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. Cocteau worked with the cast he had written the roles for, and their familiar comfort with the material results in a striking continuity of feeling. From shot to shot, no matter how many takes have passed between, the emotional pitch is consistent, the actors’ metabolism synced to the film’s and the viewers’. 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 new restoration, like most new restorations, is crisply gorgeous.) For all that, nothing here is ever fussy. Like the cluttered flats in which the characters squabble and love and prevaricate, the film has a rare quality of offhandedness, a sense that we’re watching Cocteau’s brilliant capturing of ongoing performances rather than his staging of them.
The story for the stage proved controversial in 1938, and was still too hot for Hollywood a decade later. The upshot: Young horndog Michel (Cocteau’s old-for-the-role muse 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 but will soon kick the older man to the curb for Michel. The mother cannot countenance the thought of Michel leaving or loving. “What you give to one you take away from the other,” she notes, as if love is an exhaustible resource. After she and Michel engage in a disquietingly physical tussle, Georges (Marcel Andre), Michel’s father, gets wind of the situation. He, too, is shaken, but for a different selfish reason than his wife’s: 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. Soon, she’s pounding the floor and screaming about scandal. As Georges and his confidante, Leo (Gabrielle Dorziat), Yvonne’s unmarried sister, scheme a way to end Michel’s romance without anyone discovering his own adultery, Michel dashes off to meet Madeleine. Cocteau relishes her 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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But even as he commits great feeling to the melodrama, he nudges us to notice the scenario’s ricketiness, right down to having characters demonstrate to each other that what’s said in one room can’t be heard in the next. That’s vital to the plot, certainly, but it’s also a reminder that we’re watching a film of a play steeped in theatrical convention. That might create in viewers a false certainty that this all unfolding in the realm of farce means we’re due a happy ending. We’re not, and the final moments of Les Parents Terribles remind us that what starts out seeming kind of funny often, in real life, is evidence of great pain. “Unbelievable!” Madeleine might shout.