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The Criterion Collection presents
Les Enfants terribles (1950)

"Beauty enjoys immense privileges."
- Narrator (Jean Cocteau)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: July 23, 2007

Stars: Nicole Stéphane, Edouard Dermithe, Jacques Bernard
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:46m:55s
Release Date: July 24, 2007
UPC: 715515024921
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Is youth in fact wasted on the young? That's kind of the question that's at the heart of Les Enfants terribles, and on both sides of the camera, for as much as anything else, this film is a test case for the auteur theory, which dictates that we should think of the director as the author of a film in the same manner that we think of a poet as the author of a poem. For self-evident reasons, screenwriters detest the auteur theory; here, the writer is one of the grand men of French cinema, and the director had a single feature to his credit at the time, so you can almost feel the French film theorists losing their minds over this one. And even putting all that aside, this is a dark and mesmerizing tale of the promise of youth, and of how quickly it can slip away.

The film is based on a novel by Jean Cocteau, one of the true Renaissance men of the twentieth century; rather than direct the adaptation himself, however, he gave the rights to Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the strength of Melville's debut feature, La Silence de la mer. The sinuous crime films and war dramas that became characteristic of Melville's mature style would have been only gleams in the director's cinematic eye at this time, and this project had to have been double edged for him—it had to have been humbling to be so recognized by Cocteau, and simultaneously deeply unsettling to have his writer constantly second-guessing his every move. (The extras package emphasizes Cocteau's participation in the film's production; he was present on the set every day, and seemed quietly to rue his decision to cede the rights to Melville.)

The story focuses on a brother and sister on the cusp of adulthood and much too deeply entwined in one another's lives. Paul is a handsome young man with a painfully delicate constitution—during a frolicking winter fight, for instance, he gets pelted in the chest with a snowball, enough to render him bedridden for weeks. And it seems his sister Lise's lot to live a life in service—their mother is sick, and now Lise must nurse Paul as well. A series of friends and lovers triangulates and then square the relationship between them—first Dargelos is the dangerously pretty schoolboy who haunts Paul's memories, and then Agathe is the young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dargelos. (The homoerotic subtext to much of the movie couldn't be more clear.) Gérard, another of Paul's chums from school, seems constantly to be ping ponging between them—Paul and Lise seem always either to be in an all-out fight, or ginning up some other sort of drama, for it's all they know, and it's what keeps them going.

Much of the tension, then, comes from Cocteau's emphasis on this as a memory piece, a romanticization of youth, colliding with Melville's more contemporary sensibility, interested in investigating these characters in an almost anthropological manner, as if they were uncouth savages living among us. There's no doubting how deeply seated their psychological need for one another is: when Mother dies, her quarters remains empty, and brother and sister continue to sleep in the same room. Reinforcing that notion is an occasional Brechtian dissonance in the filmmaking—Cocteau himself serves as the narrator, and now and again Melville will dolly his camera back so that we can see the edges of the set, the lights, all of the equipment and personnel that goes into fostering the illusion that this is happening before our very eyes.

And what starts as a tale of wayward schoolchildren turns into an epic sort of saga—I won't recount all the twists, but Lise becomes part Lady Macbeth and part Madame de Merteuil, a deeply nasty and damaged young woman. She's exquisitely played by Nicole Stéphane, and in fact sort of tilts the moral dimensions of the piece; Edouard Dermithe is quite beautiful, but as Paul he lacks his sister's depth of feeling and emotional resonance. Still, it's a deeply captivating film, and you can see its titanic influence, on stories as varied as Lord of the Flies, The 400 Blows and Dead Poets Society.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A startling transfer, that does wonders with a film of this vintage. Blacks are very dark and the gray scale is fantastically well modulated. C'est formidable.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Maybe not as galvanizing as the picture quality, but still a very strong effort; a little muffling now and again seems to be a function of all mono tracks of this period.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Gilbert Adair
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. stills gallery
  2. accompanying booklet
  3. color bars
Extras Review: Writer Gilbert Adair provides a commentary track, and he's an appropriate choice—the influence of this film on his own work (he wrote The Dreamers) is evident. In the auteur wars, Adair seems like a Cocteau partisan; he's especially sympathetic to Cocteau's apparent regret at relinquishing control of the project. The commentary is strong on some aspects of the filmmaking, and particularly on the film's reception—Dermithe, a Cocteau protégé and lover, took a critical beating, for instance—but there's also no shortage of blank patches on this track, unfortunately.

Producer Carole Weiswuller, assistant director Claude Pinoteau, and Jacques Bernard (who played Gérard) reminisce about the project in a piece rather ungainly entitled About the Film (14m:15s), and Nicole Stéphane does much the same in a 2003 interview (12m:32s) recorded for French television. The Cocteau-versus-Melville dialogue continues in Around Jean Cocteau — 16m:41s), in which director Noel Simsolo strolls through a Cocteau exhibition at the Pompidou, with film scholar Dominique Paini and critic Jean Narboni—you certainly get the sense that the deck is stacked against Melville here. A gallery includes candid snapshots from the set and a couple of images of posters from the film's original release; and the accompanying booklet includes more from Melville and Stéphane, and an essay on the collaboration by Gary Indiana.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

It's easy and rather tempting to turn the film into an auteurists parlor game and try to figure out where Cocteau ends and Melville begins, but doing so kind of misses the point, for this is a bruising look at how casually and permanently we can inflict psychological damage on those to whom we're closest, especially when we're young and vulnerable.


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