'The Storm Within' ('Les Parents Terribles'): Film Review

The Storm Within Still 2 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Cohen Film Collection
A formally inventive showcase for old-school melodrama.

A 1948 Jean Cocteau film, adapted from his own play and starring Jean Marais, gets its first American theatrical release.

Making mother-son jealousy into a matter of life and death, Jean Cocteau's The Storm Within (Les Parents Terribles) stars a man-child (Jean Marais) who dotes on his mother but is ready to leave her to marry a surprisingly unsuitable woman. An adaptation of Cocteau's play, the picture was made between two of his more famous collaborations with Marais (1946's Beauty and the Beast and 1950's Orpheus) and is now getting its first American release, a mere 70 years late. Casual Cocteau fans will note the absence of the mythological and avant-garde elements they remember from Beauty and The Blood of a Poet. But the filmmaking still looks fresh; in fact, after the Cohen Film Collection's restoration, it gleams.

Marais is Michel, whose mother, Yvonne (Yvonne de Bray), has a near-fatal insulin accident at the story's outset — likely because she's distracted by the fact that he didn't come home last night. Tied to his mother's apron strings, the 22-year-old hasn't yet dared to tell her he's seeing a woman. While Yvonne invents non-amorous explanations for his absence, her husband, George (Marcel Andre), and spinster sister, Leo (Gabrielle Dorziat), try to lay the groundwork for the revelations likely to come.

Michel bounds in, boyishly ingratiating to an unseemly degree, and starts confessing his big news: He wants to marry Madeleine (Josette Day, formerly Beauty to Marais' Beast), who has fallen for him despite her entanglement with a much older sugar daddy. Scandalized, Yvonne tears into her "unfaithful" child, imagining Madeleine to be not just immoral but a used-up hag unworthy of Michel. But the real scandal is yet to arrive, in a twist that George (who sometimes resembles the cheating patriarch Vincent Gardenia played in Moonstruck) will describe as the stuff of "a real music-hall comedy."

Act two moves to Madeleine's apartment, where the whole family shows up, ostensibly hoping to meet and make nice with a girl who may soon be their kin. Having intentionally created film sets here that feel hermetically sealed off from the world, Cocteau plays with ways of dividing things further — staging secret conversations among one set of characters where their nearby companions can't hear them, and letting the blockings physicalize the drama. He frames his actors tightest when they dive within their own emotions; some of these images are near-transcendent, while others are merely exotic enough to have been used on the sleeve of some obscure EP by The Smiths. Michel and Madeleine weep crystalline tears as they're torn apart by lies told to keep other lies from being exposed.

In the aftermath of all this melodrama, Dorziat proves to be the film's most commanding presence. Her Leo carries the bitterness of lost love and of having seen others squander their own good fortune, but also embodies a peculiar need to set things right and comfort the distraught. She's certainly more sympathetic than de Bray's nearly cartoonishly needy Yvonne. While Hollywood would likely have made this story all about the two beautiful youths who must fight for their love, Cocteau sees something to care about in the quickly fading, quietly downtrodden oldsters getting in their way.

Production company: Les Films Ariane
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Cast: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Yvonne de Bray, Marcel Andre, Gabrielle Dorziat
Director-screenwriter: Jean Cocteau
Producers: Francis Cosne, Alexandre Mnouchkine
Director of photography: Michel Kelber
Production designer: Guy de Gastyne
Costume designer: Marcel Escoffier
Editor: Jacqueline Sadoul
Composer: Georges Auric

In French

100 minutes