(director: Jean-Pierre Melville; screenwriter: from the novel “Les Enfants Terribles” by Jean Cocteau/Jean Cocteau; cinematographer: Henri Decae; editor: Monique Bonnot; cast: Jean Cocteau(Narrator), Nicole Stephane (Elizabeth), Edouard Dermithe (Paul), Renee Cosima (Dargelos/Agathe), Jacques Bernard (Gerard), Melvyn Martin (Michael), Roger Gaillard (Uncle), Maurice Revel(Doctor), Jean-Marie Revel (Mariette, Maid), Jean-Marie Robain(Headmaster), Marie Cyliakus (Mother); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jean-Pierre Melville; The Criterion Collection; 1950-France-in French with English subtitles)

Perhaps Melville is the only one who could have directed Cocteau’s book of childish mind games so lucidly.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The great French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville(“Le Cercle Rouge”/”The Silence of the Sea”/”Un Flic”) brilliantly adapts the unfilmable 1929 wicked fantasy novel of Jean Cocteau, “Les Enfants Terribles,” about the disturbing claustrophobic unhealthy close relationship between a teenager brother and sister. Perhaps Melville is the only one who could have directed Cocteau’s book of childish mind games so lucidly. The low-budget, psychological avant-garde film is beautifully shot in a lustrous black-and-white by the gifted cinematographer Henri Henri Decae. The time period changes from the book’s 1929 to 1950. Cocteau narrates.

It opens in Paris with a school-yard snowball fight at the Lycee Condorcot, the same school both Cocteau and Melville, at different times, attended. One of the students, the sensitive effeminate Paul (Edouard Dermithe), is hit in the chest by a snowball with a rock in it thrown by the rebellious school bully Dargelos (Renee Cosima, an actress in male drag who reappears in later scenes as the forlorn lover female Agathe).

Paul has a schoolboy crush on Dargelos, and even though he fainted when hit by the snowball he has no wish to squeal. To Paul’s dismay, Dargelos gets expelled when he throws pepper in the face of the inquisitive headmaster (Jean-Marie Robain). Paul’s schoolboy friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard) takes him home by cab, where the 16-year-old Paul shares a littered small-room with his bossy slightly older butch-like sister Elizabeth (Nicole Stephane). They rarely venture out, and have no worldly sophistication as they choose to reject the outside world to live in their own hermetic one. Their ailing widowed mom (Marie Cyliakus) is bedridden in another room and is cared for by the maid (Jean-Marie Revel). The friendly family doctor (Maurice Revel) examines Paul and says he has a weak heart and orders him to stay home from school to get rest and be nursed by Elizabeth. When their mom dies, the kindly doctor pays out of his pocket for the maid to stay on to look after the irresponsible fun-loving argumentative siblings. Gerald’s clueless flighty rich uncle (Roger Gaillard), who is his guardian, arranges for the trio to stay in a sea beach area near Nice while he attends to business in other parts of France.

The unhealthy obsessive relationship between the siblings leads to a double tragedy, as the dominant female sibling won’t let any outsider come between her and her weak-willed brother. Though Elizabeth marries a wealthy art gallery owner (Melvyn Martin), she is quickly widowed when hubby dies in a car crash. Elizabeth thereby inherits his opulent mansion. When outsiders Agathe and Gerald also live in the mansion, the siblings show they are unable to live with outsiders without there being complications. These complications will lead to tragic results for each sibling.

The film was made almost entirely on the stage of the Theatre Pigalle and in Cocteau’s apartment. As background music there are strands of Bach and Vivaldi, not the jazz music Cocteau wanted. The only thing Melville couldn’t stop was Cocteau’s insistence that his adoptive son Dermithe play the brother. Cocteau figured if anyone could make an actor out of him it was Melville. But Dermithe was too bland for the part. This is completely Nicole Stephane’s film, her passionate and zany performance is riveting. While Melville survives all of Cocteau’s meddling and is completely faithful to the book, and perfectly captures the simmering relationship between the confused siblings and Cocteau’s subversive attitude towards the traditional French institutions.