Film & TV

Jean Cocteau’s Classic Family Farce Remains a Work of Genius

Yvonne de Bray and Jean Marais in Les Parents Terribles, 1948
And Bruce LaBruce’s new satire, The Misandrists, maps out the ‘logical’ conclusion of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement.

Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles, made in 1948, has just been re-released — at the right time to reveal where current social chaos originates. It’s rooted in family relations where love, mixed with the egotism of personal politics, leads to spoilage. Cocteau foretold this tragedy through the deliberate stage-farce structure of Les Parents Terribles, which critiques bad parenting and the comical, stifling closeness of kinship. When a hypersensitive mother, Yvonne (Yvonne de Bray), distracted father Georges (Marcel André), and spinster Aunt Leo (Gabrielle Dorziat) learn that the son, 22-year-old Michel (Jean Marais), is engaged to marry a young woman, Madeleine (Josette Day), the adults overreact hysterically, like a social order resistant to change.

This Oedipal farce, perched on the edge of surrealist poetry, might be the most sophisticated sit-com ever. Burlesquing the traditional family that progressives have dismissed to the point of today’s cultural collapse, it tells how parental self-righteousness infects the next generation. Never mind the 50th anniversary of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cocteau’s unruly insight into personal, private, universal family sentiment, makes the 70th anniversary of Les Parents Terribles appropriate for today’s political revolution. It’s the single most rewarding movie you can see this year.

Cocteau fearlessly examines how parents can ruinously project their own failures onto their progeny.

No recent Hollywood movie has helped us understand the hidden family crisis behind the students walking out on Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement address at Notre Dame University. No mainstream journalist investigates the implicit consent of parents who are proudly stuck with the tuition bill for tantrummy, intolerant, politically motivated students. Instead, our media exploits and coddles youthful activists. Thankfully, we now have Cocteau’s fearless examination of how parents can ruinously project their own failures onto their progeny.

Cocteau was a genius whose La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is still the best fantasy film ever; Orphée is still the greatest analogy made of artistic ethics battling with inevitable mortality; and The Blood of a Poet is an irreducible hybrid of surrealism and cinema, superior to today’s David Lynch standard. But in the lesser known Les Parents Terribles, Cocteau revealed commonplace complexities other artists couldn’t see.

Parents who encourage dissidence (based on their own past enthusiasms) and who congratulate intolerance (based on new feelings of powerlessness) belong to the corrupted world experience that we see acted out in today’s political battles, which Les Parents Terrible inventively parodies. Instead of blaming parents, Cocteau’s farce sympathizes with their defensiveness and vulnerabilities, which don’t disappear after giving birth and raising a child. Parenthood is not idealized — or neutered. Yvonne, Georges, and Aunt Leo live among clutter (which their bourgeois self-deprecation mocks as “a pigsty”) that reflects their disorderly emotions. They are seen, clean-through, to each person’s private motivations and emotional characteristics: Yvonne’s indolence, Georges’s conceitedness, Leo’s resentment; then pampered Michel and ambivalent Madeline, who are the most easily manipulated in this private game of arch manipulators.

In a perfect analogy of how liberal parents bequeath class attitudes and personal selfishness to their offspring, Cocteau offers the tête-à-tête image of Michel’s chin resting atop his mother’s head; her devious eyes fill the lower portion of the screen. It is an exquisite cinematic adaptation of a stage drama’s psychological intensity. Les Parents Terrible could well replace Renoir’s La Règle du jeu as French cinema’s gold standard.

Cocteau anticipated what Tennessee Williams would later Americanize, in The Glass Menagerie, as the essential apron-strings relationship; he takes the son’s implicit homosexual reliance past the usual resentment to illuminate a large, dangerous web of empathy. (De Bray’s cigarette-smoking coquette and Marais’s petulant dervish are irresistible performances, equal to Laurette Taylor’s fabled theatrical radiance in The Glass Menagerie.)

