Sunday, September 18, 2016
a "masterpiece," as David Thomson calls it, or "pretentious poppycock," as Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic, called it. I trust Thomson's judgments far more than those of Crowther, a notorious fuddy-duddy, but I prefer to think of the film as not "either/or" but instead "both/and." It's certainly not poppycock in any case, especially in its depiction of adolescence as a kind of fever dream, and the way incest flickers around the relationship of Paul and Elisabeth like heat lightning. But there is certainly a whiff of pretentiousness in the voiceover narration (by Cocteau himself) that hammers home the folie à deux of the siblings, which is apparent without any comment. If it's a masterpiece, which I'm not entirely confident in calling it, it becomes one from Melville's staging, in collaboration with production designer Emile Mathys, Henri Decaë's cinematography, and especially the performance of Stéphane, whose invocation of Lady Macbeth in one scene makes me wish she had played the part on film. Melville didn't want to cast Dermithe, Cocteau's lover, in the role of Paul, and I think he was right. At 25, Dermithe was too old and too sturdy to play the neurasthenic 16-year-old who is felled by a snowball. But Renée Cosima is impressive in the dual role of Dargelos, the schoolboy who throws the snowball, and Agathe, who falls into Elisabeth's clutches as a weapon with which to torment her brother.