Adapted from the famed samizdat novel of the French Resistance, Jean-Pierre Melville’s first feature, Le silence de la mer (1949), despite critical and commercial success, gained its director little glory: overshadowed by the book and the celebrity of its author, Vercors, Melville got credit for supplying a beloved narrative with serviceable illustrations. What Melville achieved with that film, however, was something much more impressive, and difficult: a story in which psychological subtleties are conveyed in purely visual terms—with a glance, a pause, the movement of a hand. Melville’s hypnotic rendering of a chamber work in which only one of the three characters ever speaks on-camera (until the very end) was probably the only innovative French film of its moment.
All but a handful of shots in Le silence de la mer show the characters—an uncle, his niece, and the German officer they have been forced to quarter but refuse to address—in a single room, and in this the film has curious affinities with Sartre’s No Exit (which makes an even more extravagant case than Melville’s work for the conclusion that “hell is other people”). Yet the film’s most remarkable achievement is the way it sustains a mood of naturalism even while it theatricalizes the character who speaks.
This idea of constructed yet naturalistic claustrophobia, the deceptively serendipitous proximity of people adrift in a shared private dream world, seemed to capture Melville’s imagination and perhaps drew him to his next project, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s wildly popular 1929 novel, existentialist avant la lettre, Les enfants terribles. Compared to the Dreyeresque camera setups of his first film, however, Les enfants terribles (1950) moves with the restless pace of a Marx Brothers movie. Siblings Paul and Elisabeth, who share a bedroom in a Paris flat, deflecting anomie with a repertoire of incestuously entangling games, nonetheless inhabit a bell jar as airless as the drawing room in Le silence de la mer. In the hermetic anarchy of Cocteau’s dream world, Melville further refined the methods with which he later rendered the oneiric precincts of the criminal underworld in such films as Le cercle rouge (1970), the magic spell in which elaborate schemes are meticulously planned, the cloistral atmosphere of secrecy. Les enfants terribles, like many of Melville’s works, depicts the baroque events leading up to an abrupt, lethal end.
This legendary collaboration between résistant Melville and collabo Cocteau, who also wrote the screenplay and provided the narration, seems neither to have been a grudge match nor a picnic. Cocteau admired Le silence de la mer and approached Melville about filming his novel. Cocteau’s choice of Melville may have been influenced by the writer’s desire to turn his latest flame, Edouard Dermithe, into a movie star (an endeavor likelier to succeed if Dermithe worked with a director besides Cocteau himself). On Melville’s part, it would seem odd to follow one thanklessly adapted famous novel with the adaptation of another famous novel, but he genuinely liked the story, and it was a project that was sure to draw money (which was desperately scarce at the time). As Melville probably anticipated, critics endlessly parsed the finished film to decide what belonged to Cocteau and what came from him.
Melville later said he had been “flattered” to be chosen by Cocteau, adding that he “quickly got sucked into it.” Cocteau wanted far more control than Melville would give him. When the author tried to change his own script, Melville told him that if he planned to write a new Les enfants terribles, he wasn’t interested in filming it. Melville gave way on two points that he regretted: the casting of Dermithe as Paul and the “updating” of the action from 1929 to 1950. When Cocteau “inadvertently” called “cut” in the middle of a scene, Melville had him thrown off the set. In Melville on Melville, the director acerbically speculates that Cocteau hoped Melville would die during shooting, so Cocteau could simply take over the film. In the end, Cocteau’s screenplay turned out to be an almost literal transcription of his book. Melville’s transposition is architectural, musical (and to some extent a matter of casting)—like Le silence de la mer, a masterful, poetic rendering of words into images.
The film, like the novel, opens with a school-yard snowball fight at the Lycée Condorcet—where both Cocteau and Melville, at different times, went to school—in which darting camera movements and intricate crosscutting catch the rough and tumble of young boys. Paul, who as played by the hulking Dermithe looks a little mature for a schoolboy, is hit with a rock-spiked snowball thrown by Dargelos, his lycée crush. Renée Cosima’s turn as Dargelos puts a complicating spin on “the Dargelos myth”: a brutish hunk Cocteau adored at school bore this surname and was arguably the psychic prototype for the lovers Cocteau launched, or tried to launch, in artistic careers—Raymond Radiguet, Jean Desbordes, Marcel Khill, Jean Marais, and Dermithe. The rough-trade Dargelos crops up in several Cocteau works; in the writer’s own film The Blood of a Poet (1930), Dargelos kills a boy with the same type of snowball. Cosima, despite a game panache and swagger, more closely resembles a preadolescent, feminine boy than the muscular embodiment of virility and arrogance Cocteau describes in his novel. Yet this difference makes eminent sense, given that the Dargelos of Cocteau’s fantasy was never real anyway. Because Dermithe has such an imposing physique, Paul’s desire for Dargelos becomes legible in visual terms rather than literary ones.
After the opening school scenes, once Paul has been helped home by his chum Gérard, he endures, or enjoys, the demanding torpor of an invalid, teased and nursed by Elisabeth, who’s a few years his senior and has to look after the house and their ailing mum. Paul’s incapacity is another slightly off-kilter detail. He manifests no dramatically alarming evidence of illness, but lying prone in bed—an indolent and self-satisfied young bundle of petulance and unpredictable mood changes rather than the delicate rejected lover of the novel—he heightens suggestions of sexual availability. His habitual lassitude, his habitation of an oneiric playpen of a room unbelievably cluttered—it all suggests that Paul’s “recovery” may never conclude, because he was always this way. His immobility compounds his passivity, making him more malleable to his sister’s capricious inspirations and the physical play that, certain commentators to the contrary, signals incest in unambiguous terms.
Cocteau’s was a sensational book, not merely “daring” but one that tapped the antagonism between French institutions—school, family, police, military—and the generation not quite adult but already more clearheaded about what they wanted, and especially what they didn’t want, than their parents had ever been. In book and film, we’re presented with the superannuated, spiritually mildewed figures of the school prefect, the family doctor, the family lawyer, the spectral French professional class, unchanged since the time of Balzac, that does things a certain way because things have always been done that way. Les enfants terribles deals with these figures in a manner suggesting that what all such people actually do is keep the wheels of social boredom in stabilizing slow motion and the joy of living in a state of rot.
The core characters—Paul, Elisabeth, Gérard, and the clothing model Agathe, whom Elisabeth invites to live with them after Elisabeth takes a job in a fashion house—become a tribe of indoor campers, all clustered in the magic bedroom, a commune with all the thinly repressed power struggles and inegalitarian subtexts of hippie communes of the 1960s. Paul and Elisabeth’s magnetic field of pranks, games, and playful sadisms takes precedence over everything, including the possibility that one or the other sibling might form an attachment to someone else. They are a band of nomads who rarely go anywhere, build tents from blankets, and collect dysfunctional, arresting objects for their “treasure,” a chest of drawers reminiscent of the surrealists’ discoveries at flea markets.
Of course, Melville’s film is patently unreal, a surprisingly sure-handed appropriation of the dream realm Cocteau’s work specialized in. To keep its unreality within limits, Melville vetoed most of Cocteau’s suggestions and brought an edgier kind of unreality into play. Instead of Cocteau’s desired jazz motif, for instance, Melville chose the baroque, Bach and Vivaldi, which is woven into the film to optimal effect, heightening the disorienting interior spaces and the characters’ movements inside them.
This choreography of sound and image owes its quality of unfolding surprises in large part to cinematographer Henri Decaë and his idiosyncratic framing, switches from high to low angles, and unusually mobile camera work, which anticipates the handheld camera of the new wave. Indeed, Decaë would go on to be an icon of the new wave, shooting François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and continuing to work for Melville (Bob le flambeur , Léon Morin, prêtre , Le samouraï ) as well as for such directors as Chabrol, Malle, Franju, Duvivier, Joseph Losey, and George Stevens.
But it is Nicole Stéphane, as Elisabeth, who thoroughly dominates this film: magnetic, fascinating, shrewish, repulsive, and sympathetic by turns, once she also owns the house they’re all living in, she becomes the duplicitous, devouring monster that has been incipient in her character all along. That the others have never taken their glimpses of this monstrosity seriously can almost serve as her justification for it. Elisabeth has the predator’s gift of dissembling motive and intent. Like Maria Casares with her astonishingly foolproof, elaborate revenge on her former lover in Robert Bresson’s Les dames du bois de Boulogne (1945)—a film for which Cocteau wrote the dialogue—Stéphane’s Elisabeth methodically takes inventory of the strings she has to pull on each of her victims and displays an almost wistfully meditative pleasure at the moment she’s about to give one of them a tug.
Melville alters the ending of Cocteau’s novel in a way that befits the director of Le samouraï, Un flic (1972), Le cercle rouge, and Bob le flambeur. Cocteau gives Paul and Agathe time to confront Elisabeth with their knowledge of her perfidy, and in Paul’s poisoned torpor, his erotic image of perfection, Dargelos, appears to him a final time. Melville deprives his fatally passive male lead of this arguably consoling extinction and moves more briskly to Elisabeth’s horror at what she’s accomplished, instantly followed by her only available escape from it.
Cocteau is a poet of myth and the rounded completion of the imaginary; Melville is a poet of intricate schemes running to quick ruin upon contact with reality. In Les enfants terribles, these two modes of poetry merge into a hybrid something else, unrepeatable and unforgettable.