Les Enfants Terribles (1950) Poster

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Creative Schizophrenia - Two Great Auteurs Don't Mix!
david melville8 April 2002
First, I have to admit that I nearly didn't write this comment at all. I read a rave review of Les Enfants Terribles by an earlier user and agreed with (almost) every word of it. What more was there to add? Then I searched my soul for a day or so, and had to admit that this film REALLY does not work for me - brilliantly directed, skilfully acted, moodily photographed and lyrically scored though it may be.

For all its many splendours, this Melville film of a Cocteau novel suffers from a malady I can only describe as "creative schizophrenia." It is recognisably a work by two highly individual artists, each of whom creates his own distinctive and magical world. No film by Melville could ever be mistaken for anybody else's. The same is true of Cocteau.

How do these two worlds mix together? To put it bluntly, not at all. This is most apparent in the (mis)casting of the androgynous and incestuous brother-sister duo. With his porcelain cheekbones and languid sensuality, Edouard Dhermitte is a classic Cocteau actor. (He was, in fact, Cocteau's lover at the time.) With her politicised Left Bank angst and 'butch' vitality, Nicole Stephane is a classic Melville heroine. (She had starred in his much finer 1947 film Le Silence de la Mer.) These two actors scarcely seem to belong on the same planet, let alone in the same family.

Still more disheartening is the utter lack of allure of Renee Cosima, a pudgy young ingenue who is cast as the brother's two ambisexual love objects - the sadistic schoolboy Dargelos and the lovelorn model Agathe. Lacking even the tiniest flicker of charisma, whether as a man or as a woman, Cosima makes it difficult for us to empathise with the hero's erotic longings, or to care much about the hothouse melodrama that breaks loose as a result.

Try as I might to warm to this film, I cannot help imagining it with a different cast. As the brother and sister, Helmut Berger and Dominique Sanda from The Garden of the Finzi Continis. As the androgynous sexual pirate Agathe/Dargelos, maybe Katharine Hepburn from Sylvia Scarlett or Indrid Thulin from The Magician or (why not?) the immortal Anne Carlisle from Liquid Sky. Most important of all - and I know this smacks of heresy - I would much rather Cocteau had directed it himself. One great auteur should be enough for any film.

David Melville
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Like Rimbaud's poetry
danielhsf24 July 2007
I saw this twice in a single day. And couldn't stop watching this after. Each time I start watching a Hollywood movie I can't help but surrender back to this surrealist nutjob where nothing is really definable.

Much of the literature I've read on this focus on the unlikely collaboration between Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville, with most putting it in context of Cocteau's other films. But I've always thought that Cocteau's Orphée, made during the same period, feels static and leaden amidst the classical style of its 50's direction. Les Enfants Terribles, while retaining a very classical premise, is completely revolutionary, resembling the unruly romanticism of Rimbaud's poetry. Nothing in the film stays the same - everything is constantly shifting; dyamics are constantly changing; even the sets change in subtle ways. Everything is made purposefully ambiguous and ambivalent such that paradoxes and contradictions abound in a single emotion. But ultimately, as all great Melvillian films are, the film is about the futility of humanity in the face of life and death.

I could go on and on about this movie; Melville is truly one of the great poets of cinema.
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"Increasingly intriguing chamber-piece..."
Sindre Kaspersen24 February 2012
French actor, producer, screenwriter and director Jean-Pierre Melville's second feature film which he produced and co-wrote with Jean Cocteau, is an adaptation of a novel from 1929 by French poet, author, playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) who was recovering from an opium addiction while he wrote the novel. It tells the story about the young siblings Paul and Elisabeth who lives with their bed-ridden mother whom is taken care of by her daughter. Paul and Elisabeth has isolated themselves from the world and in their shared room they have created their own private universe. After being hit by a snowball at school by his friend Dargelos whom he admires, Paul becomes ill and is nursed by Elisabeth. During the time when Elisabeth takes care of her brother, they evolve an incestuous relationship and creates an emotionally afflicting game. Paul and Elisabeth joyfully keeps on playing their inside games even after their mother passes away and doesn't conceive much of what is going on in the outside world, but their closed imaginary world is shattered when visitors from the real world begins to show up.

This distinctly directed French production which was shot on various locations in Paris, France draws a vivid and detailed portrayal of a strangely erotic and tormenting relationship between a brother and a sister who in their secluded world invents a seemingly childish though unrelenting and unrestrained game where the aim is to inflict as much emotional harm on one another as possible. Independent filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville's character-driven, dialog-driven and continually and increasingly intriguing chamber-piece about the abnormal intimacy and the forbidden attraction within a brother-sister relationship where the insinuations of incest are prominent, incisively depicts two intertwining studies of character.

