Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Josette Day - Jean Marais - Madeleine - Michel - paintings

Les parents terribles
1948, directed by Jean Cocteau

Hardly a minute goes by in Les parents terribles without some allusion to order or disorder. Léo calls her family’s home “the pigsty”, and its messy rooms are a recurring topic of conversation. A cupboard door keeps swinging open and getting in the way. A leaf of the dining table pops up at all the wrong moments. Yvonne leaves cigarettes and lit matches where they don’t belong. Michel gets Madeleine’s carpet wet, leaves a shoe on her bookshelf, and can’t help breaking her teacups. Yvonne points to her own unkempt appearance, and Michel leaves his hair uncombed on the third day. On the other hand Léo tries to keep the apartment neat; she admires Madeleine’s sense of order; and Madeleine praises Michel’s cleanliness, while admitting that outdoors he’s like a child’s dirty knees. Léo tells Madeleine “it’s an order” to visit their apartment the next day, and Georges and Yvonne talk about “the order of things” as they think of their son growing up.

Finally, in the last line of dialogue, Léo says she had dismissed the charwoman, telling her “everything was in order.” The arc of the story goes from disorder to order. It’s bracketed by two events in Yvonne’s bathroom – from passing out at her sink to poisoning herself in the same place at the end. The first incident marks a disturbance in the family: Michel has gone missing overnight, staying out for the first time in his life. He’s fallen in love, and Yvonne senses that she’s lost him. When she kills herself a new order is in place – Michel is free to be with Madeleine, and Georges and Léo can be together as they had originally wished.

Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Gabrielle Dorziat - Léo
Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Marcel André - Georges
Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Yvonne de Bray - Sophie - close-up
Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Jean Marais - Michel - profile - close-up
Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Josette Day - Madeleine - close-up

Les parents terribles is a close adaptation of Cocteau’s 1938 play of the same title. Both the play and the movie were hits, and the play remained popular throughout the 1940s with revivals both during and after the war, in 1941 and 1946. The fact that a drama about order and disorder would remain popular through those years is fitting, not only because it was a time of such extreme disorder, but also because most of that disorder resulted from fascism’s attempt to impose its own version of order. Les parents terribles captures a similar irony as it acknowledges a complex relationship between order and disorder.

Yvonne, as we have noted, is the driving force of disorder in the plot, interfering in the natural pairing of the other four characters. Similarly, Léo is the strongest force of order – she shows the greatest understanding, and she brings the young couple back together, undoing the lie told at Madeleine’s apartment. However, no single character monopolizes or fully embodies either quality. It’s Léo, after all, who devises the plot to separate Madeleine from Michel, and both Georges and Yvonne agree to help her fix the situation.

Although order here is a positive force and disorder is destructive, the movie does not moralize the distinction. Yvonne may be disruptive, but at least she’s given birth to Michel. Disorder can be a creative force too, as it often is in reality. Likewise, although her maternal love is possessive and controlling, still it’s an unusually intense love, and it makes Yvonne sympathetic in spite of her faults. There’s an extraordinary moment on the third day when she pictures Michel coming toward her bedroom looking for a sugar cube, and he arrives at her door precisely in time with her sharp hearing. It’s as if her heartbeat matches his footsteps, and there’s an almost supernatural connection between them. The music underscores the strength of her feeling, and the scene is like a definition of love.

Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Jean Marais - Yvonne de Bray - Michel - Sophie

There is, of course, a current of incest in the mother-son relationship. It’s not only that their affection is so extreme, but that Michel climbs into bed with her, she neglects her husband from the moment Michel is born, and she’s so passionately jealous of Michel that she’s willing to hurt him and Madeleine. Nevertheless Les parents terribles is not about the social dangers of oedipal incest that we see in Hitchcock’s movies. The incestuous bond is treated as a fact of life, as it is in Greek drama and in psychoanalytic theory, where it’s a normal phase that most children grow out of. As in Cocteau’s script for Les enfants terribles, the strange passions of childhood are played out in grown-up characters, revealing the kernel of childhood that lingers on in later life. Every adult is, to some degree, still a child beneath all the accumulated learning and experience. As in many of Cocteau’s scripts, Les parents terribles aims for the primal insights of ancient Greek tragedy.

