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Synopsis: Schoolboy Paul (Edouard Dermithe) is felled by a snowball, and when examined by a doctor, is found to have a frail heart. He leaves school and is cared for by his domineering sister Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) in their small flat. After their mother dies the apartment becomes a little world for the brother and sister. They are joined by friends Gerard (Jacques Bernard) and Agathe (Renée Cosima). Paul is instantly attracted to Agathe, who resembles Dargelos, the boy that hit him with a snowball. Already relating with Paul much too intimately, Elisabeth extends her psychological control over the group, with disastrous results.
Jean Cocteau was a vastly influential artist and the films he directed remain unique. He contributed excellent dialogue to great films by others, as with Robert Bresson's Les dames du Bois de Boulogne. Sometimes the influence is in the form of inspiration, as in the Cocteau-inflected world of George Franju's Eyes without a Face. In Les enfants terribles producer/director/co-writer Jean-Pierre Melville interprets Cocteau's source book on a more realistic plane. A dream by one of the characters avoids a Cocteau flight of fantasy, and limits itself to a memorable silhouetted visual composition on a hilltop. A strange snowball fight has a fanciful tone, but the quasi-incestuous 'games' between Paul and Elisabeth are represented almost exclusively by Cocteau's narration. Melville suggests the sealed-off little world between the characters, even when they move into a vast chateau with cavernous rooms. Paul perversely reconstructs his old cramped bedroom by moving some screens to the middle of a ballroom. His sister and friends recognize it as a friendly space.
The movie has some nagging problems. When treated realistically, Cocteau's strange world comes off as 'merely' obsessive and more than a bit forced. The characters are meant to be in their late teens, but they all look to be in their late 20s; the important role of Paul was given to the inexpressive Edouard Dermithe because he was Cocteau's latest discovery. Dermithe looks similar to all of Cocteau's leading men from Blood of a Poet to Jean Marais. His Paul never seems sickly and Elisabeth's exaggerated criticisms and attentiveness are suspect from the beginning. The inoffensive Gerard is little more than a puppet. The presence of the unlucky Michael (Melvyn Martin) seems a quick dodge to put Elisabeth in charge of a great deal of property, and so continue the characters' uneasy, isolated lifestyle. Finally, the clumsy introduction of an exotic poison and a murder weapon come off as bad storytelling, plain and simple.
The film is split between stylized and realistic viewpoints. It wants us to view the annihilating climax as a bigger-than-life tragedy instead of the predictable outcome of some very sick relationships. A much less elegant, more coherent look at irresponsible 'holy terror' teens was seen in the grim 1969 film Last Summer. Its similarly spoiled American kids break taboos, victimize strangers and eventually turn on each other in cruel sexual games.
Some of these drawbacks are nullified by Melville's direction and the impressive performance of Nicole Stéphane. A nervous camera and jumpy cutting frequently lead to interesting images, like the strange trucking shot that appears to pull Gerard away from his friends. Ms. Stéphane's Elisabeth is an original creation, a naturally malign female force that seeks to control those around her. She naturally takes to modeling, after receiving the instruction to be commanding in her interplay with customers. Part of Elisabeth's motivation is to 'keep things as they are', which includes monopolizing Paul. He objects verbally to most everything but remains under his sister's power. These psychosexual games become confused when Paul falls instantly in love with the model Agathe, because she resembles a boy he once admired at school. Edouard Dermithe's unfocused performance doesn't help this part of the story either. Although not given much credit by some critics, René Cosima fills her dual role as Dargelos / Agathe quite nicely.
Criterion's disc of Les enfants terribles gives this 57 year-old film a fine facelift. We're told it wasn't initially well received. Henri Decaë's cinematography apparently impressed the New Wave directors, all of whom wanted a similar look. The Bach and Vivaldi cues on the soundtrack are Melville's choice, as he overruled Cocteau's desired jazz score.
The extras assembled by disc producers Debra McClutchy and Alexandre Mabilon give uninitiated viewers a complete picture of Melville-Cocteau collaboration. Writer Gilbert Adair's commentary is more than adequate and most of the other interview featurettes center on the noted clash between the two filmmakers. Assistant director Claude Pinoteau and actor Jacques Bernard offer first-person testimony from the set. Nicole Stéphane lauds Cocteau in her own television interview and another video called Around Jean Cocteau definitely assigns the film's paternity to the elder artiste. Galleries of stills and a trailer are present as well.
The insert booklet contains a helpful essay by Gary Indiana, Nicole Stéphane's personal memories and an excerpt about the film from Rui Nogueira's old Melville interview book.
For more information about Les Enfants Terribles, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Les Enfants Terribles, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson