Elisabeth protective of her teenage brother Paul, who when injured in a snowball fight at school spends his time at home recuperatinng. The siblings are inseparable, living in the same room, fighting, playing secret games, and rarely leaving the house. When Paul becomes attracted to his sisters friend here jealousy threatens their 'relationship'.
Scripted by Jean Cocteau, from his 1929 novel, and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, before his run of reputation-making crime films, this unsettling, near-surreal picture is one of those key works often drawn on by later artists.
Peter Jackson in Heavenly Creatures and Bernardo Bertolucci in The Dreamers both take an inspiration from the private world of the young, sexually bizarre couple depicted here, as does novelist Ian McEwan in The Cement Garden. However, this collaboration between two very different French sensibilities has its own, distinctive, peculiar fascination.
The brawny-seeming Dermithe, protégé of the writer, is oddly cast as a sickly youth felled in the opening by a snowball to the heart thrown by the androgynous school bully (played by the actress who will resurface as his potential love interest), but delivers a remarkable double-act with the sharp-featured, unnervingly-intense Stéphane, who makes the mother-sister-lover character an ultimately terrifying force of nature. It’s no wonder this charismatic, if haggard duo lure others – devoted Gérard, a wealthy but short-lived American husband (Martin) and all-round gal pal Agathe (Cosima) – into their private world, where rooms in an abandoned theatre or the mansion Elisabeth inherits are transformed into magical, if overcrowded hidey-holes.
The heavily-plotted third act has an almost Shakespearean sense of doom, underlined by the seductive, persuasive, insightful voice of the novelist, who reads extracts from the original on the soundtrack in a device that ought to be overblown (it was when Bertolucci had Paul Bowles do the same in The Sheltering Sky) but plays marvellously here.
Occasionally melodramatic, but always psychologically compelling, this is cinema de papa a la New Wave.