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  Enfants Terribles, Les Twisted Sister
Year: 1950
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Stars: Nicole Stephane, Edouard Dermithe, Renee Cosima, Jacques Bernard, Melvyn Martin, Maria Cyliakus, Jean-Marie Robain, Maurice Revel, Rachel Devirys, Audeline Aucoc, Emile Mathys, Roger Gaillard, Jean Cocteau
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Paul (Edouard Dermithe) is a teenager in a Paris school, and as the Winter holidays approach, the boys there stage a snowball fight. He has a crush on Dargelos (Renee Cosima) but this is not reciprocated, indeed the object of his desire proceeds to treat him with great callousness by throwing a snowball containing a rock at his chest. The result? Paul collapses, bleeding, and has to be taken home to the apartment he shares with his sister Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane) who despite her hostile treatment of him is actually very protective of her brother. Their mother is infirm and stays in her own room, but what if she were out of the picture?

Les Enfants Terribles, or The Terrible Children if you don't speak French, is commonly thought of as a Jean Cocteau film: actual director Jean-Pierre Melville couldn't win here, and despite distinguishing himself in the field of crime drama, there was too much inseparable from the Cocteau musing over gender and death to render this as an obvious Melville work. Thus it is the odd one out in his canon, largely a chamber piece which edges closer to a conte cruel style of ending when we realise what Elisabeth has been up to all this time, and what a twisted individual she is. Again, this was all very close to Cocteau's heart, and he insinuated himself into the production as far as he could.

It was a very personal story to the writer, who had already dabbled in film direction, including an effort two years before with a soundalike title, Les Parents Terribles which depicted a similarly twisted family dynamic. Cocteau had initially penned it as a novel over twenty years before, basing it on a brother and sister he knew whose relationship was extremely close and much like the one seen here between Paul and Elisabeth, though he portrayed it as destructive in a way that life imitated art after the book was published. Quelle scandale! Not to spoil the ending, but it did reveal what was romanticised in retrospect as a pioneering tale of gay love as something a lot grimmer.

It's not all gay, of course, hence the gender fluidity on display that looked ahead to a time Cocteau could never have conceived of, but quasi-predicted, though this was not exactly a celebration. For a start, the mythical Dargelos showed up again in a different guise, as Cosima also played Agathe, a girl who falls in love with Paul when she gets close to the siblings, but finds herself rebuffed, partly because Elisabeth is scheming to have him all to herself, but partly because he is confused in his sexuality, though there are indications they could have made the relationship work out had the barely suppressed mania of his sister not been in the story. Although Paul is sickly, not all of this took place in the hothouse conditions of the apartment.

In fact they end up in some kind of mansion in the last act where all the tensions come to a head. There's also Gerard (Jacques Bernard) a close hanger-on who may have feelings for Paul and is certainly as protective of him as Elisabeth, without the outright unpleasant demeanour that goes with her. She was by far the most interesting character in this, everyone else, save perhaps Dargelos, is so wan and lacking in energy that lounging around half-dressed with the back of one hand artfully draped across the forehead is the position most of them seem best suited to adopt. Elisabeth, however, is all evil, a poisonous (literally) female that Stephane, who never had much of an acting career and turned to producing, makes curiously electrifying, as if a polite dinner party of young aesthetes had been interrupted by one of the guests getting drunk, making inappropriate overtures and having an extended rant at everyone else. Was it enjoyable to see this young woman upset the applecart for selfish ends? Well... not particularly, but if you relished bad behaviour in the movies, she was the reason to watch.

[The BFI release this title on Blu-ray with these special featutes:

Newly restored in 4K and presented in High Definition
Commentary by Gilbert Adair (2004): archive commentary track by the novelist and film critic, whose novel The Holy Innocents was inspired by Les Enfants terribles
Commentary by Adrian Martin (2021): newly commissioned commentary track by the film scholar
Ginette Vincendeau on Jean-Pierre Melville (2004, 19 mins): the film scholar and author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris on the filmmakers background and the recurring themes in his work
Volker Schlöndorff interview (2004, 10 mins): the filmmaker discusses his apprenticeship under Jean-Pierre Melville
Trailer
Gallery
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by Deborah Allison, a contemporary review of the film and selected biographies.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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