Visually, this lyrical coming-of-age tale is marked by it's dreamlike production design by Jean Pierre-Melville (1917-1973) and Emile Mathys, black-and-white cinematography by cinematographer Henri Decaë (1915-1987) and milieu depictions. Intimately narrated by Jean Cocteau and finely paced, this dark mystery of merging personalities is charged by it's quick-witted dialog and the poignant atmosphere which is increased by the music from Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). This invariably moving psychological drama is reinforced by it's stringent narrative structure and the unflinching and empathic acting performance by French actress Nicole Stéphane (1923-2007) and the understated acting performance by Italian actor Edouard Dermithe (1925-1995). A bleak and maliciously humorous character drama which gained a nomination for Best Foreign Actress Nicole Stéphane at the sixth BAFTA Awards in 1952.
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Either you play the game, or you 'play the game' ...
ElMaruecan8230 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
'Playing the game' as the idiomatic expression meaning 'pretending to' in French. While Elizabeth played the game, Paul 'played the game'. And what a captivating game!

A vertiginous ceiling-shot shows the four protagonists visiting their future house, walking on a chessboard-like roof. Like the human pieces of the infamous game whose mastermind is Elizabeth. Elizabeth, portrayed by Nicole Stéphane in a grandiloquent operatic BAFTA nominated performance, as the overly protective sister of Paul, Edouard Dermitte, a 16-year boy with a fragile health. An ambiguous relationship constantly flirting with incest. One of the strangest cinematic pairings. "Les Enfants Terribles" from Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau.

Emotionnally speaking, "Les Enfants Terribles" plays as a succession of build-ups, twists and climaxes, guided by the beautiful sound of Bach and Vivaldi's Concertos, plunging you in the confusing mix of emotions that inhabit the hearts of Elizabeth, Paul, and their friends who undergo their caprices with a remarkable patience. The sound of violins takes your soul and transports you in the middle of a hypnotic nonsense when the narration from Jean Cocteau tries to enlighten us on what should rather be kept secret, the whole movie is about secrets, deadly and dangerous but did we need to hear what was going in the hearts or the souls of these twisted individuals while their actions, their expression were more eloquent?

The film belongs to the theater world, which is even more spectacular on a cinema's screen, it conveys a sense of disturbing intimacy between Elizabeth and Paul who love to argue so much that they fail to hide how needy they are -in fact- to each other. Elizabeth is the tempestuous 'Yin' to Paul's tormented 'Yang', the mother, the mistress, the friend, enslaving Paul in a relationship to which he can only react through sarcasm and irony, to better hide this discomfort. In fact, the only self-confident character is Elizabeth, the one who pulls the emotional strings of every one, echoing the discomfort of the viewer.

But once you get used to that discomfort, "Les Enfants Terribles" becomes the mirror of its own emotions: unpredictability, zaniness, theatricality, where even the artistic conflict between the two film-makers have ironically served the film's artistry and unique sensation. Cocteau's prose is nuanced and monotonous while the characters are deliberately over-the–top, when the movie could have been 'good' by classic standards, it became disturbing to the level of genius and making you realize that it's no use to rationally analyze something that invites to spontaneously let the emotions dictate your feelings.

"Les Enfants Terribles" is an exhilarating experience, a kaleidoscope of emotions that creates a harmonious symbiosis between every form of artistic expression : music, theater, literature, it looks artificial sometimes, but it's so gutsy and brave that any attempt to decorticate the meaning of one scene separately is vain and pointless. The whole package works, the opening is intriguing, what follows disturbs, and the ending leaves with you a "wow" feeling that requires catching your breath before reconsidering what you saw. Nicole Stéphane IS over the top in the same perfect intensity that turns her into the secret daughter of Norma Desmond (from a masterpiece of the same year). She's so absorbed by her exclusive lust toward Paul that she can't behave normally without betraying her true nature, the only way to manipulate is to keep this exuberant feel as the right vehicle of her inner emotions.

And Elizabeth is such an omnipresent character, almost God-like, that one should consider her as part of Paul's persona, and this is the only way to appreciate Dermitte's performance. While he could be seen as a lousy, or too histrionic actor, I feel there's something deliberately missing inside him, as if half of his soul belonged to Elizabeth, keeping it secretly among the various objects that constituted the treasured bric-a-brac. Look at his mouth, like paralyzed, unable to express one positive emotion, Paul rarely smiles and his smiles are not convincing because Nicole possesses the best of him, and his doom is that he ignores this or 'plays the game', even when his most feminine part inspires his male crush. Elizabeth and Paul are the same persona, and the film carries many Bergmanian undertones ... even illustrated in the poster.

