LES PARENTS TERRIBLES (Jean Cocteau, 1948)

Apart from Beauty and the Beast (1946), which is in a class by itself, Les parents terribles, which he adapted from his own play, is Jean Cocteau’s finest film. A highly versatile, intricately designed use of camera indeed makes it exemplary as a cinematic rendering of a play, one that is almost entirely restricted to the interiors of two apartments. The characterizations are Cocteau’s richest and most complex. Les parents terribles is affecting, at times deeply moving.
     Young Michel lives with his father, Georges, his mother, Yvonne, to whom he is especially close—some would say, too close—and whom he calls Sophie, and Yvonne’s sister, Léo (Gabrielle Dorziat, giving the best performance), the shrewdest, most worldly member of the family and the one who provides the household’s principal financial support. Léo had been engaged to Georges but sacrificed her happiness for her sister’s sake. She is still in love with Georges. Georges has a young mistress, Madeleine (Josette Day, giving the worst performance). Michel has fallen in love for the first time—with Madeleine. Neither he nor his father is aware of the coincidence. Aunt Léo surmises the truth; Michel brings his family to Madeleine’s apartment so they can meet his sweetheart. The eventual result is the suicide of one of the characters.
     Given this complicated nest of relationships, one may be amazed how uncluttered, calm and reasonable a film this is. Its theme is that of family sacrifices, the ongoing battle within its characters between selfishness and unselfishness, and the decisions they make to still the conflict one way or the other. One must add that this film is free of the artiness and the “ickyness” that often damage Cocteau’s works.
     Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover at the time, is wonderful as Michel.

One thought on “LES PARENTS TERRIBLES (Jean Cocteau, 1948)

  1. “Les Parents Terribles” (1948) by Jean Cocteau
    “Terrible Parents” is about parents in a much wider sense than just literally about somebody’s mother, father or elder relative. Cocteau’s film addresses our cultural psychological legacy, Western culture’s parental function – what our culture offers us and how it makes us what we are. Cocteau shows us a young guy Michel (Jean Marais) who is as naïve, simpleminded and credulous as Franz Biberkopf in Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexander Platz” (1980) or the young samurais in Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” (1962). Michel in his twenty-two is as pure soul as only an eight year old boy can be – he perceives his parents’ actions and moralizations as so many Americans today the pronouncements of their conservative leaders and politicians. Michel implies that their position towards him and the world in general is unconditionally benevolent and that their will is beyond the fall – the incarnation of Goodness. But Cocteau is here to demonstrate to Michel and the viewers that parents, parental figures and the elder generation in general developed a nasty proclivity for manipulating the younger people according to their psychological and material interests. This is the most difficult point of the film to agree with, and pedagogically the most important – to help us to stop to feel that our parents and the social authorities (parental figures in the public realm) “exist for us” (to neglect the hardness of their experiences in the world and the fact that they were once like we and were lied to and misled about the reality and truth, and this made them bitter, hard, vengeful and very often cruel, and that they are morally not too attractive in spite of their virtuous posturing). Through analyzing parents’ behavior with children, Cocteau opens to us their emotionally unbearable past life. Jean Marais, as we see, was a very serious actor already in his young age. In “Les Parents” Cocteau puts him in front of an almost impossible task to play an attractive innocent soul while simultaneously emphasizing the pathological aspects of innocence if it is not balanced by the person’s intellectual bent. Marais plays the psychological incompatibility between these two poles of human soul (infantile and analytical) with an impressive virtuosity. Two elder actresses (Gabrielle Dorziat – the aunt) and Yvonne de Bray (mother) by the creative power of their acting open to the viewers the tormenting past of the characters they play through gentle cues of emotional genuineness, and force the audience into empathy and compassion. This private drama of interior encounter between several human destinies is about human society’s proneness to psychologically exploit and sacrifice its young (the next generations).
    Please, visit: http://www.actingoutpolitics.com to read essays (with analyses of shots) about films by Bergman, Godard, Bunuel, Bresson, Kurosawa, Resnais, Pasolini, Cavani, Antonioni, Alain Tanner, Fassbinder, Bertolucci and Moshe Mizrahi.
    By Victor Enyutin

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