Writing about Les Enfants Terribles in mid-2020 during a global pandemic, it is tempting to draw parallels between the seclusion of real-world citizens in their homes and the self-imposed isolation of the film’s principal characters, the siblings Paul (Édouard Dermit) and Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane). Does the film yield insights and equivalences to current events, or do the parallels merely suggest superficial similarities and intriguing coincidence? While there are a number of films with issues of confinement and entrapment at their centre, which may echo how people feel about their situation in 2020,1 Les Enfants Terribles offers a very specific type of story in relation to isolation, being one of several films featuring young characters shut in at home, including Our Mother’s House (Jack Clayton, 1967), Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (Freddie Francis, 1970), The Cement Garden (Andrew Birkin, 1993), The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003) and Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009).
The opening credits for Les Enfants Terribles appear over a shot of shadowy figures and objects in a woodland, an image later revealed to be part of a dream, a telling revelation, as even this venture into the outside world is taking place inside a character’s head. There are then shots of raucous boys exiting a school and having a snowball fight, the events of this wintery battle between pupils playing out virtually identical to a similar sequence in Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau, 1930), as well as being reminiscent of the snow fight sequence in Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927). However, whereas the snow battle in Gance’s silent epic presents the childhood Napoleon as a bold and a brilliant tactician in waiting, the fight in Les Enfants Terribles is a haphazard affair, with underhanded tactics and psychological games, where the angelic-looking Paul is hit in the chest and felled by a snowball, thrown by Dargelos (Renée Cosima), an arrogant, aloof young man and fellow pupil. While Paul’s friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard) claims Dargelos threw a snowball with a stone in it, Paul does not implicate Dargelos, despite Paul bleeding and being dazed from the injury. From the outset, dying is presented as part of a game to these youths, a type of performance, but death will recur in the film, lurking around the characters and invading their real lives.
Elisabeth is introduced when the injured Paul is taken home by Gerard, and it is quickly apparent that the siblings act less like brother and sister and more as son/master/patient and mother/maid/nurse respectively, with incestuous allusions barely below the surface, all while their mother lies ill elsewhere in the house. It is also clear that the type of strange and risky ‘game’ seen in the school is played in this home as well. The film’s narrator (Jean Cocteau) notes the coded language spoken between the siblings, along with the random items they collect, which they dub their ‘treasure’. The ‘game’ features bizarre codes and insular rules that only make complete sense to the siblings, and to those initiated into their isolated world. When the siblings’ mother dies they are hit with a cold blast of reality, to which they respond by retreating further into fantasy. There will be more death to come, but the more it intrudes upon the siblings’ world, the more they turn inward, not to examine or question themselves or their circumstances but to shut out the world, play their game and maintain a perpetual adolescence. In fact, as the film progresses, much of the action is confined to domestic interiors, with the notable exception of a sojourn with Gerard and his uncle (Roger Gaillard) to the seaside, where Paul and Elisabeth pointlessly tease a child and impulsively steal from a shop. The siblings’ unruly behaviour reinforces their childish attitudes, their bulwark against adulthood.
Adapted from Cocteau’s novel by director Jean-Pierre Melville, Les Enfants Terribles largely adheres to the book. 2 However, where the novel evokes comparisons between the siblings and performers, and the bedroom and the stage, the film foregrounds the theatrical aspects throughout, both covertly and overtly. The performative aspect of the game is underlined when Gerard, Paul and Elisabeth return from the holiday and are back in the siblings’ bedroom. Melville audaciously presents the scene as if the room is literally on a stage, with rows of empty seats and stage lights visible. It is notable that the antics of Paul and Elisabeth on this stage play to an empty auditorium; an audience is not present, save for Gerard and the viewers of this film, who are thrust into the role of observer. Performance is also shown in the scene where Elisabeth goes to work as a clothes model to demonstrate dresses for customers. A fellow model, Agathe (Renée Cosima), instructs her on how to act around the customers, and Elisabeth picks up the necessary walk and manner on her first attempt. For Elisabeth, acting out a part is second nature, playing pretend is natural.
Acting is also associated with Agathe in the scene where Elisabeth brings Agathe back to the siblings’ house. There Agathe finds a photo of Dargelos dressed as a woman for a school play (the photo is included as part of the ‘treasure’) and notes the resemblance between her and Dargelos. This observation unnerves Paul, with the implication being that Paul desired Dargelos, affections that Paul will later transfer to Agathe (a connection made explicit by casting Renée Cosima in the roles of Dargelos and Agathe). Even production design and set dressing is suggested later on (without breaking the fourth wall, as was shown with the stage scene earlier) when, in a new house, Paul creates an improvised room in a large gallery, erecting screens as makeshift walls, with the furniture and ‘treasure’ turning this new location into a facsimile of the siblings’ old bedroom ‘stage’.
Interestingly, in the latter stages of the film, when there are revelations by Paul and Agathe, there is the discarding of pretence and the abandoning of performance, an attempt at repudiating the ‘game’ and all its juvenile trivialities. However, the ‘game’ will continue, eventually leading to heartache and tragedy. Les Enfants Terribles can be seen as a tale of damaged adolescents, of people suffering from a form of cabin fever due to their deliberate isolation. Equally, the film could also be about the exaggerated personas taken on by adolescents as a way to hide their true feelings and deny their real intentions. As has also been shown, the film can also be interpreted as a commentary on performance and about the limits of dangers of taking on a role. Like the ballerina at the centre of The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948), the siblings of Les Enfants Terribles seem cursed and consumed by their roles, fated to go down a path that will inevitably lead to their destruction.3
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Les Enfants Terribles (1950 France 107 mins)
Prod. Co: Melville Productions & Organisation Générale Cinématographique Prod: Jean-Pierre Melville Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville Scr: Jean-Pierre Melville & Jean Cocteau (Based on a novel by Jean Cocteau) Phot: Henri Decaë Ed: Monique Bonnot Prod. Des: Emile Mathys & Jean-Pierre Melville Mus. Dir: Paul Bonneau
Cast: Nicole Stéphane, Édouard Dermit, Jacques Bernard, Renée Cosima
- For instance, see Steve Rose, “From Panic Room to Cabin Fever: films about isolation, to watch in self-isolation,” The Guardian, 25 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/mar/25/films-to-watch-in-self-isolation-quarantine-coronavirus-covid-19. ↩
- For a brief summary of — and comparison between — the film and novel of Les Enfants Terribles, see Andrew Pulver, “Sibling rivalry: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950),” The Guardian, 26 February 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview12. ↩
- For further detail on Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville, see Adrian Danks, “Great Directors: Jean-Pierre Melville,” Senses of Cinema 22 (October 2002), http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/melville/; Richard Miesk, “Great Directors: Jean Cocteau,” Senses of Cinema 30 (February 2004), http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/great-directors/cocteau/. ↩