest in an acting career, cast in the film over Melville's objections. Cocteau was a frequent fixture on set, and even committed a major faux pas when, upon seeing something Dermithe was doing that he didn't like, he called "cut." I am not well versed in Cocteau's works, but it's still interesting to hear the debate about whose film Les Enfants Terribles is continue today, nearly six decades after the film's release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Stéphane might steal the show in Les Enfants Terribles, but she's not the only actor in the movie, unfortunately. Paul and Elisabeth's friend, Gérard, is a mostly wasted character who we learn very little about. There is even a hint (more than a hint, really) that Gérard loves Elisabeth, but this is never explored. For his part, Bernard is pretty bland, although he wasn't given a lot to work with.
Cosima, given a tricky double role as bully Dargelos and the alluring Agathe, unfortunately comes up short at both roles. According to the supplements, casting one actress in both parts was Melville's idea and was very much opposed by Cocteau, and although I love Melville's work, I have to side with Cocteau here. Cosima simply doesn't have the look or the chops to pull it off. As Dargelos, she is hardly the charismatic character who everyone would envy or admire, and as Agathe, she's just a mopey youth, seemingly ready to burst into tears at the drop of a hat.
Also troubling is the character of Michael (Melvyn Martin), who becomes a love interest for Elisabeth. Michael is a rich American Jew, an unfortunate stereotype that is exacerbated with anti-Semitic remarks from Paul. Elisabeth does chide Paul for his views, but the filmmakers should still not have included this characterization.
The ending of the film, which Melville changed over Cocteau's objections, is a little over-the-top, although admittedly thematically appropriate. Still, I wasn't surprised to learn that it was Melville's idea, since it is noticeably different from the rest of the film.
In addition, in the extras, it would have been nice to hear a little more about Melville's side of things, as most of the people interviewed tend to discuss Cocteau in much more detail than they do Melville. I realize that Cocteau is very much a legendary figure, but Melville was no slouch himself, and I'm sure there are intelligent writers/critics out there who would have shed more light on his contributions.
For my own part, I enjoy Melville's later work much more than Les Enfants Terribles; this film feels more like a well-mounted presentation of Cocteau's vision, rather than Melville's. Melville fans be warned: Don't expect anything like Army of Shadows or even Bob le Flambeur here; like me, you'll just be a little let down. The artistic differences, as I said, are interesting, but in some ways they may have hurt the finished product. And despite an excellent lead performance, the rest of the cast struggles for the most part.
Nonetheless, Les Enfants Terribles is still a good, important film. Anyone who enjoys the films of the French New Wave would do well do watch this. While the film is not New Wave, it's easy to see portents of it. If nothing else, for fans of either director, the film is certainly a great conversation (or argument) piece.
Not guilty, although if this were 1950, everyone but Stéphane would have been ordered to take acting classes.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary track with Writer, Film Critic, and Journalist Gilbert Adair
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