Recent movies, such as the odious Blockers, cheat the parenting issue by humiliating adulthood and pandering to youth — signs that Boomer child-rearing has degenerated. By contrast, Cocteau conceived this farce to parallel his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles, which romanticized subversive youth. Michel and Madeline are as conflicted as Yvonne, Georges, and Aunt Leo, but the adult farceurs are the most interesting clowns; their emotions are compounded by their egos — a brutally honest assessment of the parents’ self-destruction and the youths’ dependency.

Cocteau distills the family as he distills the world. His bracing vision goes beyond sentimentality. Aunt Leo warns, “Don’t look into the heart; there’s everything in the heart.” As the film winds up to its devastating, mathematically elegant conclusion, it urges modern viewers to ask: Who’s to blame for how a generation falls off its moral axis?

***

The Misandrists (Cartilage Films)

Bruce LaBruce’s political satire The Misandrists is not far-fetched. His story of sexual activism gone wild — among a feminist sect in Germany who vow to eliminate men from society and bring about a new civilization — is funny, and convincing, without being futuristic. The film is set in the present, sometime between Hillary Clinton’s election defeat and the rise to power of the #MeToo movement.

LaBruce (born Justin Stewart) has labored in the wilderness of the radical gay underground avant-garde cinema for three decades, but he has recently moved toward general public interest. His previous film, the excellent Gerontophilia, challenged gay culture’s norms about ageism and racism. Introducing provocative, arcane words into the political vocabulary is part of what makes LaBruce’s work significant.

But LaBruce is not a pedant, he’s primarily a satirist. The Misandrists dares question how first, second, third, and current waves of feminism are based in hatred of men. So brazen sequences of lesbian and transsexual intercourse challenge gay culture’s self-interested assumptions. Imagine a movie about progressives that forced them to examine their own biases.

Volker forcibly undergoes sexual-reassignment surgery. The comedic shock comes from admitting the inevitable violence of radical social movements.

Like the 1977 film of Muriel Sparks’s Nasty Habits (a satirical Watergate allegory), The Misandrists takes place in a similar convent environment. Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse) runs the cabal of teachers wearing wimples and students in parochial-school short skirts — a breeding ground for the Female Liberation Army. Their anti-male curriculum mirrors the political extremism of the heterosexual male leftist (Volker, played by Til Schindler) who is hiding out at the convent. The hetero far Left meets the transgender far Left. Not even TV’s drag star RuPaul is so daring.

Unlike Tina Fey’s facetious Mean Girls, LaBruce’s satire has a cutting edge (Volker forcibly undergoes sexual-reassignment surgery). The comedic shock comes from admitting the inevitable violence of radical social movements. A lesson on parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization by sperm) leads to a remarkable homily:

We shall refuse to be shackled to that reproductive function that estranges us from our own selfhood. Then and only then will we be able to reclaim nature as a force of feminine singularity. Then and only then will we become mistresses of our own destiny.

This makes La Bruce the first filmmaker to admit the “logical” conclusion of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. (Check the New York Times’ op-ed pages for updates.)

Was it Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, or Brian De Palma who said, “The history of cinema is the history of men photographing women”? LaBruce earns a queer place in cinema history by emphasizing the glamorous-scary visages of women and trans actors that make a point about contemporary sexual confusion. His cast, ranging from feminine to cartoonish to rock-star androgyny, suggests raunchy, neo–Andy Warhol. “Blessed be the goddess that has made me woman” is the school motto. Their dorm is decorated with wallpaper depicting lunar landscapes and female body parts. Their graduation project is to create a sex film (Pornutopia) that will revolutionize the world, an explicit, deliberately perverted version of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress — without men.

LaBruce cuts through the pretense of recent mainstream-movie sexuality, challenging the lies of Call Me by Your Name and Blue Is the Warmest Color as nonsexual but propaganda for the status quo.

Millennial progressives might not accept LaBruce’s challenge, but conservatives should — even if they take it as an orange alert. The Misandrists dares an outrageously funny reduction of political dogma. Big Mother says, “The family model is a pre-revolutionary structure of oppression.” Sister Dagmar (Viva Ruiz) advises, “Remember, girls, the closest way to a man’s heart is through his chest!” The Misandrists’ brilliant satire charts the #MeToo regime’s oppression.

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