Monday, January 19, 2009

Les Enfants Terribles: Another Melville, Another Post With a Colon in the Title

There's a shot early in Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950) that, hours later, keeps appearing in my head: Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane) hovers over her bed-ridden brother Paul (Edouard Dermithe), attempting to engage him in yet another one of their secret "games," this one involving hypnotism. The viewer watches this over Paul's shoulder, through the bed frame; with this shot, Melville has transformed his audience into spies privy to the workings of the siblings' highly exclusive world.

Melville's film, which was adapted from a novel by Jean Cocteau, who also wrote the screenplay and even serves as narrator, concerns these young siblings' unusually close relationship. (If you're thinking incest, you're wrong.) They share a room, play what they refer to as "the game" (though all the rules are never clearly defined), and constantly bicker like an old couple. Stephane and Dermithe are both captivating and believable as brother and sister. The catty banter between them never feels stale, and although they carry on like this for virtually the entire film, Melville makes it very apparent how much they mean to one another, not simply through the plot (which I'll explain in more detail very soon), but also through brief, rare, but nonetheless meaningful encounters.

The siblings let precious few individuals into their lives. Gerard (Jacques Bernard), Paul's friend from school, stays with them sometimes, but they treat him like an outsider and often order him around with little regard for his feelings. The real source of tension is Agathe (Renee Cosima), a woman Elisabeth invites to live with them. Agathe looks almost exactly like Dargelos (also played by Cosima), the boy who injured Paul in the first place but also whom Paul had a huge crush on.

Complications arise, and drama, of course, ensues. But it never feels overdone. Melville opts for a rousing classical score, and it works well, frequently heightening the film's sinister tones, especially in the eerie final scene, which for me redeemed a plot that seemed somewhat far-fetched towards the film's end.

This film was vastly different than this blog's previously touched-upon Melville film Le Samouri (see a few posts below), but I noticed similarities in mood. For instance, Paul's wanderings throughout the siblings' cavernous second home echoes Samouri's Costello's lonely journeying through darkened streets. I found Les Enfants Terribles more entertaining than Le Samouri and felt more drawn in by the former film's characters and story, but so far I've enjoyed both as an introduction to Melville. Maybe this blog will see more Melville-centric posts in the future.
Kevin Kern

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