Les Enfants Terribles: The Criterion Collection
When assessing the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, it's easy to focus on his genre work, those films he made after 1956's Bob Le Flambeur. It's easy because America was late to see many of his pictures (1969's Army of Shadows didn't play stateside until 2006) and because what helped get Melville most of his posthumous notoriety was the homage paid by Quentin Tarantino and John Woo, especially to his seminal Le Samouraï. Alas, this focus on that side of his work represents only half of his oeuvre, and hopefully the success of Shadows will help shed light on his other movies the rest of his films are not lesser for their lack of gunplay. Chronologically, Melville moved into the crime genre, and were he judged after his first two pictures were released, an entirely different portrait of this artist would have emerged. Those two films, 1949's La Silence De La Mer and 1950's Les Enfants Terribles, were adaptations. The first was a small-scaled character piece about the occupation that brought Vercor's short story to the screen. It was also the film that cemented the notion in poet, director, playwright, painter, and screenwriter Jean Cocteau's head that the only person to adapt Enfants was Melville. Jean-Pierre, having financed his first film by himself, knew that working with Cocteau would mean a blank check, but also the baggage of working under a great artist and perhaps not receiving much credit. It was a partnership that was made awkward by their dueling egos, but the film turned out marvelously, regardless.
Narrated by Cocteau, Les Enfants Terribles begins with schoolboys playing in the snow (a familiar Cocteau image). They throw snowballs at each other, but when Dargelos the prettiest boy in school throws one into the chest of Paul (Edouard Dermithe, an actor forced on Melville because he was Cocteau's lover), Paul falls down and spits up blood. Taken home by his best friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard), he is to be looked after by his sister Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane). Paul and Elisabeth have a near-incestuous relationship that often excludes the outside world, and when their mother dies, the two begin to spend altogether too much time in their fantasy world. To break up their life, Gerard who's always had a crush on Elisabeth invites them to the beach. There, Gerard gets to engage in their fantasy world and is let in a bit. And when they return, Elisabeth brings another member into their funhouse, that being Agathe (Renee Cosima), whom Paul automatically fancies. Stephane gets married, but her husband dies tragically, which seemed to be foretold. But for Stephane, nothing can separate her from her brother, and when Paul expresses interest in Agathe, Stephane interferes in a way that seals their doom.
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When two great artists work together, there is often a clashing of wills. And with cinema, there is usually only the director. That's because the auteur theory tends to rob collaborators of their rightful place, to which someone like Charles Brackett is less revered than writing-partner-turned-director Billy Wilder. But for 1950's Les Enfants Terribles, writer Jean Cocteau is more often than not given the preferential treatment. It's understandable, since by that point Cocteau had already directed a number of seminal achievements (including Blood of a Poet and La Belle et la Bete) and had just come off Orpheus. Melville was still an unknown when the picture was released, and his reputation has only grown over the years, so only recently could his reputation successfully clash with Cocteau's. Melville recounted that their partnership hit it's most awkward point when Cocteau accidentally yelled "cut!" during one take, and Melville let Cocteau direct one sequence when he was sick. Whoever can claim ownership, it's fair to say that for something more grounded in the real, Melville was a better director than Cocteau (whose best films work as poetry, but when doing something anchored to reality was at a loss), and Melville made some small changes to the story to make it slightly his. François Truffaut called it Melville's best, but on this DVD Cocteau scholars claim it the greater success of Cocteau, whose voice they argue is more prominent. But like when Michel Gondry and Charles Kaufmann worked on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind together, the truth seems somewhere in the middle. The interest in fatalism and an existential angst fits within the Melvillian world-view, but much of the poetry is Cocteau's, unabashedly. Cocteau didn't seem to have the patience or sensibility to make the film (it's likely his approach would have more arch), so Jean-Pierre deserves credit for shepherding, if nothing else. But in the end, the art is all that matters, and combinations of these two alpha-directors created a great work, regardless of who deserves the more prominent credit.
The Criterion Collection presents Les Enfants Terribles in a full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) that's excellent, with slight windowboxing evident on better monitors. The French soundtrack is presented in DD 1.0 with optional English subtitles. The feature also comes with a commentary by Gilbert Adair, who wrote "The Holy Innocents," which borrowed from Enfants and was later turned into the movie The Dreamers (2004) by Bernardo Bertolucci. Alas, the commentary is just okay, and Adair does not delve into what he stole from this early work. "About the Film" features producer Carole Weisweiller, Bernard, and assistant director Claude Pinoreau talking about the film (14 min.), followed by an interview with Nicole Stephane where she spends some time talking about her relationship with Cocteau on the 40th anniversary of Cocteau's passing (13 min.). "Around Jean Cocteau" offers director Noel Simsolo asking of Dominque Paini and Jean Narboni who the film Enfants belongs to, and it shouldn't take too many guesses to figure who they favor (17 min.). Additional extras include a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.