Les Enfants Terribles: A Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville masterpiece.
I had the intense pleasure of watching Les Enfants Terribles yesterday, an experience not unlike being in a dorothy-like tornado of subversion. This astonishingly perversive film – made ten years before La Nouvelle Vague – had me clearly seeing why Jean Pierre Melville was called the godfather of the French New wave.
Apparently Jean Cocteau was so impressed with Melvilles first feature film (The Silence of the Sea) that he commissioned Melville to make a film out of his brilliant novel Les Enfants Terrible. The two collaborate heavily, even so far as Cocteau provides the oppressive yet strangely detached voice over narrative that gives us the distance required to not fall into the power of these destructive children. Cocteau’s narration and story are dark and compelling but it is Melville and his meticulous attention to detail and painstakingly precise control that form a counterpoint to Cocteau’s more anarchic tendencies, perfectly reflecting the dialectic between order and disorder, dreams and reality that is so central to the film. Rarely does a film make me want to fly out and read the book. This one did.
The basic story is one of two children, Paul (Edouard Dermithe) and Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) who live together with their sick mother. Paul is somnolent, selfish and introverted while Elizabeth is dominating and manipulative. As siblings they are chalk and cheese, however each fills a desperate need in the other for the replace ment of their parents. Their father, who used to beat their mother, is gone (drunk himself to death) and in the early part of the film their mother dies leaving the children in the spurious care of anyone who will notice them. This happens to be their mothers Doctor, a house keeper, and the family of a good friend Gerard (Jaques Bernard).
the film opens with an orgiastic snowball fight among school boys. Indeed this is the first of many sensual moments implanted into the film. (breathtaking shots of the boys doing ‘battle’ with their snowballs). Paul is searching for Dargelos a boy he has a crush on. Dargelos (played here by Renée Cosima – an actress who gives androgynous power to the reoccurring love motifs in Paul’s life) is a nasty sado-masochistic kind of boy and lays in wait for Paul, so that when he appears he hits him hard in the chest with a snowball that may or may not have had a rock in it. Paul, already a weak lad, is rendered unconscious and taken home, to be nursed by his sister in the house where their mother lays waiting to die.
The children have a complicated relationship of mind games, attacks, endless assaults that delve comfortably into the darkest territory (Paul repeatedly accuses his sister of being good for nothing but prostitution) as they grow from tender teens to early adulthood. They share a room (rooms are very important in this film) and bathe and change in front of each other comfortably. The room is the central focal point for their childish bickering and mind games.
When their mother dies, it is obvious something needs to be done for them to gain money, so Elizabeth gets a job as a model. Interestingly, despite the grown up relationship the two children have with the world now, this is not reflected in their behaviours toward each other. They will bicker and fight as they always have, until one day Elizabeth brings home another model from her work, Agathe (again played by Renee Cosima). Paul is instantly struck by the fact that Agathe looks exactly like Dargelos, the boy he loved that was so mercilessly cruel to him. At this same moment, Elizabeth realises that Paul has decorated their room in images of men who all look like Dargelos.
The four continue on with a friendship that centres completely around the siblings and their odd ways, until Gerard introduces Elizabeth to Michael (Melvyn Martin) even though he loves Elizabeth himself, in the hope that they will marry because Michael is wealthy. Michael falls in love with Elizabeth and they do marry, moving the four-some into the enormous house that Michael owns. Immediately into the wedding Michael is killed (in a chilling voice over Cocteau states Elizabeth married Michael, not for love, not for his beauty, not for his money, but for his death) and Elizabeth is left with a huge amount of money and the enormous house with its endless maze of rooms. The four go on living in the house, but it soon become apparent to Elizabeth that Agathe and Paul have fallen in love.
Elizabeth then sets a plan in motion that gives full weight to the power of her jealousy and possession of Paul. She interferes with the lovers attempts to communicate and convinces each that the other does not want them. She also convinces Gerard and Agathe that they must marry. In a perverse twist of fate, Gerard and Agathe come back from a holiday with a gift of poison from Dargelos whom they have bumped into when they were away. the very depressed Paul is instantly fascinated with the gift – something he has always loved and collected, plus it came from his school boy crush. HOwever, it is with the poison sent from Dargelos that he finally decides to kill himself, in the arms of Agathe who declares her love for him too late. This is witnessed by Elizabeth who, unable to bare what she has done, or the love her brother has for another, kills herself in front of Agathe as paul dies.
