Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950)

by | Jul 30, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring Nicole Stephane, Edouard Dermithe
Studio: Gaumont/Janus/The Criterion Collection 398
Video: 4:3 full screen B&W
Audio: French Dolby Digital mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: Audio commentary by film expert Gilbert Adair, Interviews with producer Carole Weisweiller, actors Stephane and Jacques Bernard, and asst. director Claude Pinoteau, “Around Jean Cocteau” – 2003 short video on the creative relationship of Cocteau and Melville, Theatrical trailer, Behind-the-scenes stills, Booklet with essay by Gary Indiana, tribute to Stephane, and an excerpt from “Melville on Melville,”  illustrated with several of Cocteau’s masterly drawings
Length: 106 minutes
Rating: ***

I’ve been wanting to say for some time what a pleasure it is to see classic films such as this one in clean and clear images with proper contrast, instead of the scratched, grainy, washed out or too-dark 16mm films I recall from classic film societies to which I belonged in college and just after.  This DVD is standard treatment for old films that qualify for Criterion Collection reissue. Unfortunately, the soundtrack couldn’t be much revived and still sounds awfully distorted, as I recalled from 50 years ago. In spite of that, it introduced me to the wonderful Bach Concerto for Four Harpsichords, which Cocteau used on the soundtrack – although in the version using pianos. Accompanying Paul’s famous sleepwalking scene – with the film running backwards – it made a long-lasting impression on me (and launched my interest in harpsichords too).

Les Enfants Terribles is one of Cocteau’s best films – right up there with Orpheus and Beauty and the Beast. Two of the documentaries  spend a great deal of time on the question of whose film this really is – Cocteau or Melville?  But they worked together and the film clearly demonstrates Cocteau’s unique artistic touches all over it.  The often-unexpected camera angles – similar to what one sees in Citizen Kane – are just one these touches. The story was adapted from his novel of the unholy near-incestuous relationship of a brother and sister. They close themselves away from the world at large in their claustrophobic bedroom, allowing in only a couple friends who become involved in their various strange mind games. The sister, Elisabeth, is clearly a terrible child who has her own warped agenda. The one thing that has always bothered me about this film is Paul’s appearance – he seems too old to be believable as a student in this school for boys.  Also too tall and healthy looking, making it difficult to accept his lingering illness and weakness just over getting hit by a snowball.

 – John Sunier

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