#398 Les Enfants Terribles
1950 // France // Jean-Pierre Melville
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Two Heads of the Same Coin
There’s a famous quote from François Truffaut commenting on the filmic adaptation of Les Enfants Terribles in which he firmly asserted “Jean Cocteau’s best novel became Jean-Pierre Melville’s best film.” I haven’t read the original novel published in 1929 by the poet-film-maker Jean Cocteau, however I could hard conceive that’s Melville’s best work in consideration of Le Samouraï (1967) and Amy of Shadows (1969). Perhaps Truffaut made that statement far too early to be sustainable, but as far as the authorship is concerned, one cannot single out Cocteau or Melville over the other. Simply to say, Les Enfants Terribles is a collaborative arts between two heads of the same coin.
The controversy over the “right” of authorship between the two artists is as fierce and intriguing as the story of the film itself. Cocteau once claimed, “although I worked with Melville hand in hand, the film is his, not mine.” On the other hand, Melville considered “the one thing Cocteau wanted was for me to die so that he could make the film himself.” Cocteau preferred the score by Wiener and Doucet but Melville eventually picked the baroque music by Bach and Vivaldi; Cocteau insisted on casting Edouard Dermithe, his latest flame, as the protagonist Paul, although Melville opted for a more fragile and tender actor. Additionally Cocteau, adapting the novel into screenplay himself, transposed the setting of the story to the present day instead of 1929. The creative differences unavoidably caused issues throughout the shooting. Indeed Cocteau took up the director chair for one day to film the scenes in the seasides for the sick-fallen Melville. It’s hard to reach a definite consensus of the definite artistic ownership, but personally, I prefer to view this film as Melville’s creation in the spirit of Cocteau. In short they are both indispensable.
Film-wise, it echoes unintentionally the obscuring dichotomy of an incestuous relationship between the older sister Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and the younger brother Paul (Edouard Dermithe), both at the intermediate age between neither children nor adult. The story depicts the tug of war of achieving the dominating power in this androgynous relationship, in which Elisabeth takes over as the dominant partner and ultimately personifies a deadly figure, a femme fatale, which costs both of their lives. The film begins with an after-school snowball fight as Paul is hit by a stone hidden inside a snowball thrown by his fellow schoolmate Dargelos (Renee Cosima), whom he is infatuated. He falls ill and stays at home under the nursing of his sister who also takes care of their invalid mother. Soon these two “terrible children” turn their living space, the bedroom, into a “theater” of ritualistic, and occasionally sadistic games with the accompany of Paul’s intimate friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard).
The sexuality of Paul is further mystified when Elisabeth brings along her friend Agathe (Renee Cosima) whom she meets from modelling at a fashion shop. In an awe of fixed gaze, Elisabeth discovers the facial resemblance between Agathe and Dargelos (both portrayed by the same actress, thus modifying Dargelos into a more feminised character than the one in novel) and all the photographs displayed on Paul’s wall. It’s the face of Agathe/Dargelos that fascinates Paul, an androgynous image as symbolised by the moustached status observable in his room. Melville consistently placed the sibling in mirror positions, sometimes in profile, at times side by side, presenting them “like two members of the same body” as informed by Cocteau’s voiceover. The characters also address the camera directly or looking through a mirror, further obscuring the boundary between surreal fantasy and reality. At one point the sibling’s bedroom slides away from Gerard’s back both literally in a cinematic trick and metaphorically in the mindset of the character.
Henri Decaë continued his craftsmanship by using unusual camera angle and expressionist lighting in the black-and-white cinematography as he had done in Melville’s preceded film Le Silence de la Mer (1949). Herein the camera achieved more dynamic in its mobile crane shot as done in the spacious gallery owned by Elisabeth’s fiancé Michael (Melvyn Martin), who would die unexpectedly in a car accident after their wedding. Perhaps the jealousy of Elisabeth and Paul over each other’s partner is the curse responsible for the “timely” death of Michael, but Elisabeth’s manipulation over Paul and Agathe’s unwitting mutual love is unquestionably diabolical in the most theatrical sense. After committing the “crime”, she looks at herself in the mirror while washing her hands, supplemented with the voiceover, her image is overlapped with the one of Lady Macbeth. Foreshadowed by the motto written on the mirror in their bedroom – ‘suicide is a mortal sin’, the end of Les Enfants Terribles is explicitly theatrical and Greek-tragedy alike, perhaps the least “Melvilleian” amid Melville’s oeuvre. For all the intrinsic elements, Cocteau’s spirit is nonetheless the dominant one; but it’s through Melville’s filtering that the product is finalized as the film we are now watching. It’s a short marriage between two unwavering artists, and it’s indeed an unforgettable one.