Les Enfants Terribles
France (1950) Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Siblings Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and Paul (Edouard Dermithe) are ridiculously close, living and sleeping in the same tiny room, fighting and playing silly games with equal fervour. When the frail Paul is injured during a snowball fight, Elisabeth is forced to look after her bed ridden brother as well as their sick mother (Maria Cyliakus). When she dies the pair invite Paul’s good friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard), who has a crush on Elisabeth, to live with them and later, Agathe, (Renée Cosima) a friend of Elisabeth’s, whom Paul falls for and eventually the feelings seems mutual. Elisabeth doesn’t approve of this development.
At the first select screening of his sublime debut film Le silence de la mer, one audience member, the legendary one man creative machine that was Jean Cocteau, immediately decided he wanted Le Silence helmer Jean-Pierre Melville to direct an adaptation of his own 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles. If about now, the plot line has some of you thinking about Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 adaptation of Gilbert Adair’s novel The Dreamers, this is not without accident as Melvile’s film was cited an as obvious influence.
Whether you will get the same entertainment value from Melvile’s film is a different matter. It is a fairly jaunty affair that switches tone with some rapidity and presents us with a largely dislikeable main cast that unfortunately the viewer tires of quite quickly. Even at their most obnoxious and divisive, Bertolucci’s borgeouis teens had some innate appeal to draw the viewer into their escapades.
So, how did Paul get injured in a snowball fight? A rambunctious and troublesome fellow student named Dargelos – played by Renée Cosima; more on this later – throw a snowball with a stone inside it that hit Paul in his weak chest, apparently causing enough damage to incapacitate the little darling. When mother dies Elisabeth is again forced to play Mum to earn the household its keep, becoming a fashion model which is where she meets Agathe.
Elisabeth immediately notices the poorly disguised resemblance between her new friend and Dargelos The Menace, setting the wheels of a teasing folly on her brother into motion, knowing how Paul is oddly fond of his androgynous attacker. But before it can blow up in her face we have a few other twist of fate to contend with first.
Elisabeth becomes married to a wealthy Jewish American Michael (Melvyn Martin) who is killed in a car accident before the honeymoon. No marital nookie for Elisabeth but she is the proud owner of a substantial bank account and a big new home, to help fill the many empty rooms of which, she enlists Paul, Gerard and Agathe. But you can take the girl out of the cramped apartment but you can’t take the cramped apartment out of the girl, and Elisabeth decides to up the torment of her feeble brother, with some malicious manipulation comparable to the wicked web weaved in Dangerous Liaisons.
A recipe for a taut and compelling drama there but the end pudding is more of a masterclass in showing young French people being annoying in confined spaces – albeit portrayed by a strong cast. Ah the cast. Yes they are very good but they are also just a tad old to be playing convincing 16 year olds. When Edouard Dermithe first appears on screen it is just after a stream of genuine 13-15 year-old boys run across the screen, standing out a little with his bleach blonde hair, chiselled 25 year old features and being a foot taller than everyone else, making the schoolboy shorts he is wearing all the more ridiculous! Nicole Stéphane – who effortlessly carries this film in an energetic Norma Desmond style – has a mature face that even betrays her own 24 years let alone Elisabeth’s adolescent age!
Something of a maverick himself, Jean Cocteau – who performs the role of narrator here – must have felt Melville’s “non-cinematic” style of directing and presentation would suit his daring tale of a twisted sibling relationship. In many ways he was right as Melville and cameraman Henri Decae’s use of irregular camera angles adds a certain subversive and rebellious veneer to what is a story that itself refuses to tow the line with the same disregard as its irreverent characters.
In the same way they made the small living room of Jean “Vercors” Bruller look large in Le silence de la mer, the spacious abode bequeathed to Elisabeth is expertly depicted as claustrophobic and oppressive. As the story begins to get a little to indulgent in the final act, the visuals remain one of the strongest of the film’s major assets.
After setting himself such a high benchmark with his impressive debut and with the personal endorsement of Jean Cocteau, Melville was up for a tremendous challenge with Les Enfants Terribles on both a personal and professional level. It is a very different film to Le silence de la mer but so is the source material, therefore comparisons are futile.
For this reviewer Le silence is the stronger and more powerful film but this follow-up shows a young director looking to grow as a director while diversifying his material. To that end he has produced a solid and recognisably Melvillian film, albeit one that it less seminal or impactful as its predecessor.