The dazzling black-and-white cinematography conveys the bizarre aspect of this duality. There's a beautiful shot of Paul sleepwalking on the stairs, appearing all in shadows like a ghostly figure only capable to escape from Elizabeth and emerge from the light when he's asleep, as if his subconscious was the only refuge from the doom that would lead to his demise. The surrealistic aspect gets more palpable as the movie progresses: in a beautiful dream sequence, Paul walks backwards solemnly as if Nicole managed to bring him back under her power, which she did by conjuring the only thing that could have deprived her from Paul, his love for Agathe. But Paul by sending the letter to himself, instead of Agathe, signed his own death warrant, proving that he couldn't see his life with anyone but him, with this very part of him cruelly belonging to his sister.

That was Paul's tragedy and Elizabeth is the Goddess. The film borrows many elements from the Greek mythology, so cherished by Cocteau, and sublimated by the noir genre to which Melville would give its letters of nobility. Paul and Elizabeth's fates were already traced, they could live in the biggest room ever, there would be no room for Gérard, and certainly not Agathe, who unmasked Elizabeth's villainous side. Were the actors too old for these parts? No, their troubling Aryan blonde and curly hair with intense azure eyes and their marble statue-like beauty reminded of the forbidden love between Electra and Orestes with the noir direction underlining the troubling effect of their games ...

... are they adult playing like kids, or kids playing adult games … does it really matter?
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Pretty good early Melville
guiltyascharged-128 December 2007
Before he made the Bob Le Flambeur, the "Grandfather of the New Wave" made this film in collaboration with Cocteau. The cinematography in this film is pretty good, and Melville does a good job at replicating the feel of a Cocteau film. This is perhaps Melville's most "Un-Melville" film. There's no hardened men or bank robbers to be had here. The portrait of a sister/brother relationship is well-done and believable, and easily holds your attention the entire film.

The imagery is great, particularly towards the ending and the shot of the dead mother. It's almost dream-like! With this film, and Bob, it's easy to see why Melville was such and inspiration to future New Wave directors such as Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, etc. Highly recommended, especially to Cocteau/Melville fans!
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Bizarrely erotic and weird--this is NOT everyone's cup of tea!
MartinHafer5 December 2011
As I sit and watch "Les Enfants Terribles", I wonder why it took me so long to see this film. After all, I've reviewed a couple hundred French films AND Jean-Pierre Melville is perhaps my favorite French director and I completely adored several of Jean Cocteau's films. So why did I wait so long---and is it worth the wait? Jean Cocteau wrote this story and narrates. And, according to IMDb, he even directed a tiny bit of the film--though whether these portions were actually used in the film isn't clear.

The Story begins with teenager Paul being injured in a snowball fight. Instead of just getting up and walking it off, it seems that the blow to his chest revealed some underlying congenital defect--and Paul is sent home for bed rest. In fact, the doctor tells his sister, Elisabeth, that he's to stay home--he'll be bedridden because any sort of exertion can kill him. So, Elisabeth takes care of him--and the longer they are together, the closer they become. Yet, weirdly, there also is a very strong love-hate relationship between them--as they bicker nonstop and seem as if they hate each other--yet NEED each other. There's a TONS more to the film than this--including some undercurrents of bisexuality, a weird relationship with another girl and LOTS of incestuous and Freudian stuff as well! But, I don't want to ruin it by revealing too much...but it's weird.

So is this a film that you'll like, probably not. It's not especially enjoyable--nor is it really meant to be. Instead, it's a bizarre experimental film--one of the very first New Wave films that explores incest and bisexuality and icky Freudian stuff! As I said, not what the average viewer will enjoy. But, the plot IS original and the camera-work exceptional. And it is worth seeing...once. An unusual experiment to say the least! And NOT a film to watch if you are depressed or want to see some happy ending!
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Fate lends a hand to unraveling relationships.
bobsgrock1 June 2011
Jean Cocteau, considered one of the foremost French artists of the 20th century, wrote and narrated this bizarrely familial tale about a brother and sister who have a strong love/hate relationship that expresses itself in high-strung shouting bouts that result in one of them storming out of the room. Clearly, this is a volatile relationship that is only made worse when the elder sister, Elisabeth, marries a young, rich mogul named Mike who unexpectedly leaves his entire fortune to her. Adding to this drama is the brother, Paul, being injured in a snowball fight and forced to rest extensively in Elisabeth's mansion.

As a young girl and man that are acquaintances of the siblings enter the equation, the drama heats up which leads to serious revelations and underlying feelings coming to the surface. Such a story in the early 1950s had to be seen, even in Europe, as somewhat controversial given the incestuous undertones of Elisabeth and Paul's relationship. Even so, to see classic Cocteau as directed by a young, up-and-coming Jean-Pierre Melville still feeling out his soon to be unique and inspired style.

