Les Parents terribles begins with hand-drawn animation of a theatre curtain rising to reveal not a stage, or even a wide shot, but a jarring close-up of the bizarre Georges (Marcel André) in a scuba mask, aiming his sub-machine gun at something, or someone, out of frame. Almost every shot in the film that follows is uncomfortably close, or uncomfortably framed, until the very end, when the camera at last pulls back from the characters through connecting doorways — but with a poetic twist: the camera jostles and the sound of clattering hooves is heard, a reminder of the film’s central thematic device of the “gypsy caravan” (roulotte, with connotations of an eccentric or disreputable household). Though the film is technically adept and ingenious in both cinematography and overall formalism — Cocteau himself believed it to be his greatest success as a director1 — it is also notable for the fact that he wrote Les Parents terribles (initially as a play) for his lead actor, partner and muse, Jean Marais, shortly after they met and fell in love. Moreover, he based the work on Marais’s own experiences.

Like Cocteau (whose father had taken his own life when the boy was nine), Jean Marais was raised by a single mother, whose attentions — as Marais grew into a handsome and popular youth — turned possessive and controlling. Leaving school to become an actor, Marais caught the older playwright’s eye in auditions for 1937’s Œdipe Roi, Cocteau’s translation of Sophocles. Finding each other fascinating, and bonding over shared Oedipal issues, they moved in together. Marais became Cocteau’s muse, while Cocteau became Marais’s starmaker. Les Parents terribles was the first of several plays — and, later, films — Cocteau wrote for Marais, and it is by far the most personal. The terrible Yvonne based on Marais’s mother, the terrible Georges named after Cocteau’s (beloved, late) father, the guileless and idealistic Michel simply Marais as Cocteau saw him. The 1938 production was a hit, and so was Marais — whose dramatic method was totally new, “centred on the body in action (agir) and, in the words of Cocteau, ‘sans goût’ (‘without taste’). It shocked those in the audience who perceived only bluff and insolence but it disarmed and seduced the majority. […] With his often extreme theatricality and naturalistic body language, Marais was a multiplicity of acting styles rolled into one.”2

World War Two complicated their relationship, as Marais resisted (and later fought) the Nazi occupiers while Cocteau sought to curry favour with their ambassador, Otto Abetz — either to protect his at-risk friends, or to stop his plays being banned, or just out of a privileged political apathy — and in 1942 the bisexual Marais married actress Mila Parély. (They divorced two years later.) In other words, Jean Marais after the War was not the same as before.

At his muse’s instigation, Cocteau returned to filmmaking for the first time since Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930) with La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946), in which he cast not only Marais in three roles, but also Marais’s now-ex wife Parély as one of the wicked sisters. The film made Marais a star for the second time. Two more films quickly followed, both based on plays Cocteau had written for Marais: the medieval L’aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle with Two Heads, 1948) and the modern Les Parents terribles.

For his film adaptation, Cocteau brought back most of his actors from the stage production, as well as Yvonne de Bray — who had been too ill to essay the role on stage, despite being Cocteau’s first choice (and the namesake) for the mother — and Josette Day, fresh from La Belle et la Bête. They all understood their characters (who “constantly remind us that they are acting out a play — vaudeville, drama, or tragedy, depending on the moment and situation3) intensely and trusted Cocteau implicitly, but additionally Marais — at the age of 34 having to reprise a character so closely linked with (indeed based upon) his younger, pre-War, pre-Cocteau naïvety — now felt a need to “reinvent” the role.4 The two maternal figures of the film — terrible mother Yvonne (de Bray) and sardonic aunt Léo (Gabrielle Dorziat) — are powerful presences in their own way, the former giving an often terrifyingly emotional performance and the latter concealing her romantic soul behind a steely exterior.

As in the original play, the film ranges from farce to melodrama to tragedy and takes place in just two locations: the family’s stately-but-dilapidated apartment, and the girlfriend’s bright-and-modern loft. In adapting the play as closely as possible, Cocteau made the additional decision to not “open up” the story to additional locations like he’d attempted earlier that year with the unsuccessful adaptation of L’aigle a deux têtes. There are no exteriors, not even establishing shots. Cocteau’s wish was to centre the performances from the actors he so admired in these roles, and to emphasise them in ways not possible in a stage performance. Further to this end, he utilises intense close-ups, abstract framings, and unconventionally timed cuts to guide the eye. This formalism has a visceral effect on the audience also. As Richard Misek wrote for Senses of Cinema in 2004, “The claustrophobic locations and the unrelenting gaze of the camera create a disconcerting intimacy with the characters and reinforce the hermetic, incestuous atmosphere of the film’s dysfunctional family unit.”5 There is an understated virtuosity to Cocteau’s filmmaking in Les Parents terribles which has influenced many subsequent auteurs — too many to mention — attempting to bring plays to life on the big screen, but it is entirely in service of the characters and the actors. We could not tolerate spending so much time in such close proximity were the performances not as magnificent as they are.

Following Les Parents terribles, Marais became increasingly popular in French and other European cinema — dramas, spy thrillers, and swashbucklers where his physicality and good looks were in high demand. Cocteau, meanwhile, was entering his 60s and beginning to slow down. But the two men remained close friends and collaborators, even sharing a home despite carrying on separate lives (and loves), as Cocteau made two more films ten years apart which featured Marais as surrogates for Cocteau’s growing disenchantment: in Orphée (1950) as the title character — a despondent suburban poet — and in Le Testament d’Orphée (1960) as a sightless and speechless King Oedipus. Cocteau died in 1963. In 1977, Jean Marais would revive Les Parents terribles for the stage — casting himself as the father named after Cocteau’s own: Georges.

• • •

Les Parents terribles (1948 France 105 mins)

Prod. Co: Les Films Ariane Prod: Francis Cosne, Alexandre Mnouchkine Dir: Jean Cocteau Scr: Jean Cocteau Phot: Michel Kelber Ed: Jacqueline Sadoul Art Dir: Christian Bérard Mus: Georges Auric

Cast: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Yvonne de Bray, Marcel André, Gabrielle Dorziat


  1. Jean Cocteau, Entretiens sur le cinématographe, (Paris: Belfond, 1973), p. 55.
  2. James S. Williams, Jean Cocteau, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p. 139.
  3. Jacques Guicharnaud & June Beckelman, Modern French Theatre from Giraudoux to Beckett (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961) p.76.
  4. James S. Williams, Jean Cocteau, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) p.139.
  5. Richard Misek, “Jean Cocteau”, Senses of Cinema 30 (12 February 2004), http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/great-directors/cocteau.

About The Author

Donovan Renn is a screenwriter and author based in Melbourne.

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