The siblings’ arrested development engenders a claustrophobic tragedy of repressed desires and madness, and it matters little that the teenage leads are played by actors who are obviously in their twenties as this just brings into sharper relief the mismatch between the characters’ conduct and age. For as the film’s title suggests, the siblings’ arbitrariness, contrariness and selfishness are traits not of the young adults that Paul and Elisabeth ought (at least by the end) to be, but rather of children, and it is this strange infantilism which makes the pair so much more compelling to watch than real children. Nicole Stéphane in particular is mesmerizing as she goes from shrew to nurse to widow to manipulator to madwoman without ever dropping her mask of wilful child (in an adult body). Couple this with Cocteau\’s dispassionate adult-centric observational voice overs and a very strong impression of the childish behaviour adults often exhibit when subconscious fears are brought to the surface and you have a masterpiece of the dangers of the subconscious drive that surrealism could never hope to emulate.
I have come up against the same problems as so many of those attempting to analyse this film have encountered before me. Note this passage from Neil Chaudhuri in his excellent analysis Into the Realms of Light and Darkness:Les Enfants terribles:
In my understanding, the film scholar’s metier is to search relentlessly for cinema of consequence – work that might be aesthetically innovative or perhaps noteworthy for its progressive content. A film could also be relevant dramatically, sociologically, in its representation of identities for example, or culturally, as a reference point in the career of an important artist or indeed, in the development of an art itself. Every now and then we are confronted by a piece of work that is all of the above – amonster text that has us jostling around, armed with our analyses and polemics in a desperate attempt to get another word in. Such is the case with Les Enfants terribles, released in 1950 and still captivating and difficult to write about in 2006. Standing as it did, on the shoulders of two mysterious and imposing figures – the writer, Jean Cocteau, and producer-director, Jean-Pierre Melville – it appeared impossible for critical scholarship to avoid a collision with this film.
This is a film that is so dark, so deep, so beautifully composed, that there is too much to say on the topic. It immediately launched itself into being one of my favourite films. One of the primary questions here is which of the two artists exercised a greater creative influence on the final product? Could a cinema that was still comparatively rigid and conservative manage to negotiate the murky depths of Cocteau’s disturbing avant-garde novel? The positing of Cocteau’s dark and murky offerings against Melvilles controlled and assured handling provides a mesmerizing creative experience that takes us deep into our hidden selves. Combine that with the excellent performance of Nicole Stéphane who regularly manifests Renée Jeanne in Dreyer‘s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her character is a child of Cocteau but there is clear imprints of Melville on her performance. She is allowed a moment of existential awareness when she looks into her mirror while washing her hands after she has spun her web, and while her actions seem calculated and organised, she acts ritually in that eye of the storm ‘calm’ schizophrenia between deliberation and madness.
Cocteau claimed he only exposed wounds. The film opens with an act of violence that paves the way for repeated acts of injury and pain – the emotional being far greater than the physical. The oppressive claustrophobic world of the siblings, expressed through the various rooms they inhabit, smothers and damages them and all who come near them. Even toward the end, when paul moves into a room that is not really a room but a kind of space that leads to other rooms (a corridor to other worlds) he pines for Agathe and the suffocating oppression of his sister. For an intensely sexual film, sexuality is subverted in the most startling sense. It is never addressed openly, despite two marriages and confined shared space where bathing and changing occur. Melville gives us many intensely erotic scenes, such as a close up of Elizabeth erotically feeding crayfish to Paul in a devastating close up and water seeping from under a locked door to almost down polished leather shoes. Sex is everywhere and no where in this brilliant film, a breathtaking display of the power of the subterranean.
In a narrative that orbits the spheres of incest, homoeroticism and sado-masochism, Cocteau used his poeticism well to try and subvert a Manichaean understanding of his subjects. the sheer weight of the subject matter is almost crushing, but for the light composed direction of the young ambitious Melville. Near the start of the film, the camera tracks alongside Elisabeth and Gerard in a dimly lit corridor and she informs him of Paul’s sleepwalking habit. As soon as they enter into the candour of The Room, Elisabeth launches into an animated monologue, interrupted now and then by Paul’s acerbic retorts. Melville suddenly repositions his camera at a considerably low-angle, and the frame suggests the perspective of a front-row audience in a theatre. This is only one of a number of instances where he uses theatricality (already an inherent feature of the novel) to help construct the drama in his film. The choreography and performances of the actors, a strikingly self-reflexive deployment of light and shadow, and the use of Bach, Vivaldi and Cocteau’s intermittent voiceovers, all lend heavily to the sense of artifice, and also successfully translate the theatrics involved in Paul and Elisabeth’s private mind-games. Gerard performs his role as the prototypical passive spectator – laughing, objecting and averting his eyes on cue. There is even a direct allusion to the recreation of a theatre, with Melville framing the curtain and empty seats before pulling his camera back into the “active” space. Throughout all of this, he is able to achieve important paradoxes in expression: the presence of glaring light in the realms of darkness, and the depiction of lethargy as frighteningly intense. (please see Neil Chaudhuri’s excellent article for the bulk of what I have said in this paragraph as well as more on the brilliant framing of this film.)
I have to stop writing here – feeling as though I have barely touched the surface of the importance of this most incredible marvellous film. All I can say from this point on is you must see it for yourself.