Cocteau’s ambition to bring the essence of Greek tragedy into the modern world, using a modern medium like cinema, requires a level of craftsmanship to match the ancient playwrights, poets, sculptors, and architects whose culture has survived the centuries. Les parents terribles is a rare and sometimes overwhelming display of cinematic craft, aided of course by the confined setting and limited cast, both of which make the production easier to manage, and also aided by the actors (except for Josette Day) having had ten years of intermittent experience playing their parts. The movie has an intensity of acting that any filmmaker should envy, and Cocteau banishes any sense of staginess with relentlessly imaginative framing. Characters rise unexpectedly from the bottom or corners of the screen, fall out of sight with equal surprise, or melt onto the floor as Michel does at his reunion with Madeleine. At their most intimate moment, when Michel tells his mother of his new love, their faces are joined unconventionally in a totem pole close-up showing his lower face resting on her upper face, the other half of each face missing. The set design does just enough to support descriptions of order (in Madeleine’s apartment and Léo’s room) and disorder without exaggerating; otherwise it comments subtly on the drama – Yvonne looks at a picture of a boy standing on a chair when she thinks of Michel as a child, and a wild black-haired woman on Madeleine’s wall echoes Madeleine’s posture when Georges forces her to lie.

Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Yvonne de Bray - Gabrielle Dorziat - Sophie - Léo
Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Jean Marais - Yvonne de Bray - Michel - Sophie - totem pole close-up - mouth - eyes - face - head
Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Yvonne de Bray - Gabrielle Dorziat - Sophie - Léo

Although the word “order” concludes the dialogue, Léo’s remark is not quite the last line. As the camera pulls back from Yvonne’s bedroom into Léo’s, Cocteau himself delivers a brief valedictory voice-over: “And the gypsy household wandered on. Gypsies never stop for long.” Apparently these lines were added as an afterthought to make a virtue of the shaky camera, fancying the apartment as a kind of mobile caravan, echoing earlier comparisons to Romani caravans. But these last words do more than that – they also open up the ending. Just as order and disorder are not framed through Christian morality, neither is order an absolute ideal or a culmination of progress. Like wandering nomads, the family will move on through further cycles of disorder that will again be resolved as “the order of things” reasserts itself.

Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Gabrielle Dorziat - Léo

Léo and Yvonne represent not only the extremes of order and disorder; Léo also defines them along another axis, of mind and heart, when she tells Yvonne, “My feelings go through here [pointing to her forehead] and yours there [points at her heart].” Most viewers will probably find this a fair assessment of the two characters, the impulsive Yvonne and the clever Léo, but even here the distinction is not absolute. Léo shows a great compassion when she brings the lovers back together, and Michel calls his mother “Sophie” identifying her with a kind of wisdom. But the mind-heart dichotomy maps onto two of the movie’s more significant lines of dialogue, both spoken by Léo:

“Sometimes I take my vengeance on love. But at other times love wins. Do we know our own thoughts? It’s Greek to me. Don’t try and understand me. I’m odd sometimes.”

“Don’t look into the heart. There’s everything in the heart. Don’t look too deeply into mine, or yours.”

One speaks of the unfathomable mind, the other of the heart which is dangerous to probe. Both mind and heart, in other words, are receptacles of disorder. When she says “There’s everything in the heart,” she acknowledges that all possible feelings lie there, even opposing feelings. We can hate and love the same object at the same time, or hold someone in both respect and contempt. If we look too deeply our thoughts and feelings are a frightening mess. We humans are at the mercy of our organic natures, but the movie reminds us that nature also seeks order, and we should have some faith in nature – while also keeping aware of the chaos within ourselves. (Whoever came up with the film’s often-mocked English distribution title The Storm Within may have had some insight along these lines.)

Les parents terribles - Jean Cocteau - Jean Marais - Josette Day - Gabrielle Dorziat - Marcel André - Michel - Madeleine - Léo - Georges

The French title tells us that the parents, possibly including Aunt Léo, are “terrible”, and in fact they do terrible things, exposing the chaos inside their hearts and minds. But the movie also looks charitably on them. They’re not evil but human. If we look at life as the movie bids us to, as a perpetual dialectic between order and disorder, then we should also find ourselves looking more charitably at each other. With a faith in the order of nature, we should have no need to force an artificial order on the world, bringing it to the unbearable chaos of the decade that produced this film.


Orphée – Spirit of ancient Greek drama translated into film

Les enfants terribles – Lingering presence of childhood in adults; allusions to Greek tragedy

Vertigo – Disruptive force of oedipal incest

Floating Weeds – Faith in the natural order of things

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – Intimate drama reflecting an underlying order in life