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Review: Jean Cocteau's masterful 1948 'Les Parents Terribles' is a treat for movie lovers

Review: Jean Cocteau's masterful 1948 'Les Parents Terribles' is a treat for movie lovers
Jean Marais in the 1948 French film "Les Parents Terribles." (Cohen Media Group)

In between the stark ravishment of 1946’s “Beauty and the Beast” and 1950’s edgy enchantment “Orpheus,” France’s art-hyphenate master Jean Cocteau filmed an adaptation of his ‘30s play “Les Parents Terribles.” A seriocomic corker about a breathstoppingly dysfunctional family starring “Beauty” leads Jean Marais and Josette Day in decidedly non-mythological roles — in Marais’s case, leaving behind the Beast’s suffering hero to play an insufferable simp — it’s only now getting a first American release in theaters with a sterling 2K restoration. In this summer of blockbuster fatigue, that’s good news for movie lovers.

Cocteau himself considered his 1948 film of youthful romance and cynical, scheming elders his best movie from a technical viewpoint, which may surprise those who have built their cinematic admiration for the Frenchman around the swoonworthy flourishes that mark the more celebrated “Beauty” and “Orpheus” — fantastic tales of love, imprisonment and escape, whose images have become canonical. “Les Parents Terribles,” however — also known as “The Storm Within” — is quite hermetic, never straying from its two claustrophobic interiors, mostly filmed in close-ups and medium shots, and assiduously devoid of trick shots.

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In other words, it’s no “expanded” version of a stage experience, the adaptation that grasps at any excuse to shoot outdoors or announce itself as cinema. Cocteau, nevertheless, via adroitly deployed framing, judicious camera movement and smart editing, achieves something undeniably cinematic within his self-imposed confines, producing a shining example of the oft-maligned filmed-play genre. And watched in a theater, where a close-up can swing from feeling gorgeous to imposing, this curious gem is liable to make any subsequent night at the playhouse feel strangely distant and monotonous by comparison.

In a decorously unkempt apartment we meet three embittered adults bound by blood, marriage and/or disappointment. Reclusive, demanding Yvonne (Yvonne de Bray), who needs insulin, bewails from bed that her beloved 22-year-old son, Michel (Marais), hasn’t come home yet. (That she prepares for his arrival by applying makeup is one of this relationship’s queasier details.) Her husband, George (Marcel André), a nervous presence, just wants Yvonne happy so he can be left alone to work on his crazy inventions, while Yvonne’s sister Léo (Gabrielle Dorziat) — a gimlet-eyed spinster who effectively runs the place and once loved George — is the stabilizing force, pushing back whenever her over-the-top sibling creepily complains of Michel being “unfaithful.”

When Michel (Marais) finally shows up, all goofy smiles and syrupy cuddles for the mom he affectionately calls “Sophie,” it’s to reveal — in a superbly tight composition showing only Marais’s mouth and de Bray’s eyes — that he’s been seeing a woman named Madeleine (Day), who plans on ditching her older sugar daddy to be with him. Yvonne is distraught, casting ugly aspersions on Madeleine. But Michel’s news has farcical repercussions beyond mom’s incest-adjacent tantrum. A further secret brings George and Léo into a plot that has everyone visiting Madeleine under the pretense of getting to know her but is designed to deviously rupture the happy couple.

Cocteau’s well-whisked blend of Greek-drama thorniness and melodramatic laughs is by no means conventional as the story pings from delusion to desperation to sacrificial gesture. (Cocteau even has one character call the story’s predicament “a monstrous masterpiece.”) The performances ring true, whether they dazzlingly grate, as with de Bray’s and Marais’ genetically bound histrionics, or elicit wry smiles as does Dorziat’s seen-it-all Léo, a middle-aged woman seasoned by hurt yet spurred to right the wrongs of calloused adulthood. It’s a showcase of acting styles one doesn’t ever really witness anymore in film, but Cocteau’s fluid mastery of the material brings aesthetic sanity to the psychological conflicts.

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‘Les Parents Terribles’

In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Starts July 13, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles

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