Les Enfants Terribles

Jean-Pierre Melville
105 minutes

When I’m confronted with a work that I don’t like, I immediately start assessing why I didn’t like it. I think the reason that I didn’t like this boils down to a simple answer: too much Cocteau romanticism and not enough Melville pragmatism. I’ve seen four films directed by each and thought this one again finds typical Melville protagonists who exist by their own code, their own set of rules outside of the main currents of society, there’s nothing in these self-absorbed, shrill character to make me care for a millisecond about their “game,” their box of treasures, their unrequited passions.

And that’s a shame, because Cocteau does have gifts that can make even his most sentimental romanticism come to life – a gift for striking imagery which is largely absent here except in the presentation of the mansion the characters move into and the outré bathtub scene. Melville’s taste for the methodical and slow-paced narrative doesn’t suit this type of material well – his instincts seem to mute both drama and action, toning them down until they become simply two of many building blocks of a story that slowly gathers force without ever getting flashy or in-your-face. Here, where the drama centers on a battle of wills and on unrequited love – hardly a Melville staple – and the action, such as it is, is confined to a stagy and overblown snowball fight (drenched in Cocteau’s – and maybe Melville’s – sentiment about mischievous schoolboys) that opens the film. Nothing seems to gain strength. We’re given one event that leads us to the next, which sets in motion a more or less ridiculous chain of events that do not accrue power, but merely occur in sequence.

It’s tough to say exactly why this doesn’t work. I’d say that Melville chose his material unwisely, picking a story that revolves around an emotional relationship bordering on hysteria, when emotional detachment is his métier. Cocteau emerges as the auteur without having taken a seat behind the camera (barring of course a couple famously contentious bits, duly noted in the booklet that accompanies the DVD). It’s rife with his overly ripe romanticism, his homo-erotic longings, his conflation of the obscure and the artistic. Besides, his narration constantly sets the tone of seriousness that we’re supposed to invest in these characters and their 100% self-inflicted woes. Somewhere under all this mess there’s a much more interesting story about a girl in love with her brother who is in turn in love with a classmate. The story is right there for the grasping, but we’re instead shown an obfuscating house of cards built on the foundation of that story, something Cocteau might have made palatable (though certainly no less sentimental) with some stirring imagery. Then again, he might have made it worse. Melville tries his best to steady the project with his cool hand, but in a story about hot tempers and flaming passions, that’s not the hand that should be guiding it. They’re both considerably better elsewhere.


Joaquin said...

I fully agree the film ultimately ends up Cocteau's, but I disagree that he is "considerably better elsewhere." For me, I think Les enfants terribles ends up, strangely enough, Cocteau's best.

nervenet said...

To be honest, the only Cocteau I really like is Beauty and the Beast. I don't get much out of anything else he's done aside from some imagery that sticks with me. Now Melville - that's another story.

Joaquin said...

Not a huge Cocteau fan myself. Despite the striking visuals, I thought Beauty and the Beast was a snore. I much prefer The Blood of a Poet.

I adore Melville. He easily makes my top auteurs.