A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950)

Les Enfants Terribles was released in the United States as The Strange Ones, which has the effect of reducing monstrosity to mere nonconformity. For the siblings Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and Paul (Édouard Dermithe) are monsters, even if they are perhaps more destructive to each other than they are to other people. Not that Jean Cocteau, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, had anything against monsters: He created the most memorable non-animated version of Beauty and the Beast (1946), after all. Les Enfants Terribles was an uneasy collaboration between Cocteau and director Jean-Pierre Melville; being no slouch as a director himself, Cocteau was capable of imposing his ideas on Melville, who was almost 30 years younger. But somehow they prevailed and produced a film that is either 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.