Midway through Les enfants terribles, the titular children, strange brother and sister duo Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and Paul (Edouard Dermithe), create a game where they must each shoplift something entirely useless from a seaside store. They even force their spineless pal Gérard (Jacques Bernard) to go along with it, sending him back in for another, larger item when he breaks the rules and turns up with a hair brush. Jean Cocteau, the narrator, who also happens to be the author of the film and the novel it is based on, informs the audience that this pointless action has been undertaken simply so the kids can feel they are dangerous, nothing more. Random cruelty with no result.
It's the nutshell scene of Les enfants terribles, the moment that crystallizes the themes and the characters. The 1950 film, newly released on DVD in North America by the Criterion Collection, was adapted by Jean Cocteau and the master French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, working from the writer's most famous novel, and what they came up with was borne of one of the most contentious partnerships in film history. The friction created real sparks, however, and they all end up on the screen. You can even argue that the pull the real world threatens to exert on Elisabeth and Paul in the picture is symbolic of these two headstrong artists working toward one goal. The grounded reality of a Melville movie meets the flighty interior opera of a Cocteau piece, and it's magic.
The film opens at a boy's school during winter. A snowball fight erupts, and Paul takes a shot in the chest. He's a weak boy, and it fells him, taking him out of school for the duration. The effeminate student who hurled the offending snowball is Dargelos (Renée Cosima), who becomes a sort of spectral image of death that haunts Paul from there on out. Dargelos becomes the poster boy for everything that Paul cannot do, the life he is too precious to live. Paul surrounds himself with photos of boxers and actors, all of whom have an eerie resemblance to Dargelos and also a much more interesting life than Paul himself.
Paul shares his photo-laden room with Elisabeth, his sister. She has already given up her life in order to care for their sick mother, and the two create their own world within the confines of their apartment, crafting strange codes and games that only they understand how to play. When their mother dies, so goes the last remaining boundaries. The kids are now free to live their lives as petulantly and abstractly as they want. Picture them as more isolated ancestors to Bertolucci's siblings in The Dreamers. Without the pop-culture backbone to weave their dramas around, they must invent every macabre scenario themselves. When Gérard is not around to pick on, they attack each other. When he is there, they use him as a pawn. As the film proceeds, they get more selfish, more demeaning, and any sense of a family bond completely erodes.
Things get particularly nasty once love enters into the picture. There are ill-defined incestuous overtones to the relationship between Elisabeth and Paul. They often gaze at one another with feral, lusty eyes. Melville uses mirrors as places where they not only search for their true selves, but where their sibling lurks behind them, waiting for what is to be revealed. Gérard loves Elisabeth, but he's too scared to admit it, and when she brings home a co-worker, Agathe, Paul is immediately smitten with her. Yet, rather than deal with it, he taunts her mercilessly. By some coincidence, she looks just like Dargelos (and is, in fact, played by the same actress), which is a big part of his obsession with her, and also the signal that she will eventually be the catalyst for the final moves in both Elisabeth and Paul's grand games.
Jean Cocteau's narration intrudes on the scene regularly, often explaining what we are looking at in a replication of detail, and also commenting on it. He points out the characters' lies, mistakes, and self-denial. He practically dictates their actions like a malicious god, or maybe another mean little child like the ones he writes about, trapping these rodents in a maze of his design. There is certainly an echo of a deus ex machina in the fatal car crash that takes Elisabeth's rich American husband (Melvyn Martin) from her the day after their wedding. Melville shows the wreckage while Cocteau explains his famous metaphor of the spinning wheel of the car being like the seemingly dwindling yet continuous nature of human life.
This moves the quartet of teens to a new home, a massive mansion with eighteen rooms and an unwieldy gallery where the dead man collected art objects willy nilly. This ups the scale of the drama, shifting the story into the final act and sending Elisabeth and Paul down the track toward their most evil, self-serving games. Melville frames everything with a haunting staginess. Characters often look up into an unspecified light, standing frozen as a moment is marked and pondered. Their lives are so far removed from reality, their environment so abstract, it's only the camera that can confine them.
Originally written July 19, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.
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