Based on Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel of the same name, Les Enfants Terribles (1950, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville), translated as ‘The Terrible Children’, is a story of a brother and sister pair whose toxic relationship and bitter mindgames draw people in, and attempts to poison everyone they touch. After recently finishing the book, I immediately sought after the film version and was pleasantly surprised with the adaptation, yet also slightly disappointed. Here’s the summary, courtesy of IMDb:
Elisabeth is very protective of her teenage brother Paul, who is injured in a snowball fight at school and has to rest in bed most of the time. The siblings are inseparable, living in the same room, fighting, playing secret games, and rarely leaving the house; though Paul’s friend Gerard often stays with them. One day Elisabeth brings home Agathe to live with them also. She bears a strong resemblance to Dargelos, a schoolboy whom Paul had a crush on, and who injured him. Paul and Agathe become attracted to each other, causing Elisabeth to be very jealous.
Les Enfants Terribles boasts an ensemble cast that works very well together. The siblings Elisabeth and Paul are played by Nicole Stéphane and Edouard Dermithe respectively, and they have a good working charisma that makes you feel as if they really have been having the same arguments over and over again. Stéphane in particular so convincingly plays the role of Elisabeth, even though without the subtext of the book she comes off as unnecessarily provocative rather than someone with genuine issues that underlie their behaviour. Dermithe is less effective in comparison as Paul, although overall he is quite good. Renée Cosima is amazing as both Dargelos and Agathe, although the dubbing of male vocals when she’s playing Dargelos isn’t matched very well. She is able to transform from male to female roles with finesse, giving each a distinct character beyond their similar appearances. Finally, Jacques Bernard is a bit of a blank slate as Paul’s devoted friend Gerard. He has a much smaller role in the film compared to the book, and a lot of his action is ignored to the benefit of displaying more of Elisabeth and Paul’s acrimonious relationship. This causes his character to be a bit of a cardboard cutout of the original, fleshed-out character that Cocteau describes.
As with any Jean-Pierre Melville film, the direction is quite astounding, causing the relationship between Paul and Elisabeth to feel completely claustrophobic through the use of tight framing around the two, quick cuts between close-ups of their faces, and dimly-lit, hazy scenes that also give the film a dreamlike quality. There were so many moments where the camera made sudden yet smooth movements to give a scene an extra physical dimension, which were stunning. Melville’s direction in combination with Henri Decaë’s cinematography absolutely cannot be faulted. Visually, this film is just beautiful. In terms of the score, its beauty is matched with classical music from Vivaldi and Bach.
The issue of many book-to-film translations where the original source material has a lot of inner monologue, is that viewers don’t get too much insight into each character’s mindset in the eventual film version. This is one of the faults of Les Enfants Terribles. There are moments of narration (voiced by Cocteau himself) that provide some insight in a fairly clunky fashion, but we’re mostly left to interpret each characters’ actions on our own. As a result of this, in combination with some of the actors’ ambiguous performances as per the quirks of the source material, what we see on-screen just looks like a brother and sister mercilessly picking at and arguing with each other for no reason. This fighting and competing with one another is given a totally different, more significant, dimension in the novel. In the film, we are left wondering why we should care about these horrible and hateful siblings, but in the novel, we are given many reasons to care through a simple analysis of each siblings’ inner world.
I really don’t want to be one of ‘those people’, however I really have to say it: the book is better. This is a fundamentally good film by itself, but in comparison to the book, it’s nowhere near as affecting. In my opinion, the film doesn’t manage to capture the spirit of the book very well, and this is a great shame; but this is also a common problem for book-to-film translations where the original has a heavy emphasis on the internal world of the characters. Melville’s direction is beautiful, but one wonders whether the film would be a more faithful adaptation if Cocteau had taken the reins, and how he would have tackled the issues of an internal monologue. My overall feeling is that Les Enfants Terribles is a good film, but it could have easily been a great film.
Watch the trailer here.