Je ne veux pas to grow up

Jean Cocteau refused offers to turn his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles into a movie for two decades before granting the rights to Jean-Pierre Melville. The result is a unique collaboration between author and director, both enriched and strangely limited by their contributions.

Les Enfants Terribles is a character study about two overgrown adolescent siblings named Paul and Elisabeth who live “like two halves of one body.” They sleep in the same room, bicker incessantly and live in a private game world of high theatricality and surprising cruelty.

Melville is most successful in exploring the undercurrent of cruelty that exists in all children’s games, especially in the opening scene, an anarchic construction-site snowball fight: The hyper-sensitive Paul gets beaned by a snowball and becomes an invalid. Later, when their mother dies, “these children, who know nothing of the world,” move further into isolation.

Eventually, the wealthy siblings and two friends who’ve been drawn into their vortex of insouciant sadism move into a large mansion, where, lacking any moral center, they dutifully play the roles in a tragic romantic drama of Elisabeth’s design.

Melville and Cocteau butted heads over the ending and over the casting of 25-year-old Edouard Dermithe as the teenage Paul. All of the actors seem too old for their parts, but given the theme of overindulged adolescence, it lends the film an extra level of creepiness. A bigger problem is Cocteau’s narration, which feels intrusive even as it fleshes out the story.

The DVD supplements include several documentaries that elucidate the often contentious collaboration between Melville and Cocteau. Many consider Les Enfants Terribles to be a Cocteau film rather than a Melville film, but the interviewees make it clear that Cocteau served mainly as an artistic consultant, while Melville shouldered all the demands of the production.