Enfants Terribles

by Jean Cocteau

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Critical Evaluation

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Children of the Game is the most claustrophobic of all Jean Cocteau’s works, although its intense concentration on the vagaries of love is matched by its later companion piece Les Parents terribles (1938; Intimate Relations, 1952). In Cocteau’s fantasies based on myth or folklore—in the case of La Belle et la bête (1946; Beauty and the Beast, 1947)—love can play a redemptive role, rescuing characters from distortions of their inner being imposed by other forces. In his domestic dramas, however, love is a distortive affliction that leads to disaster.

Cocteau’s film version of Enfants Terribles (released in 1950) was given a restrictive X rating in Britain because the censors deemed the relationship between Paul and Elisabeth to be implicitly incestuous. This is a misleading simplification of a more complicated and more problematic network of feelings. Although Paul initially leaves the Room only to go to school, while Elisabeth clings even more closely to its sanctuary, they broaden their horizons conspicuously as they grow to sexual maturity. The Game, which absorbs them completely in their childish innocence, is dramatically transformed as they struggle to come to terms with the greater game of the social world. The possessiveness reflected in Elisabeth’s attempt to keep Paul and Agatha apart is not merely a simple desire to cling fast to what she and her brother always had. It also arises out of the fact that they both begin to yearn for something different, while fearing that what they want might be impossible to achieve. She reacts against her own impulses as well. The siblings are inextricably bound together but not by anything as straightforward as lust or sexual jealousy.

Paul’s nemesis, Dargelos, is based on a real person of that name whom Cocteau encountered during his schooldays and to whom the author refers in several other works. Although he can hardly be said to figure large in Children of the Game as a character, Dargelos moves the two most important levers of the plot. Dargelos injures Paul with the stone hidden in the snowball; through this incident Gérard is drawn into the lives of Paul and Elisabeth, disrupting their privacy. Dargelos also provides the poison that Paul takes after Elisabeth convinces him that Agatha does not love him. Dargelos is tacitly present at the novel’s end as well as its beginning, still armed with his deadly snowball. His cold cruelty brackets the entire tragedy in such a fashion as to suggest that if only he had looked with favor upon his acolyte, all might have been well. If, in fact, the reader decides that Agatha is only a substitute for the charismatic Dargelos, then Elisabeth might have a good reason to keep Paul and Agatha apart.

Through the actions and reactions of Gérard, the fascinated voyeur, Cocteau testifies to the fact that there is something precious in the Game, but not in the sense that it is some kind of small utopia. The Game provides Paul’s and Elisabeth’s lives with a fundamental structure that Gérard’s lacks, but it is essentially something to fall back on when other projects fail. Wherever they go they can always return to the Room, or some simulacrum of it, to provide a safe haven for themselves—but that is all the Room is; it can never provide an answer to their inner needs.

There is a certain ironic paradox in the fact that the Game that Paul and Elisabeth play allows Paul to build up the strength he requires for his periodic ventures into the world beyond. He comes to appreciate this paradox when Elisabeth retaliates by moving...

(This entire section contains 988 words.)

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outside herself, raising the possibility that when he next needs to recover from the personal disasters he constantly courts, she might not be there for him. The irony, of course, redoubles when Elisabeth’s expedition to the outer world brings back Agatha, a much more dangerous invader than Gérard.

It is not easy to weigh Elisabeth’s decision to marry Michael. Perhaps it is an authentic attempt to begin a new Game and move into a new Room, but its tragic interruption seals the fate of Elisabeth and of Paul in a relatively straightforward fashion. If Gérard’s judgment of the matter is correct, however, her gesture is a feint that Michael’s death merely serves to terminate in a relatively tidy fashion. If so, it is not entirely clear whether Elisabeth’s halfhearted and doomed attempt to escape should be construed as a flight from Paul or as a flight from Agatha. To the extent that her subsequent determination to keep them apart is motivated by jealousy, it is not obvious which of them she is more jealous of—it is, after all, she who first becomes enamored of Agatha. Given Gerard’s inherent ability to be manipulated, to him marrying Agatha cannot seem as definite a loss as allowing her to marry Paul.

If this interpretation is accepted, Elisabeth’s emotions and motives are more complicated than she realizes, and certainly far more complicated than Gerard realizes. Her final attempt to rebuild the Room and restart the Game is clearly a matter of desperation rather than a constructive desire, and its failure is inevitable. The snow that conceals sharp stones ultimately blankets everything, banishing all the possible varieties of human warmth with evenhanded cruelty.

The Room is depicted throughout the novel as a prison, not so much because it embodies “the shadowy instincts of childhood” that are mentioned in the first few pages, but more because the world outside is full of sharp stones and subtle poisons. The apparent freedom of the world of adult relationships is spoiled by the lurking presence of Dargelos. He is the handsome and charming but ultimately treacherous object of desire. He is free, but the exercise of his freedom condemns others to their prisons and ultimately to death row.