Sunday, December 11, 2011
Here is a film that grabs the attention from the start and won't let it go: Les Enfants Terribles, Jean Cocteau's adaptation of his 1929 novel, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. It's a lustrous work of Surrealist decadence, filmed in rich, romantic, dreamy black and white; parts of the movie definitely have the texture of a dream. Poetic and and Poe-esque.
The title characters are a teenage brother and sister who live in a dark, seedy mansion with a dying mother. The relationship of Paul (Edouard Dermithe, a kind of vacant-eyed blonde male model) and Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane, a kind of boyish sprite, a teenaged Ariel) is just this side of incestuous -- actually, closer to the other side, as they are so intimate with each other that it's impossible to imagine that they haven't explored each other sexually (and they aren't afraid to bathe together either). But sex isn't really the point with these two, although it's not beside the point either; they are, as Cocteau says on the voice-over narration, unembarrassed about being naked in front of each other because they are two halves of the same body. One cannot exist without the other, and therein lies the story.
Paul is laid up for weeks after getting hit by a snowball, hurled by his friend Dargelos, who is the kind of good-looking young rebel who can get away with anything, and someone to whom Paul is rather intensely attracted. It's a deliberately absurd plot element, and the movie acknowledges it: what kind of snowball knocks you out? Did it have a rock in it? Maybe. No matter. The movie blithely accepts the irrationality and moves on. Paul, now bedridden by the nefarious snowball, is nursed and doted on by Elisabeth, with their activities primarily restricted to the messy bedroom they share together. Here they alternately fight and cuddle, like some married couple, and collect items for their treasure chest: pictures, items, scraps of no significance to anyone but themselves. Eventually, they bring other people into their world, Paul's friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard), Elisabeth's friend Agathe (Renee Cosima, who bears a striking resemblance to Dargelos) and Elisabeth's eventual husband Michael (Melvyn Martin) -- anterior relationships that have an ultimately disastrous effect on the union of Paul and Elisabeth.
The Surrealists, almost to a person, hated Cocteau. They thought he was a fake and a wannabe and a little too close to the artistic establishment they were trying to dismantle. Also, they hated his uber-ridiculous debut film The Blood of the Poet, rightly dismissing it as a pallid imitation of Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. That, anyway, is how Cocteau stood in the 1920s. I'm not sure what they thought of him some 30 years later, after The Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus, and Les Enfants Terribles (where his stylistic influences are pretty obvious). He had become very much his own Surrealist, even if he never received a stamp of approval from Andre Breton, and you can see touches of it throughout this film, from the sculpture with a mustache (an homage to Duchamp?) to the Lautreamontesque treasure chest of strange objects.
This film about people creating their own strange world does in fact create a lush and sordid world of its own.