Les Enfants Terribles (Criterion) Review
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.
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.
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.