Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

01 August 2007

Les Enfants Terribles

Jean-Pierre Melville's 1950 film Les Enfants Terribles was finally released on DVD last week. It is based on a Jean Cocteau novel (subject matter that differs considerably from Melville's usual output.) Following the format of our discussion of Susanne Bier's After the Wedding, I discuss the film with my friend Karen. (She liked it a lot and I rather disliked it.) The following doesn't contain anything major in the way of spoilers.

(As a side note: , I think we should have one of these discussions on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Email me and we can set it up!)
Karen: I watched Les Enfants Terribles today. A bizarre movie, even by my standards. I was surprised at how different it is from the other Melville movies – the Cocteau influence. I definitely liked it. All those creepy incestuous undertones, the dead mother, the messy, messy room, the strange mansion, the car wreck, the dream sequence, the Vivaldi. It sure wasn’t Bob le Flambeur though. Did the voiceover bug you? To me it just added to the bizarreness of the film. It was Cocteau’s voice.
Me: I didn't like it. Yes, the voiceover bugged me. It always bugs me in films. I don't understand why a filmmaker can't show me the things that the voiceover has to say. I know it solves certain storytelling problems, but it has the effect of flattening everything out.
I think the main thing is those annoying kids. You remember my reaction to Bertolucci's The Dreamers? I very quickly get irritated with disaffected, bored children with nothing interesting to say. Their relationship was interesting and weird, but the manifestations of that relationship mostly grated on my nerves.
I was expecting something very different from Melville with this film—the Cocteau subject matter is obviously so very different from the other stuff of his we've seen—but I guess I was expecting something a little more, well, mysterious. Any more thoughts?
Karen: Annoying kids – you didn’t see that coming from the title? I wonder why annoying children bug you so much. You seem to do ok with annoying adults. Is it because their boredom leads so easily into mindless cruelty?
I think the voiceover is intended to flatten things out in this film and separate the brother and sister further from normalcy and reality. I think that’s why it was all spoken in a monotone. I certainly didn’t care very much about them, and I had a very hard time understanding why Gérard and Agathe were attracted to them. The sister was scary and the brother was completely self-absorbed. Well, she was self-absorbed too. I was fascinated by the strange way she dressed – high heels and a bathrobe, for starters. But she sure didn’t dress like a 16 or 17 year old girl, ever. That’s maybe what interested me about the film – I was fascinated and a little repulsed by their bizarreness. It wasn’t eccentricity, it was psychopathological. I do remember wondering where the film was going with all this, and thinking that it could only end in tragedy.
I like Melville’s storytelling much better. I wonder what his other early movie, Silence de la Mer, is like. It also is based on someone else’s story. My love for Melville remains with his gangster movies and Army of Shadows.
Me: Yeah. I am going to have to put Les Enfants Terribles in a sort-of different category of Melville film in my head. "Early Melville" sounds like a good enough title. There really is no comparison for the kind of gothic brooding, histrionics and head games in this film with his colder, more detached character studies of adults in Bob le Flambeur and even Le Cercle Rouge, which, though not my favorite Melville, is infinitely more absorbing and tension-filled than the Cocteau adaptation.
Melville is obviously a master (that room! the snowball fight!), but Les Enfants Terribles is uneven. I'm thinking of Michael's pop song at the piano: what a strange moment! And the theft of the watering can; to what end? These things made me impatient with Melville's work this time around, and longing for the cool detachment of Le Samouraï, where I have to work a little harder to make meaning of the film.
Karen: Oh that song violently clashed with the entire rest of the movie. I forgot about that. There was a lot of controversy about how much it was Cocteau’s film and how much Melville’s – in the interviews on the disk and stuff I’ve read about it. But it’s clear to me that Cocteau was really driving this story because it is so different from the later Melville. Make it Cocteau-Melville for your separate category. There were some wonderful scenes in the film (that I attribute entirely to Melville). Also the ending was Melville’s. Cocteau wanted some dumb thing where they were laying on the bed together in each other's arms or something. Melville had the whole screen-falls-down thing. Not that hard to figure out the symbolism there. The stealing was part of their game. The watering can part was weird because it really should have been an initiation for Gérard, but it didn’t seem to function that way. Well maybe –didn’t he start sleeping on their floor after that?
I can definitely see how this movie disappointed you if you were expecting it to be like his other stuff. That has happened to me more times than I can say. I realized immediately that this was going to be a totally different kind of movie – partially because the voiceover starts explaining everything right off the bat – and somehow was able to switch gears. But I’m sticking with my “like” vote. Not love, but not dislike. But you’ve actually had a while to think about it so you’re probably not going to feel that much different about it. And you’re right about it being uneven.
There are movies that stick with me for days and others that fade almost immediately. The other Melville films were stickers. This one begins to fade already.
I only vaguely remember you talking about The Dreamers. Is it as different from Bertolucci’s other work as Les Enfants Terribles is from the rest of Melville’s?
Me: No, that's the thing. It's just that Dreamers is about disaffected young people whining about stupid shit. My sympathies run very thin with those kinds of movies. Give me a hard-boiled criminal any day over a miserable teenager.