Existentialism and romanticism can clash or they can climb into the bathtub, thus Jean-Pierre Melville visualizing the Jean Cocteau netherworld. The central image is ethereally symbiotic: The square-jawed Botticelli (Edouard Dermithe) and his cyclonic sister (Nicole Stéphane) in bed staring at the camera above them, side by side "like two halves of one body" in the "thick shell" that is their room. The shifting arrangements (duo, triangle, quadrille) open with a faux orgy, romping boys in the schoolyard until a rock in a snowball brings the feeble-hearted hunk to his knees. Shoplifting and squabbling and sleepwalking, "jeux" is the byword in the siblings' dreamland, the "normal" colleague (Jacques Bernard) is just along for the ride. Surveying it all is Cocteau's voice, a florid benshi marveling at the heroine's "incurable" volatility: "All fire and ice, she despised anything lukewarm." A masterwork of suffocation, a procession of Rimbaudian tremors and caprices, a junk drawer bulging with "immense symbolic meaning." The brother has two loves, the hell-raising garçon named Dargelos and the forlorn fashion model, Renée Cosima plays one with a sadistic grin and the other with a spurned sniff. The sister meanwhile has her own machinations, the moneyed Yank she marries (Melvyn Martin) ends in a smoldering tableau vivant of a car wreck starkly recalled in Le Mépris. ("Were You Smiling at Me" times a dolly-in at the piano, for the rest there's Vivaldi and Bach.) The billiards table atop Gloomy Hill and the black mustache painted on the marble bust, crayfish in bed, "je déteste le désordre." The key is not to look for Melville's gangsters in this early work, but rather to notice adolescence's death-scented playacting in his later underworld sagas, the poet's tough-guy façade that comes crashing down on the chessboard floor. Truffaut (Jules and Jim) and Bertolucci (The Dreamers) are the obvious disciples, Perry (Last Summer) and Cassavetes (Love Streams) the oblique ones. Cinematography by Henri Decaë. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce