Blu-ray Review: Les Parents Terribles (1948)

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AKA: The Storm Within

Just like some men steer clear of (or take advantage of) women with father issues, there's an old adage which argues that if you really want to know what a man's like, look at how he treats his mother.

Needless to say, since our parents are the people who introduce us to not only everything but love and relationships in particular, our baggage starts long before we ever have a romantic love of our own.

No stranger to mining his personal life for material in a variety of mediums from autobiographical books, poems, and plays to his expressionistic masterpieces in the canvas or celluloid frame, Jean Cocteau takes this idea and runs with it to satirical, melodramatic, and psychological extremes in the film he considers to be "cinematically speaking, [his] great success," 1948’s Les Parents Terribles.

Based upon a play which Cocteau had written ten years earlier and adapted by the filmmaker, Terribles stars the same cast who took part in a very successful Parisian revival of the work in 1946 including Cocteau favorites Jean Marais and Josette Day who played the titular roles in the director's now classic Beauty and the Beast (also made in ‘46).

With a title that seems to be a play on Cocteau's famous 1929 novel, Les Enfants Terribles, Parents has been recently restored and released to Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray to celebrate its 70th anniversary, following a short theatrical run last spring. Complete with screen tests and interviews, Cocteau enthusiasts in particular will want to track the tragic chamber piece down.

A variation of, as Richard Peña says in the Blu-ray's introduction, Jean-Paul Sartre's famous phrase that "hell is other people," shortly into Cocteau's film which is centered on twenty-twenty-year-old Michel (Marais) breaking it to his parents that he's engaged, we discover that "hell is other family members."

Smothered by his mother Yvonne (Yvonne de Bray), when Michel confesses that the reason he's been out all night is because he's fallen in love with the twenty-five-year-old Madeleine (Day) whom he met at secretarial school, Yvonne reacts like a jealous lover.

Lashing out at the son she's made the focus of her entire world, Yvonne is in for an even greater shock when she learns that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and discovers that the woman that her husband has been secretly seeing on the side is the very same one ready to marry her son.

Caught in a love triangle multiple times over as Cocteau makes intriguing, downright Freudian implications about gaining and losing sons and daughters to love, the sudsy, psychologically driven soap opera also illustrates the way that the romantic sins and secrets of the past are bound to come back on this carousel of life.

For it seems as though Michel was raised by a love triangle as well, in the form of his Aunt Léo (Gabrielle Dorziat) who was actually engaged to Michel's father Georges (Marcel André) first before he started to have stronger feelings for her sister and married Yvonne instead.

However, after Yvonne replaced her husband with her young son in terms of complete affection, Léo – who has stepped in as a virtual housemaid and dutiful caretaker of her frail, excitable, diabetic sister – has spent years stewing in anger over what might have been.

It's at this point that Cocteau confronts the admittedly dubious setup head on. And although he waits to address us directly in a closing voice-over, we can practically hear him speaking through his characters with the witty observation, "It's unbelievable! If there weren't situations like this, there’d be no plays. We are classic characters."

Still with drama everywhere in sight and an inevitable series of confrontations ahead, Cocteau also seems to argue that, while it's easy to speculate about the lives of others, we only know what goes on in our own household... if indeed we even know that much.

Trying to highlight that subtext and the power dynamics between the characters as they jockey for position, guilt, and scheme (which makes this a superb title to play as a thematic double feature alongside the Tennessee Williams play turned 1958 film, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in particular), Cocteau marries the mediums and techniques of stage blocking and screen framing seamlessly.

Whether holding Michel in a dominant position above Yvonne as he tells his mother about his engagement or keeping the characters in solo shots to illustrate the rift between them, Cocteau enhances the past formats Terribles has taken from written to staged – driving everything home in an emotional work that Andre Bazin dubbed "pure cinema."

And though Les Parents threatens to weigh you down with its dense emotional baggage, somehow Cocteau knows precisely how to layer and present everything with the lightest of touches that makes the film’s brisk 100 minute running time fly right by.

Of interest to psych students and a must watch for francophiles and film buffs, releasing just before the holidays, Les Parents is a terribly wonderful film that you'll want to bring home... just maybe not to mother or father. Then again, bringing the drama is precisely what Cocteau would've wanted.

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