Jean Cocteau's influence is indelible in this clever and sophisticated romance. Cocteau is at his most affecting when he adapts popular themes - in this case the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Isolde - and gives them a verisimilitude that challenges even modern sensibilities.
Patrice (Jean Marais) is a stunningly handsome young man who is supremely confident of his legacy. An orphan, his Uncle Marc clearly favors him over his cousin Achille (Pierre Perial), a malevolent dwarf who is as stunted morally as he is physically. Who can blame him? Achille is the son of Marc's wife's sister Gertrude (Yvonne de Bray) an eternally scheming, gossiping shrew who clearly has designs over Marc's fortune. Things come to a head after Patrice playfully sics his dog on Achille and Gertrude uses this incident to harass her brother-in-law. Marc agrees to let Patrice find him a young wife who would help him weather the strain of living with his no-good relatives, as well as revenge himself upon Gertrude for making his life as unpleasant as possible.
Patrice manages to find Nathalie, a orphan like himself, a beautiful foreigner who lives in constant fear of a drunken brute who threatens to marry, then eventually kill her. He comes to her rescue and when he proposes marriage, she is overwhelmed that the dashing Patrice has appeared - like some deus ex machine - offering her a way out of a mean and harrowing life, but not in the way she had hoped.
What astounded me about this film was how Cocteau was able to establish within a few scenes the tensions that underline the malevolence and envy of Marc and Patrice's dysfunctional in laws, Achille and Gertrude, roles which were marvelously acted. They never descend into hand-wringing caricatures because their evil is presented as something as arbitrary as their circumstances which, as Gertrude asserts and Marc himself acknowledges, are unfair. When these characters are away from the scene, the movie tends to lose its harrowing emotional depth. When other characters are introduced in the story, although these characters are also nicely fleshed out and wonderfully acted, you can't help but think that they would never hold a candle to Achille and Gertrude.
As for Patrice, you can't help but wonder at the way the blonde behemoth lights up the screen whenever he strides into the frame. But the film makers thankfully resisted the temptation to just make the character eye candy: despite being dashing and heroic, he can also be remarkably selfish, immature and casually cruel. I can't be sure if it's just bad subtitles but his callous treatment of Achille is cause for grounds. He takes digs at his cousin's deformity and despite claiming that his pet doesn't bite, he sics his dog on someone who isn't much larger than a child. Typical of his callousness is the way he dangles an impossibly wonderful life in front of the tragic, hapless Nathalie, only to make plain his real intentions later on. When she does accept his proposal, you wonder if it was because she had backed herself into a corner from which she couldn't hope to get out of. Hers was essentially a choice of the lesser evil: living in close proximity with a man whom she clearly loves but never being able to possess him, as opposed to living with a man whom she despises and threatens her harm.
When the film was released, the shining couple of the story was either held up as an example of the ideal pairing of male and female beauty, or as noxious pro-Aryan Nazi propaganda, and it CAN BE unsettling how so Nordic these two people are that their blondeness just leaps out and clubs you on the head despite the fact that the film is in black and white. It doesn't help that the final tableau and the opening frame of a giant hand cannot escape allusions to Nazi imagery - perhaps these were thrown in to help the movie get made. Yet it also made sense - for Patrice and Nathalie indeed look like they were made for each other (their common features and origins are explained) and the beauty that had marked them out for happy ever after begets the envy that eventually destroys them.
All in all, a film that deserves to be studied as seriously as the more landmark films in Cocteau's oeuvre.
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