Les Enfants Terribles (Criterion) Review

The Film

Jean Cocteau's 1929 novel attracted a lot of attention from film-makers but the author turned down the likes of John Huston and even offers for himself to direct an adaptation. Cocteau's mind was changed about making the novel into a film when he watched Jean-Pierre Melville's debut, Le Silence de la Mer, and saw the almost silent performance of Nicole Stephane as well as Melville's fidelity to that source novel. Stephane, to Cocteau's eye, was the spitting image of Elizabeth from his own novel and he was happy to accede to Melville's request to film his book because he could bring the actress to the project. Cocteau adapted his own novel into a screenplay and the shoot began in 1949.

Dealing with the unnaturally close relationship between a brother and a sister, the film looks at the private universe of the two siblings, and the people who are drawn into it. Paul, the brother, is bedridden after being hit by a snowball by the handsome schoolboy Dargelos and finds himself looked after in his convalescensce by his adolescent sister, Elizabeth. When their mother dies, their insular world becomes smaller still as they fend for themselves in the adult world. Their friend, Gerard, finds himself lost in their games of mental cruelty and in love with Elizabeth. When Elizabeth goes out to work as a model she soon develops another friend, and lodger, Agathe - the double of Dargelos, and a potential husband, Michael. Paul is jealous of the friends but the marriage lasts little time as Michael dies and Elizabeth inherits his large house. Soon all four move in to the house but Paul grows apart from his sister and falls for Agathe who secretly loves him too. Elizabeth has to play another game to keep her brother.
From the very beginning, Les Enfants Terribles is a film which resembles Cocteau's work in cinema more than it does Melville's. The opening snowball fight is very similar to the same scene in Blood of a Poet and the objectifying of the central characters resembles the statuesque portrayal of the characters in the Orphic Trilogy. This authorial impression is re-inforced by the narration of passages of the book over the images by Cocteau himself, and of course the film is filled with his own poetic words. There are even technical touches which resemble Cocteau with a trolley shot like in La Belle et La Bete. Compared with the films that Melville would become known for with their masculine universe, spare dialogue and fluid images, Les Enfants Terribles seems the film of another director. Like Le Silence de la Mer before it, Melville is incredibly faithful to his source and respectful of what made the novel popular and the result of this is that his personality is sublimated in the work.
The poetry of Cocteau is respected by Melville in his direction but his approach overall is more minimal than Cocteau's. Melville aims for realism and fidelity above symbolism and a process of narrative that is more anchored than the dreamlike cinema of his writer. When the film does throw up a dream sequence, Melville is accurate and intelligent but his scene lacks resonance and impact. Similarly, the acting is not as theatrical as perhaps a more flamboyant director would have wanted. Still, Melville composes some fine images and his director of photography, Henri Decae, is inventive in capturing the quality of Stephane's appearance and the shadows beneath both the siblings' beauty. It may be much more of a Cocteau film because Melville respects the source of his film but the greatest impact is made on the viewer by the visual. Ironically, what remains with the viewer after watching the film is actually a tribute to Melville as it is his beautifully composed tableaux rather than Cocteau's words which endure. Both artists made better films, but this is a successful and intriguing collaboration from two of the foremost stylists of French cinema.

The Disc

The film comes on a dual layer disc with an enclosed booklet. The main presentation is window boxed by an overscan box which is not as excessive as their Ace in The Hole disc but is still unwelcome. The main feature has undergone some audio and visual restoration and some print damage remains in terms of odd marks and scratches to the image. The transfer is strong in terms of contrast and finely detailed although the source materials do prevent the transfer from excelling with occasional softness in scenes that are more worn by time. The audio has also been restored to a point with some moments of soundburst and distortion especially in earlier moments when the music hits a crescendo. Mild background noise is discernible at times if you are really looking for it, but this is a fine AV presentation. The new English subtitles are optional, very clear and render Cocteau's poetry well.

The commentary is the same as the BFI disc where Gilbert Adair talks reasonably fluently about the film without obviously resorting to a script. He starts by discussing Cocteau's gift of the rights to his novel to Melville and keeps regular reference to the original novel throughout. Adair is quite academic and admiring of Cocteau but his approach lacks warmth and his silences grow as the film reaches its climax. It is a pity that Ginette Vincendeau, whose introductions grace a number of Melville discs, and whose book on Melville, An American in Paris, is a terrific source of interest, was not approached to record a new commentary as Adair's comments are a little dry for my taste.

Carole Weisweiller, the producer, Nicole Stephane, Jacques Bernard and AD Claude Pinoteau are interviewed for a fourteen minute piece on the film's production. All join in the discussion on whose film it really is with the general concensus being that Cocteau inspired the cast and Melville was the technician. The different views on the film's ending also divided director and writer with Melville opting for a realistic ending in the face of Cocteau's symbolic one. The debate on who should claim ownership of the film is continued in Around Jean Cocteau with Noel Simsolo discussing the film with Dominique Paini and Jean Narboni. They all agree that the film seems to belong more to Cocteau and go on to discuss the impact that the poet film-maker had on directors like David Lynch and Raul Ruiz. We also get an interview form French TV in 2003 where Nicole Stephane celebrates the 40th anniversary of Cocteau's death and explains that she once slapped Melville because of his rudeness to Cocteau and gained a dinner invite from the latter because of it. The disc extras are completed by a stills gallery and a trailer for the film.

The enclosed booklet weighs in at 30 pages and it is broken up by 12 pages of line drawings drawn by Cocteau in 1934. Alongside the usual information such as chapter stops, cast and credits and details on the transfer there are three written pieces. Gary Indiana considers the partnership "between the résistant Melville and the collabo Cocteau" with his sympathies lying with the latter but he calls both "poet". Nicole Stephane contributes a tribute to both the film-makers and quotes Truffaut in stating that "Jean Cocteau's best novel became Jean-Pierre Melville's best film" and explains more about the backlash against Cocteau by French critics. Finally, there is an excerpt from an interview with Melville by Rui Nogueira where the director is definite in his belief that Cocteau wanted him to die so he could make the film. Melville also boasts of the effect of his film on Truffaut and Claude Chabrol witghthe latter using the same DP years later and copying the camera movements in his own Les Cousins.


An intriguing collaboration which showcases two great talents. As a Cocteau film it stands well with the Orphic trilogy, but as a Melville film it lacks the more mature style he would show later in his career. Criterion have done their usual fine job and the addition of more extras with an improved transfer give this release the edge over the existing BFI disc.

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