Saturday, February 18, 2017

Jean-PIerre Melville | Les Enfants terribles

a world apart
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau (screenplay based on Cocteau’s fiction), Jean-Pierre Melville (director) Les Enfants terribles / 1950

Having seen director Jean-Pierre Melville’s first major film, Le Silence de la Mer, French writer and director Jean Cocteau asked Melville to direct a movie based on Cocteau’s fiction, Les Enfants Terribles.

       Despite some problems with the final result—particularly concerning numerous narrative voice-overs, read by Cocteau himself—Melville was a  remarkable choice. While latter versions and a recent dance-opera feature far more lurid and literal scenes, Melville, given the sexual restraints of audiences of the time, allows more to the imagination, which, in turn, helps to create a kind of dissociation between the two central figures and the rest of the world.

       Why, we can only wonder, might a snowball lobbed into his stomach—even with a rock embedded into—bring the young teenage student, Paul (Édouard Dermit), to a collapse with blood dribbling from his mouth and resulting in the need for a long period of home rest? And what is Paul’s true relationship with the boy who tossed the snowball, his friend, Dargelos (played by the actress, Renée Cosima)? And, even more importantly, what is the true nature of Paul’s relationship with his sister, Élisabeth (Nicole Stéphane)?

       Even the overtly “pretty” appearance of the actor playing Paul (acted by a young protégé of Cocteau who Melville thought was not right for part), suggests a kind of frailness and bisexuality, thus hinting that Paul is purposely bluffing, attempting to find a way out of his school to be nearer to Élisabeth. The fact, moreover, that he carries with him a photograph of Dargelos, dressed as a woman for all-male school play in which he performed, further suggests that Paul’s love for him is a homosexual one. And the fact that brother and sister sleep in the same room, fighting like lovers, and sharing in a series of secret games—games the complete nature of which are never revealed—casts an eerie spell of what is obviously their incestuous-like relationship. In short, by not spelling it out, Melville engages us in deep speculation, casting an almost mythical spell on everything in which they are involved. The siblings’ drawers of “treasures” become something like fetishes which engage and ultimately kill them. And the fact that Dargelos and, later, Agathe, are played by the same woman, explain Paul’s sudden infatuation with the latter, even though it is apparent he is a gay boy entirely dependent upon his sister’s love.
      Some English translations of Cocteau’s original work titled the book The Holy Terrors, but these adolescents are neither “holy” nor “terrors,” but are, as in the French, “terrible infants,” adolescents who have obviously grown up without proper adult supervision (the mother, like a southern belle, has early in her life retired to her death bed, and is killed off early in the film). And if they love and deeply care for one another in their adolescent alliance, they fight with one another more like Martha and George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

      That behavior also helps to explain the couple’s need for others around them: in order to properly play out their tortuous relationship, they need an audience, which Paul finds in the presence of the handsome Gérard (Jacques Bernard) and Élisabeth discovers in her fellow model friend Agathe. In many ways, these two become mirror like images of the brother’s and sister’s desires and love. And it is only logical that when they threaten to truly intrude upon the dream-world that the young siblings have conjured up, that the stronger of the two, Élisabeth, must destroy them.
      Expressing his love for Agathe, Paul attempts to ask her to marry him. But even in this longing for something outside of his bedroom fantasy, he is too weak to engage her directly and writes a letter to someone staying in the mansion of horrors that Élisabeth has inherited from her short-lived husband. Intercepting that letter, Paul’s sister tears it up and tosses it into the toilet, creating a web of lies that marries off Agathe to Gérard.

       The sudden introduction of a highly toxic poison, sent to Paul by Dargelos—the two, we are told, long shared an interest in poisons—is like a love potion to the now forlorn and lovestruck Paul. It may seem to be a kind of pointless deus ex machina, but it is necessary for this permanent insider to kill himself before he truly suffocates in his sister’s embraces. 
       His suicide, moreover, paves the way for her own, as, a bit like Hedda Gabler, she brings out the gun to end her own life.
       Melville’s work reveals Cocteau’s own operatic tale as a kind of fable that speaks of a private world of the imagination (not unlike Cocteau’s own hothouse films, Beauty and the Beast and Orphée) in which the characters struggle hard to keep the real world—however one defines that—at bay. These two children are determined, as Peter Pan puts it, to never grow up, dying for a world where together they magically lived out their lives surrounded by a perceived toxic adult world.

Los Angeles, February 18, 2018

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