Based on Jean Cocteau’s novel of the same name (Cocteau also wrote the screenplay for this 1950 b/w classic), LES ENFANTS TERRIBLE tells the story of two inseparable siblings who rarely leave their house but when this carefully balanced dynamic is interrupted by the death of their mother and the arrival of a young woman, dark clouds begin to cast a deadly shadow…

Narrated by Jean Cocteau (reading extracts from his own novel) the story unravels in a Parisian school during wintertime, with the pupils frolicking about in the snow and starting a snowball fight. One of the pupils, a troublemaker named Dargelos, throws a snowball with a small stone inside at Paul (Edouard Dermithe), a fellow pupil whom he particularly dislikes although Paul has always been in awe of Dargelos’ the-devil-may-care attitude. Because of his angelic looks, Dargelos tends to get away with murder and it would appear this will be the case again even after Paul collapses with a bad chest injury from where the snowball/rock hit him. Despite the fact that Paul is too frail and unwell to attend school following the incident, the school principal calls Dargelos into his office merely to lecture him (yet again) for his bad behaviour. However, instead of taking the well-meant advice to heart, the boy chucks pepper into the principal’s face, prompting his expulsion from the school.
Meanwhile, Paul’s older sister Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane), who already has her hands full looking after their ill mother, isn’t at all pleased that she now has to play nurse for her brother as well. What appears to be mutual disdain for one another quickly emerges as a power game between the siblings who in fact share the same bedroom (although not the same bed). Paul and Elisabeth have been inseparable since early childhood and play psychological games in which they seem to bicker and insult each other so they can establish a winner – the winner is the one who has the final word following certain scenarios. Furthermore, the siblings rarely leave the house, instead escaping into a dream world of their own making.

In order to ease Elisabeth’s ‘burden’ Paul’s best friend Gérard (Jacques Bernard) drops by on a regular basis and often stays overnight, inevitably getting drawn into the morbid and bizarre world of Paul and his sister. When the mother dies the concerned family physician (Maurice Revel) has a change of scenery in mind for the youngsters and – aware that Gérard’s uncle has a nice place in another town – asks him whether it might be possible that he and his two friends can stay in the house for some time… which they can. During their stay another side of Paul and Elisabeth is revealed, namely that they are both compulsive kleptomaniacs though they aren’t interested in stealing expensive objects but rather worthless items just so they can get a kick out of the experience. Before he knows it Gérard too is drawn into this habit and Elisabeth entices him into stealing a watering can, which they then hand to Mariette, the housemaid, upon their return to Paris.

Weeks pass and Paul is still not well enough to attend school while Elisabeth is getting bored with the daily routine. One day, after having read one of the fashion magazines she loves to collect, she decides to apply for a job modelling clothes. Despite Paul’s catty remarks that she looks like a scarecrow, Elisabeth actually secures just such a job and it is in her new workplace where she meets Agathe (Renée Cosima), a fellow model with whom she quickly establishes a rapport. Upon learning that Agathe lives in squalid conditions Elisabeth invites her new friend to stay in her flat or to be more precise, in the room formally occupied by her deceased mother. This arrangement doesn’t seem to suit Paul who is hostile towards the new arrival from the outset. The truth is somewhat different: Agathe, in looks if nothing else, reminds him of the pretty boy Dargelos but despite him having a crush on her the minute she enters the flat he also feels ambivalent towards her as she is a constant reminder of the snowball incident. If you think this sounds twisted then wait! Agathe also has a crush on Paul the minute she sets eyes on him but given his hostile remarks doesn’t display the courage to show her true feelings. Meanwhile, Gérard ask Agathe out while Elisabeth, thanks to her new status as a model, meets and marries a wealthy Jewish businessman called Michael (Melvyn Martin) who lives in a huge mansion on the outskirts of Paris and even allows Paul, Agathe and Gérard to take up some of the building’s eighteen rooms should they so wish. You bet they do! Unfortunately Elisabeth’s marital life is short-lived as within days of their marriage Michael is killed in a car crash, making her a fabulously wealthy widow. Soon, the old mind games between brother and sister start up all over again. One evening, Agathe confesses to Elisabeth her true feelings for Paul who, unbeknownst to his sister, had written a letter to Agathe but did a doubly stupid thing because a) he actually posted the letter (despite Agathe living under the same roof) from a post box and b) accidentally wrote his own name on the envelope! No wonder Agathe never gets the letter but when Paul also confesses his true feelings for the girl, Elisabeth can’t stand the thought of losing her brother and thus begins to spin a web of intrigue which will leave two of the four players dead…

This is, admittedly, a rather odd film with an even stranger plot though apparently based upon Jean Cocteau’s own childhood experiences (no wonder he turned out to be such an eccentric)! Although we actually have only four main characters the film does not contain a boring minute and we are drawn deeper and deeper into the peculiar world of Elisabeth and Paul and their strange machinations.
The somewhat unusual looking Nicole Stéphane is perfect casting for the manipulative Elisabeth, with Nicole herself coming from a privileged background as the elder daughter of Baron James-Henri de Rothschild. The dashing looking Edouard Dermithe was a novice who hadn’t previously appeared in any films and was discovered by Cocteau but delivers a surprisingly assured performance as Paul. Dermithe would appear in two more Cocteau films, namely ‘Orphee’ and ‘Testament d’Orphee’. He featured in two further films before getting married and carving out a living as a painter.
The film’s dreamlike mood is perfectly captured by cinematographer Henri Dacae and the score (Vivaldi) adds to the overall ambience.

This newly 4K remastered Blu-ray release offers the following Special Features:
2004 archive commentary track by novelist/film critic Gilbert Adair; commentary by Adrian Martin; author/film scholar Ginette Vincendeau on Melville; Volker Schlöndorff interview from 2004; trailer, image gallery plus illustrated booklet (first pressing only).