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Tres Terribles! *Swishy Hand Movement*

rtmYup, something else that no one asked for: a rundown of Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies (or at least all of the ones I hadn’t seen until now). There are a few that aren’t available on DVD yet, but seeing as how all of the titles are French and mean nothing to most people anyway, I’m not going to list them here; instead, I’m going to start with Melville’s second film, Les Enfants Terribles (aka The Terrible Children, The Holy Terrors or The Strange Ones). Here we go!


Les Enfants Terribles is Jean-Pierre Melville’s second film and it goes like this: Paul is injured in a back-alley snowball fight by a boy who looks like a girl because “he” is being played by a she. There is some debate as to whether Dargelos (the he/she) threw a snow-covered rock at Paul on purpose, or whether Paul’s melodramatic collapse and subsequent ailments are a result of some deeper internal problems. In any event, Paul is taken out of school indefinitely only to spend seemingly every waking (and non-waking) hour of the day in his small, childhood bedroom with his sister, Elisabeth. The two, as the title suggests (Frenchily) have a tempestuous relationship, vacillating between uncomfortable amounts of affection and histrionic tantrums involving (among other things) a bowl of crayfish and a glass of milk. Along the way, their mother dies and a few friends from school and Elisabeth’s new job (respectively) come to stay in the house, one of whom is a female with a startling resemblance to Dargelos. Paul, initially confused by his feelings for Agathe (Dargelos’ doppelganger) grows to love her, and from there…

I don’t want to give any more away, not because this is a plot driven film, but because in the last act it decides that it sort of wants to be. The first few acts, on the other hand, seem to be driven by a sort of “look-at-me-or-I’m-going-to-cut-myself” insanity alone. Paul and Elisabeth collapse in on themselves rather quickly, piling junk into a “treasure chest,” eating in bed and never leaving their room long enough to justify getting dressed for the day. Paul, who appears to be in good health a few days after the accident, is told by doctors that the problem is and isn’t very serious. His heart beats abnormally, but there seems to be little external proof to suggest that his case is terminal. And yet the two leads seem to find a perverse solace in Paul’s misfortune, using it as an opportunity (first suggested by Elisabeth) to do exactly what they end up doing: never leaving the room unless they need water or something to read. It reminds me, in some ways, of the last act of David Cronnenberg’s Dead Ringers, wherein the brothers in that film descend into a drug-fueled decay worthy of William S. Burroughs. There’s also the oddly symbiotic relationship between the two sets of siblings, which never becomes quite as overtly sexual in Les Enfants Terribles, but isn’t very far off by the end. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Elisabeth does some fairly awful things to a number of different people in the name of her misplaced love for her brother and yet I don’t know that she has an endgame in mind. Her life goal, apparently, is to live five feet away from her brother for the rest of her life. Beyond that, nothing else really matters.

Paul on the other hand, clearly has issues of his own. Dargelos, played by lady extraordinaire Renee Cosima, is clearly more than just a schoolboy friend and/or the subject of hero worship on Paul’s part. He’s every bit of Paul’s confused and repressed sexuality exemplified in one mythic shit-head. During his very brief stay on screen, Dargelos throws the fateful snowball that sends Paul into his lifelong spiral and assaults his principal with some well-hidden pepper. The latter incident goes down like so:

And yet Dargelos’ shadow hangs heavy over most of the movie, especially when Cosima re-enters the film as Agathe. I’d like to say that I respect the choice of keeping Dargelos at a distance, therefore mystifying him and allowing whatever Paul thinks of him to metastasize, but honestly I was just glad to be rid of him. Cosima has distinctly female features and her full lips are immediately distracting on a character that’s meant to be male. Likewise, her physicality is very…what’s the word? Hippy? Yeah! She, unlike most men, has curvy hips and it’s clear even from behind her bulky school uniform (on account of they wiggle). Anyway, the casting brings up a number of different questions relating to Paul and his preferences, although I can only guess as to what it all means.

Like I said, around the time that Paul comes to grips with his feelings for Agathe, Melville seems to have shifted into another gear entirely. The back end of the film takes a lot of the emotional expressionistic flourishes of the first half and allows them to come to a full, melodramatic boil. Suddenly, a film with seemingly no narrative ambitions throws plot machinations our way until we realize that this was all building towards something, just not in the most conventional of ways. And this isn’t to say that the conclusion of the film doesn’t feel telegraphed, but that idea of it being there in the first place is a bit strange. It’d be like if a movie like Down By Law started following a more rigid genre structure after the three leads meet in jail and chant about ice cream for what seems like 15 minutes straight. In short: it’s weird that the movie is no longer weird.


All of that said, I liked the film. In a first draft of this review I included some pre-amble about not wanting to be obliged to like or love supposedly “classic” films because of their reputation or DVD distributor (in this case, Criterion), but I honestly liked it a lot. It’s not something I see myself revisiting anytime soon, but there are moments that I want to see again and have thought about a lot since having finished watching it for the first time. The snowball fight that opens the film is one of the best arguments for black and white filmmaking that I’ve ever seen. There’s a moment when the camera pulls back to reveal the battle in all its glory, the kids falling over each other like ants around a hill…it’s just amazing stuff.

And like Last Year At Marienbad (another film I’m not dying to see again, but one that I love) I can see how a second viewing would only make me appreciate what Melville is doing here more. I mean, I really didn’t know what to expect from this film, as Melville isn’t known for his emotive filmmaking, but rather an obsession with icy-cool professionalism and honor amongst disreputable people. It’s interesting to see him doing something different at the start of his career, but I can’t say that I’ll miss it once we get into the world of Bob Le Flambeur next week.


One Response

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