Les Parents Terribles

Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles (1948) -- known in English by the much less barbed or helpful title The Storm Within -- finds the director-artist-novelist-playwright revisiting in cinema his triumph for the stage. Adapting his own play, a pleasingly sordid farcical tragedy from 1938, Cocteau managed to honor both of the mediums he had mastered, producing a film that, while stagebound, is alive at every moment to the possibilities of the screen. The lengthy dialogue scenes unfold in vital, vibrant, often unorthodox compositions, as if, with the script and performances settled so long ago, the director found himself free to concentrate on the project of finding every effective way to show us faces in intense conversation.

The story for the stage proved controversial in '38, and was still too hot for Hollywood a decade later. The upshot: Young horndog Michel (Jean Marais) breaks the news to his mother, Yvonne (Yvonne de Bray), that he's fallen for Madeleine (Josette Day), a young woman whose life is touched with scandal. She's got a sugar daddy paying her bills. The mother cannot countenance the thought of Michel leaving, and Georges (Marcel Andre), Michel's father, also is shaken: Turns out, dad's the sugar daddy.

"If there weren't situations like this, there'd be no plays," a family member points out as all this comes to a head. The material is comic, and Cocteau and his cast certainly score their laughs. But de Bray establishes early the rawness of Yvonne's need for her own son. Meanwhile, Cocteau relishes Day's face, haloing it in light, streaking it with sticky tears, studying it in intensely intimate close-ups as ravishing and otherworldly as anything in his fantasy films.

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