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Les Enfants Terribles (1952)

Directed by:

Jean-Pierre Melville

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 102 minutes

UK Certificate: 12

On DVD

Country: France

Paul (Edouard Dermithe) is somnolent, sickly and passive, while Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) is bold, manipulative and domineering. As siblings, they are like chalk and cheese, but also “like two limbs of the same body”. Gravely injured in a snowfight, Paul is withdrawn from school to rest at home, cutting short his very first adolescent crush (on demonically charismatic schoolboy Dargélos, played by the actress Renée Cosima). Paul is looked after by Elisabeth, who already stays home to nurse their dying mother, and so brother and sister preserve their shared room as a shrine to disorder, game-playing, ceaseless bickering, and other rituals of infancy. The cocooned life that they have constructed can seemingly survive and accommodate everything that happens to them – the death of their mother, an excursion to the beach, even Elisabeth’s ill-fated marriage – but when Paul’s love is reawakened by a girl named Agathe who bears an uncanny resemblance to the schoolboy Dargélos (not least because she is also played by Cosima), it becomes apparent that even if the siblings are incapable of entering adulthood, their prolonged childhood is doomed to come to a terrible end.

The screenplay for ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ was adapted by Jean Cocteau from his own 1929 novel, and Cocteau also provides the memorable voice-over – but it was directed by a young Jean-Pierre Melville (famous later for ‘policiers’ like ‘Le Samouraï’ and Le Cercle Rouge), and his meticulous attention to detail and painstakingly precise control 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. For all their incorrigible behaviour, the main characters prove unable to resist the fate which drives them towards catastrophe, and Melville conveys this sense of overarching destiny by setting their childish unruliness not to some modern, specially composed soundtrack, but to the restrained measures of Vivaldi and Bach – and by never allowing the siblings’ whimsical excitability to intrude upon his own calm detachment. It was this tension between cool style and outrageous content which confounded critics at the time of the film’s release, but would a few years later be championed and imitated by the French nouvelle vague.

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 mesmerising 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).

Still, like so many misbehaving children, Paul and Elisabeth can make for rather taxing company, and are too narcissistic and self-involved to be engaging for very long, so that by the time the film is over, most viewers will be unlikely to mourn their absence.

It's Got: A hyperliterary voice-over by Jean Cocteau himself; Cocteaus lover (and former gardener) Edouard Dermithe appearing as Paul; a stand-out performance by Nicole Stéphane as Elisabeth; Renée Cosima playing in both male and female rôles; eerie dream sequence; petty crime, incest, homoeroticism, poison and madness.

It Needs: More warmth, a reduced length - and perhaps some parental discipline.

DVD Extras Scene selection; optional English subtitles; a twelve-minute interview with Nicole Stéphane for TV5, with optional subtitles, which reveals little besides the fact that the actress is still in wide-eyed awe of Cocteau - but it is interesting to see her half a century after the film was made; excellent bios of Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville; a page showing the films original poster. There is also a full audio commentary by Gilbert Adair, whose screenplay for Bernardo Beroluccis The Dreamers, and whose novel The Holy Innocents from which the screenplay was adapted, were both inspired by Les Enfants Terribles. Adair is exceptionally knowledgeable (especially on Cocteaus biography and his troubled relationship with Melville, and on incest as a metaphor for Cocteaus closeted homosexuality) and eloquent, but there are several long silences and also some repetition of material. DVD Extras Rating: 6/10

Alternatives:

A Zed & Two Noughts, Deadringers, The Dreamers

Summary

This classic tragedy of arrested development and repressed desires keeps you at a distance – which might leave some feeling a little cold.

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