Les Parents Terribles (film) - Critical Reception

Critical Reception

When the film was first shown in France in December 1948, the critical reception of it was overwhelmingly favourable and Cocteau was repeatedly congratulated on having produced an original piece of cinema out of a work of the theatre: for example, "It is what one may rightly call pure cinema... The correspondence between image and text has never been so complete, so convincing".

André Bazin wrote a detailed review of the film in which he took up the idea of "pure cinema" and tried to analyse how Cocteau had succeeded in creating it out of the most uncinematic material imaginable. Bazin highlights three features which assist this transition. Firstly the confidence and harmony of the actors, who have previously played their roles together many times on stage and are able to inhabit their characters as if by second nature, allow them to maintain an intensity of performance despite the fragmentation of the film-making process. Secondly, Cocteau shows unusual freedom in his choice of camera positions and movements, seldom resorting to the conventional means of filming dialogue with reverse angle shots, and introducing close-ups and long shots with a sureness of touch that never disrupts the movement of the scene; the spectator is always placed in the position of a witness to the action (as in the theatre), rather than a participant, and even that of a voyeur, given the intimacy of the camera's gaze. Thirdly, Bazin notes the psychological subtlety with which Cocteau chooses his camera positions to match the responses of his 'ideal spectator'. He cites an example of the shot in which Michel tells Yvonne about the girl he loves, his face placed above hers and both facing the audience, just as they had done in the theatre; but in the film Cocteau uses a close-up which shows only the eyes of Yvonne below and the speaking mouth of Michel above, concentrating the image for the greatest emotional impact. In all of these aspects, the theatricality of the play is preserved but intensified through the medium of film.

Cocteau himself came to regard Les Parents terribles as his best film, at least from a technical point of view. This opinion has frequently been endorsed by later critics and historians of cinema.

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