After his baroque fairy tale Beauty and the Beast (1946) but before his dreamlike retelling of a Greek myth with Orpheus (1950), Jean Cocteau made two adaptations of his own plays in 1948, The Eagle with Two Heads and Les Parents terribles. The latter, newly restored and playing at the Quad Cinema in New York through Thursday, is a family melodrama starring Beauty’s two leads, Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover and muse, and Josette Day, as Michel and Madeleine. They’ve fallen in love, and the reaction from both of Michel’s parents is sheer panic—but for different reasons. His mother is terrified Madeleine will steal away Michel’s love, and his father fears losing his mistress—Madeleine.
Hilarity and tragedy ensue, and as Michael Sragow writes for Film Comment, within a “fleet 105 minutes, Cocteau achieves the soul-rattling black comedy and drama of a Eugene O’Neill epic. . . . We watch the film as if by Cocteau’s side, able to discern the characters’ fleeting impulses and craftiest machinations. We grow as close to them as to eccentric cousins.”
Like Sragow, Glenn Kenny, writing for the New York Times, admires Cocteau’s visual style, noting that the renowned critic and theorist André Bazin once proclaimed that, with this film, “the notion of the ‘shot’ is finally disposed of.” Cocteau had achieved what Bazin called “pure cinema.” While Kenny says he wouldn't go quite that far, he concurs, “the unobtrusive formal virtuosity on display here—particularly the fluidity of the shooting and cutting (the cinematographer was Michel Kelber, the editor Jacqueline Sadoul)—demonstrates Cocteau’s unique command of the medium. The fact that he directed fewer than a dozen films makes this one a very special treasure now.”