Saturday, 1 July 2017

Les enfants terribles - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Melville and Cocteau make for strange bedfellows in this oddball 1950 effort at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in summer 2017 series "Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville" and, via the Criterion Collection DVD.

Can too much Cocteau be too much? Perhaps.

Les enfants terribles (1950)
Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Scr. Jean Cocteau & Melville
Starring: Nicole Stéphane, Édouard Dermit, Jacques Bernard, Renée Cosima

Review By Greg Klymkiw

God knows I love Jean-Pierre Melville, but sitting through his gun-for-hire directorial effort Les infants terribles is a bit like what a colonoscopy used to feel like before they knocked you out with happy drugs. In fact, it's not dissimilar to suffering through any movie directed by the lumberingly precious Jean Cocteau (Le Sang d'un poète, La Belle et la Bête, Orphée). Well, surprise-surprise, Les infants terribles is based upon the novel of the same title (and co-screenwritten) by Jean Cocteau. Even more appalling is that Cocteau himself, with a nasal, mannered delivery, narrates the movie with his sarcastic, obvious, on-point jackhammered prose.

At times, the movie feels like a Gallic-tinged Howard Hawks comedy with rapid-fire delivery and a score comprised mainly of Vivaldi, which, I'll admit, makes it sound more engaging than it actually is.

But no, it's often painful.

That, however, might be the point and in spite of often detesting the movie, I found it compulsively watchable - mostly because of Melville's direction and in spite of Cocteau's writing (not so much the narrative and dialogue, but the aforementioned narration, which often serves to rip us out of the picture's forward thrust).

Things begin well enough in the opening scenes at an all-male Catholic school where a bunch of boisterous lads roughhouse after a fresh snowfall. The dashing pretty-boy Dargelos (Renée Cosima) is leading the charge and at one point, he hurls a snowball tightly packed round a stone at the fey, aquiline-featured Paul (Édouard Dermit). Smacking him in the chest, it winds him to such an extent that he crashes to the ground, rendered unconscious and suffering from bruised ribs.

Melville's direction during this sequence is dazzling. We feel like we're in the midst of a war-like skirmish on the fields of Flanders and it's as sprightly and engaging an opening as one could hope for in any movie.

Eventually we're ensconced in the cramped middle-class quarters where Paul lives with his sister Élisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and their infirm Mother (Maria Cyliakus). It's here where the film's annoyance-meter ramped up for me.

The picture plunges us into the obsessive, seemingly incestuous sibling rivalry/love and the pair engage in a series of tête-à-têtes that eventually reveal themselves to be an ongoing, deep-seededly perverse game. Paul is ordered by the doctor to stay home and in bed and Élisabeth becomes caregiver to both him and his Mother. Needless to say, the claustrophobia of the situation allows for plenty of nasty game-playing. Obsession rules the day - Paul is obsessed with pretty-boy Dargelos and misses him desperately and one of his school chums, Gérard (Jacques Bernard) visits regularly. He's obsessed with both the brother and sister and their games, but he also provides solace to Paul with news about the naughty Dargelos.

Things perk up when Mom dies (a magnificent cut and shot, pure Melville, reveals her to us and the characters). Enter the beautiful Agathe (also played by Renée Cosima) who Paul falls madly in love with since she's a dead ringer for his beloved naughty pal Dargelos. And yes, it's here where the movie hits its stride and ploughs us into the kind of madly delirious melodrama that Melville did so beautifully in the much-better and genuinely great melodrama Le silence de la mer (1949).

It's here wherein Élisabeth becomes so terrified that her brother will eventually marry Agathe and leave her alone (and hence, without the madly incessant game-playing) that what the nutty sister does next is sheer, delicious nastiness.

And you know what? As much as I profess(ed) to hate this movie, I must humbly, shamefully admit (in spite of Cocteau's influence) that I've now seen the picture three times. Well, like the old adage goes, "third time's the charm" and I find myself wanting to see the movie again. What a journey!

Vive Melville!


Les enfants terribles screens at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in the summer 2017 series "Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville" and is available for home consumption via the Criterion Collection DVD which includes a new, restored high-definition digital transfer, an audio commentary by Gilbert Adair, interviews with producer Carole Weisweiller, actors Nicole Stéphane and Jacques Bernard and assistant director Claude Pinoteau, "Around Jean Cocteau", a 2003 short video by filmmaker Noel Simsolo discussing Cocteau and Melville’s creative relationship, the theatrical trailer, a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills and a booklet featuring a Gary Indiana essay, a tribute by Stéphane, an excerpt from Rui Nogueira’s "Melville on Melville" and drawings by Cocteau.