Les Enfants Terribles

Les Enfants Terribles (1950)

Les Enfants Terribles first published, in a different version, by Movie Gazette, in Nov 2004

Paul (Edouard Dermithe) is somnolent, sickly and passive, while Elisabeth (a mesmerising Nicole Stéphane) is bold, manipulative and domineering. As siblings, they are like chalk and cheese, but form an intimately tight pair together, “like two limbs of the same body”. Gravely injured in a snowfight, Paul is withdrawn from school to rest at home, cutting short his very first adolescent crush (on demonically charismatic schoolboy Dargélos, played by the actress Renée Cosima). Paul is looked after by Elisabeth, who already stays home to nurse their dying mother, and so brother and sister preserve their shared room as a shrine to disorder, game-playing, ceaseless bickering, and other rituals of infancy. The cocooned life that they have constructed can seemingly survive and accommodate everything that happens to them – the death of their mother, an excursion to the beach, even Elisabeth’s ill-fated marriage – but when Paul’s love is reawakened by a girl named Agathe who bears an uncanny resemblance to the schoolboy Dargélos (not least because she is also played by Cosima), it becomes apparent that even if the siblings are incapable of entering adulthood, their prolonged childhood is doomed to come to a terrible end.

The screenplay for Les Enfants Terribles was adapted by Jean Cocteau from his own 1929 novel, features Cocteau’s lover (and former gardener) Dermithe in the lead rôle of Paul, and has a memorably hyper-literary voiceover provided by Cocteau himself – but it was directed by a young Jean-Pierre Melville (famous later for his stylised ‘policiers’ like Le Doulos, Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge), and his meticulous attention to detail and painstakingly precise control form a counterpoint to Cocteau’s more anarchic tendencies, perfectly reflecting the dialectic between order and disorder, dreams and reality that is so central to the film. For all their incorrigible behaviour, the main characters prove unable to resist the fate which drives them towards catastrophe, and Melville conveys this sense of overarching destiny by setting their childish unruliness not to some modern, specially composed soundtrack, but to the restrained measures of Vivaldi and Bach – and by never allowing the siblings’ whimsical excitability to intrude upon his own calm detachment. It was this tension between cool style and outrageous content which confounded critics at the time of the film’s release, but would a few years later be championed and imitated by the French nouvelle vague.

This coolness always keeps us at a distance, and risks leaving some viewers feeling a little cold – and like so many misbehaving children, Paul and Elisabeth can make for rather tedious, taxing company and are too narcissistic and self-involved to be engaging for very long, so that by the time the film is over, some viewers will be relieved at last to be able to withdraw their adult supervision from the kiddies’ table. Yet the siblings’ arrested development engenders a claustrophobic tragedy – a hermetic incest myth of repressed desires and madness – from which it is hard to look away. It matters little that the teenage protagonists are played by actors who are obviously in their twenties, as this just brings into sharper relief the mismatch between the characters’ conduct and age. For as the film’s title suggests, the siblings’ arbitrariness, contrariness and selfishness are traits not of the young adults that Paul and Elisabeth ought (at least by the end) to be, but rather of children, and it is this misfit infantilism which makes the pair so much more compelling to watch than real children.

strap: Jean-Pierre Melville’s tragedy of arrested development and implied incest ushers in the New Wave

© Anton Bitel