Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 11, 2017 9:08 pm 
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1950 Les Enfants Terribles


Cocteau's iconic inbred siblings

Jean Cocteau liked Melville's Silence de la mer and asked him to film his short novel published by Grasset in 1929. It was written when he was on a cure for opium addiction. It blends personal mythology, including his admiration for the "Poète maudit" Raymond Radiguet and schoolboy crushes, with Greek mythology. It obviously plays with incest, focusing on a brother and sister who live together shut in a room.

Action starts with the crowded, disorderly atmosphere of a lycée with boys' crushes on boys. Gérard loves Paul (Edouard Dermithe), who loves Dargelos, the latter a kind of legendary bad boy whose original Cocteau fantasized about all his life. In winter, in a snowball fight, Dargelos throws a snowball (with a stone in it) at Paul's chest, and he collapses. Gérard takes him home, where he stays, abandoning his studies, living with his sister Elizabeth. Nicole Stéphane (née Nicole de Rothschild), who played the niece in Le silence de la mer, is Elizabeth but here, like her brother, is blonde. She grows jealous when Paul falls for Agathe, a girl brought in by Gérard. Gérard and Agathe fall under a kind of sickly, evil spell in the claustrophobic but strangely attractive - defiant, antisocial - hothouse atmosphere of the room occupied by Paul and Elizabeth, whose life is a succession of idiosyncratic personal games. The defiant unnaturalness of this world, and its incestuous jealousies, with a misaddressed love letter, leads toward tragedy.

Things happen. They go on a trip to the seaside with Gérard and his father. Their mother dies. Elizabeth gets a job as a model and brings a colleague, Agathe. Agathe resembles Dargelos strikingly (both were played by Renée Cosima). So of course Paul falls for Agathe - and the jealousy begins. Elizabeth marries Michael, rich American Jew (Melvyn Martin, who sings his own song, "Were you smiling at me"), who dies, and leaves them his big house.

Despite Melville's refusal to yield control of the direction, this film is perhaps more Cocteau's than Melville's, and of course Cocteau was a filmmaker himself who had already made his idiosyncratic surreal masterpieces Blood of a Poet and Beauty and the Beast. Cocteau was responsible for casting the much too old Dermithe in the role of Paul, who's only 14 when he's wounded by Dargelos, in the book. Truffaut admired this film, claiming it was Melville's best (an idea unique to him), and imitated its use of classical music and elegant voiceover (here, by Cocteau himself).

The atmosphere Cocteau creates, staged and filmed by Melville, is cloying and artificial. Like its predecessor, this film has value as a unique literary adaptation, but it may be for most of us an alienating work that has nothing in common with the rest of Melville. But it's powerful and original in its way, and remains so. Cocteau's story may awaken memories we have of the incestuousness of family life, or the temptation we may sometimes have of retreating into our own world.

Melville 100 Berkeley
Sunday, June 18, 2017 - 7 PM (105 mins) BAM/PFA

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