Though at times a bit French-flavored melodrama and bizarre psycho- sexual encounters, Les Enfants Terribles still has enough power and creative camera work to engage the viewer up until the blunt conclusion.
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Great Example of Existentialism in Cinema
dial911book2 January 2015
I recently saw this movie, titled The Strange Ones in English, with English subtitles on TCM. I know a little French, and it seemed the English translations may not have captured all the nuances, but I'm not sure.

Before writing my review I wanted to see what more experienced or better informed people were saying, and I gather that most of the favorable reviewers liked the daring themes presented in stark black and white format with highly dramatic acting and artistic camera work. No doubt about it, this movie features all of those, and I did watch the whole thing because of those elements.

As with many French films I've seen over the years, this film presents an amoral view of life, i.e., there is no right or wrong, in fact in this movie there is no real consideration of right or wrong in the script or the story at all.

Minutes before my sister learned that her fiancée had been killed in a car accident, she asked me "what is existentialism?" I had a sense for the concept but I struggled to make it concrete. That awful phone call ended the conversation about literature, but I never forgot that moment. Now I know the answer, and The Strange Ones could well serve as a teaching tool in literature or philosophy classes; a person actively watching and thinking about this movie will "get" what existentialism is (in cinema anyway).

This film brilliantly presents strange people, maybe "weird people" better says it, going through unusual events in an unusual context. In existentialism nothing really has overarching meaning, so whatever happens, happens, and the results yield not so much tragedy as very dark farce.
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Unconditional lover of Cocteau universe
Bob Taylor22 January 2004
This is a great film; I've seen it a couple of times on TV recently. Nicole Stephane is astonishing, her face a mask of passion, deviousness, grief. She had the glam-butch look that only Sharon Stone today has mastered. Edouard Dermithe wasn't much of an actor--Cocteau "rescued" him from the coal-mines of the north of France--but he's as spoiled as the story needs. Renee Cosima is fabulous as Dargelos/Agathe; I love her fish-mouth and hoarse voice, and those plump arms. A MUST.
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Melville and Cocteau- combo extraordinaire
MisterWhiplash12 October 2007
Warning: Spoilers
A lyrical, novelistic tragedy/love story, Les Enfants Terribles was the second film by Jean-Pierre Melville, but only made it under the collaboration of Jean Cocteau (the two basically wrote and produced the film together), who had already made a few films, and was highly acclaimed for his poetry, painting, and drug addictions. For this story, it's actually a bit of a departure from Cocteau (even though it contains elements from past works, such as the snowball fight and a few notable props from Blood of a Poet), as well from Melville's later, more notorious crime films. It's an unusual story about siblings, and the kind of love that seems to stretch somewhere between incest and regular brother/sister love. For Cocteau, it's one of his most provocative works, and for Melville, it's safe to assume that it is a work that is assuredly set aside from anything he did before or after.

The story is in a sense almost classical and romantic from literature, with Cocteau providing narration that sounds like it could be even more beautiful to read on paper than to hear. Paul (Edourard Dermithe, perfect at being stubborn) gets hit with a rock during a snow-ball fight, and on and off for the rest of the film he's confined to a bed. While in his decorated 'room', he is nursed, in an intense and often begrudging manner, by his sister Elisabeth (Nicole Stephanie, perhaps her best performance in a small career) who sometimes plays a 'game' with his brother. While this 'game', when showed in action with their dim friend Michael (Martn), may be a little off-putting, or rather it may distance someone from their total immaturity, what makes it work for one is how Cocteau brings in conflict with these situations, how everything they argue about (even the ridiculous things) have some level of importance. Then, when the first turn comes (their mother dies), Elisabeth tries to move on to another man, which leads to another (diminished) tragedy, and soon four of them (also a woman taking care of Paul, played sweetly by Cosima) are living in a huge house.

Then comes a third act (if it is a third act, I was not sure how his original play was structured or fit by him and Melville into the film), and that packs some of both filmmakers best creative strengths. There's a conflict set-up that richly, strongly gives a larger weight to not only Elizabeth, but also Paul, who for a good lot of the film has been rather stand-offish and crude. What comes out is something that, even if it's not extraordinary, is what one likes to see in a basic tragedy- character development, a sense of suspense in what will happen, and (as it is Cocteau) a kind of poetic license with the narrative.

Melville, meanwhile, is rather expressive with his camera-work, with a few angles in scenes that are some of his most unforgettable (there's one involving an over-head near a staircase revealing the director's pure experimentalism). Not to mention (when used) a sensational soundtrack with Bach and Vivaldi, adding that classical/romantic feel. It's not either filmmaker/artist's absolute triumph, but it is certainly under-appreciated in terms of being available in the market (I had to reach out through ebay).

Some of the film is quite dark, some of it is quite light and cynical. It simply is one of the more notable post WW2 collaborations- themes and characters that make you think long after the film ends, while not over-staying its welcome.
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