From our vantage point, a partnership between the tough suspense artist Jean- Pierre Melville and the precocious Jean Cocteau on Les Enfants Terribles might look odd, but at the time their meeting went without much notice. Melville, a virtual unknown, had just completed his first feature Le silence de la mer, a well-received adaptation of the popular novel by Jean Bruller, when Cocteau contacted him about adapting his popular book about acrid adolescence.
The movie was a success and ever since, no one can decide who was responsible for it. Indeed, this is the primary debate on the supplements featured on Criterion’s deluxe release. Melville promotes himself in a reprinted interview included with the booklet. Judging from the decent documentary About the Film, their tension constituted a second drama on the set. The rather tiring Around Jean Cocteau features film scholars Dominique Païni and critic Jean Narboni strolling around a Cocteau exhibit at the Centre Pompidou pondering the question. Païni decides it’s “his [Cocteau’s] and his alone.”
In an accompanying booklet essay “Hazards of a Snowball Fight”, Gary Indiana comes to the common sense conclusion that it doesn’t really matter who is responsible: “two modes of poetry merge into a hybrid something else, unrepeatable and unforgettable.” And they do merge, melding the bourgeois and the avant-garde (it’s no wonder François Truffaut obsessed over it), but there’s also a palpable tension between the artists that is another source of strength and intensity. According to Gilbert Aldair’s lucid and illuminating commentary track, Cocteau gave Melville the rights to the book and said, “Betray me.”
The popularity of the book may have had to do with its appealing yet castigating treatment of modern urban youth as romantic decadents. The sexuality of the characters is dealt with openly, from schoolboy homoeroticism to the tentative yet confident wielding of the body. Cocteau was removing the scrim on ideals of innocent youth, which must have appealed to ‘20s teenagers looking for emotionally vital depictions of their lives. Meanwhile, he also evoked in conservative adults worries of teenage monstrosity. There is unmasked potential that can swing either way. As Cocteau as the film’s narrator says, “Beauty enjoys immense privileges.”
The opening sequence depicts a snowball fight outside a Parisian school, where Paul (Edouard Dermithe) is knocked out by his mock heroic crush, Dargelos (Renée Cosima). His sober-headed friend, Gérard (Jacques Bernard) carries him to the flat where he lives with his twin sister, Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and their ailing mother. Elisabeth nurses him to health and the siblings use the recuperation to retreat into the cloistered incestuous performance space of their womb-like bedroom. Cocteau says, “Their room was a thick shell…where they lived like two halves of the same body.” It is called the “Forbidden City”.
Acting out a “game” of high melodrama called “getting lost”, the twins drift further from reality. When their mother dies, “far from causing them pain, the near mythological circumstances of their mother’s death uplifted them,” earning “a place of honor in their dream world.” With Elisabeth as the most active siren, they pull others into this world too, including Gérard, the model Agathe (Cosima), and the “rich American Jew” Michael (Melvyn Martin). The twins collect their friends and toy with their lives as if they were the worthless treasure they keep in a dresser drawer. But the twins’ bond is threatened when Paul falls in love with Agathe, after noticing the similarity between her and a photo of Dargelos in drag for a school play.
Cocteau’s works often take place in an allusive and lightly surreal realm. Melville and Henri Decaë‘s visuals combine relatively straight forward framing techniques and smooth tracking shots with claustrophobic sets; this results in keeping at least one toe of Elisabeth and Paul’s fantasy kingdom on the ground. The sets, designed by Melville and partially built on stages at the Théâtre Pigalle, take advantage of moving platforms to create unique crane-like motions. They also allow for the Welles-influenced ability to shoot from below, looking up from the footlights, further emphasizing the performance aspect of Elisabeth and Paul’s relationship.
The soundtrack, Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos and Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso, is one of the early, ironic juxtapositions of refined classical music set against the characters’ less than refined behavior and circumstances. It also emphasizes the timelessness of the action – this story could be set in the ‘20s or the ‘50s—and the character’s delusions of mythical immortality.
Melville claims that he used this music over Cocteau’s explicit request for jazz “without even telling him.” It is one of the clearest examples where the artists’ differences complemented each other. In Clive James’ profile of Cocteau in his book Cultural Amnesia he says, “the froth and fizz of his superficial behavior made you nostalgic for the underlying man, whom you guessed correctly to be classical in his perceptions despite his self-denigrating mania for originality.” Melville, the precise story architect, brings out the classicism.
But the originality is what gives the film its edge and this belongs to Cocteau. The story is of course his and he also adapted the script (although Melville makes claims to that, as well). Most of all his biting narration combined with his dry staccato delivery literally imprints the author’s voice on the film.
According to Melville in an included interview, “the one thing Cocteau wanted was for me to die so that he could make the film himself.” They don’t always help each other. At times Melville’s even-keeled storytelling contrasts with Cocteau’s deliberate collapsing of time, creating unnecessary confusion. A three-act structure is simultaneously set up and subverted, creating distracting friction. Particularly clunky is the transition from the dizzying rush of the middle portion, when Elisabeth becomes a model and marries Michael, to the suddenly patient tension building to the climax of the finale.
Most disastrous was the casting of Dermithe as Paul. He was Cocteau’s boyfriend and his casting was required by the contract granting Melville the book’s rights. Buff and in his mid-20s, Dermithe looks the exact opposite of Elisabeth’s weakling 16-year-old little brother. Dermithe is a poor actor and a detriment to the telling of the story.
It’s especially unfortunate as he’s contrasted with the Stéphane’s captivating diva turn as Elisabeth. Indiana calls her, “magnetic, fascinating, shrewish, repulsive, and sympathetic.” Her fierceness recalls the magnificent Italian actress, Anna Magnani. In her role as Elisabeth, Stéphane is a third but major creative contributor and, compared with the other performances, delivers something of a solo act. This is maybe how Elisabeth would prefer it, but for the audience none of the characters, primarily due to the actor’s playing them, function as an adequate foil or compelling persona.
Perhaps the film’s biggest limitation is found not in the story, nor in the actors’ performances, but in the characters themselves. Cocteau’s narrator says, “Introspection demands a discipline they lacked, they found only darkness, phantom emotions.” A movie about prolonged and perverted adolescence is ultimately hampered by its characters’ refusal or inability to change. The bang with which Paul and Elisabeth’s bubble is popped is too pat, inevitable only as their final, dramatic wish fulfillment.
Criterion’s typically high-class package of supplements tirelessly examines the film from all angles. If there is any fault, it’s the hyper focus on the two creators at the expense of any textual examination. For all of Melville’s storytelling prowess and visual ingenuity, and Cocteau’s fantastical tone and precise wording, the temperamental gap between them remains unresolved. Les Enfants Terribles flickers with greatness, as the characters’ creative energies deflect and adhere.