While other critics go low-brow, we go high-brow with this BFI remastering of the classic 1950 collaboration between two of the greats of French cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau. I’ve covered key work by Cocteau elsewhere on this blog (La Belle et la Bête, The Blood of a Poet, Orphee, The Testament of Orphee), and it’s safe to say that his unique brand of cinematic poetry is always worth looking at, particularly in today’s crystal-clear HD. It’s something of a surprise that two artists as idiosyncratic as Cocteau and Melville could work together at all, and while Les Enfants Terribles is a tricky movie to pin down in terms of meaning, it’s a real treat for cineastes.
The vivid opening sequence is a classic; a snowball fight breaks out in a posho French school, and Paul (Edouard Dermit) is hit by a snowball that conceals a rock, causing him to be sent home. His pal Gerard (Jacques Bernard) accompanies him, and finds that Paul lives in a dingy apartment with his aging mother and his sister Elizabeth (Nicole Stephane) which whom he has a strange relationship. Brother and sister communicate in their own language of games, aggression and tenderness, and sleep in beds side by side. When their mother passes away, Elizabeth marries a rich man who dies in a motorcycle accident, leaving Elizabeth, Paul and Gerard to decant themselves into his huge mansion. Gerard has a weird attraction to the couple, but the impact of the snowball seems to have made a more substantial impact on Paul than was previously thought.
There’s a metaphor for homosexuality here, and possible for drug-addiction, but Les Enfants Terribles is deliberately elusive about explaining itself, and leaves it for the viewer to interpret. Melville had previously adapted Vercors’ novel Le Silence de la Mer, and if you’ve read that book in the original French, you’ll know how deftly it captures the shifting power-struggle between a German soldier and a French girl and her father. With Cocteau on script duties, and providing a lyrical narration, Elizabeth and Paul seem continually to be at each other’s throats, and it’s never clear how much of this is just an eccentric game, or whether there’s something incestuous going on. ‘The room was a shell…(they were) two halves of the same body’ Cocteau solemnly intones, and even if they do have different lives, Paul and Elizabeth do indeed feel like one being until the inevitable separation intervenes…
Les Enfants Terribles has inspired other films, notably quirky US indie drama The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, or Bernardo Bertolucci’s provocative The Dreamers, but the original is so rich in allusion, it’s only possible to see it as a one off. ‘Suicide is a mortal sin’ is written on one of the mirrors in the siblings’ house, and that sense of being constantly teetering on the edge of a precarious sense of mortality gives the film a dangerous edge. The characters may become ‘richer than Croesus’ as Cocteau says, but for all their material affluence, their situation does not improve, and the audience is left to observe their decline and fall in elegiac detail.
This reissue comes complete with two audio commentaries by film scholars , one by Gilbert Adair in 2004, and a new one by Adrian Martin. The other extras are short, but hit the spot; an interview with the great Volker Schlöndorff about working as Melville’s assistant, and a profile of Melville by Ginette Vincendeau. Both are helpful for understanding this early-stage work from Melville, and the whole package is essential viewing for those who love French cinema.
Released on Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon Prime in the UK from 13 December 2021