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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classics, Sets. Orpheus; La Villa Santo-Sospir; Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown

Orpheus (Also Blu-ray) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
France: Jean Cocteau, 1950 (Criterion Collection)
Jean Cocteau, the French artist-of-all-trades who mastered many forms — he painted, drew, wrote and made movies — was a fountain of talent and an apostle of art. He was also a bit of a dandy and a dilettante, a showman and a narcissist. But, at his best, he was a dilettante of genius, a poet of narcissism. In Cocteau’s strange and beautiful oeuvre, the highest expression of that dilettantism, that narcissism, and that genius, was his 1950 film Orpheus.
Orpheus is one of the great films of a sometimes undervalued film era: the post-war period of French cinema, from 1945 to 1958, that we might call the French “Pre-Wave“: the heyday of stylish studio (and sometimes independent) directors like Max Ophuls (La Ronde), Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique), Jacques Tati (M. Hulot’s Holiday), Rene Clair (Beauty and the Devil), Marcel Carne (Children of Paradise), Rene Clement (Forbidden Games), Jacques Becker (Touchez pas un Grisbi), Claude Autant-Lara (Devil in the Flesh), Jules Dassin (Rififi), Jean-Pierre Melville (Les Enfants Terribles), Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest), and the returning Jean Renoir (French Cancan). This was the period of that reputedly dustym shallow studio classicism that the New Wave and its young critic directors, like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, were supposed to sweep away — though Truffaut and his friends, who dubbed themselves the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians,”  actually liked most of the directors listed above, and liked Cocteau as well. (Renoir, Bresson, Tati, Melville and Cocteau were among the exemplars they wanted to emulate.)
In retrospect, that partly spurned classicism produced more than a few classics, including all the films above and some more by the same filmmakers — and definitely including Orpheus, a masterly example of an independent artistic spirit expressing itself through the highly polished tools and highly capable technicians of the system (and benefiting from that system‘s technical expertise and visual panache.) That Pre-Wave, in retrospect, looks like part of a Golden Age. Cocteau, easily the most “personal” of all those auteurs and metteurs en scene could not have expressed his highly idiosyncratic ideas without the brilliant technicians he gathered around him, and they loved working with him as well.
Orpheus is Cocteau‘s modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice — the tale (also retold in Marcel Camus’ 1959 French art house hit, Black Orpheus), of the poet Orpheus, who went into the Kingdom of Death to rescue his beloved Eurydice and to return her to the land of the living, only to lose her again when, unintentionally breaking a ground rule, he looked at her.
In Cocteau‘s version, set in Paris and its “suburbs” near the film‘s year of release, 1950 — in an era replete with café crowds, modern jazz, motorcycle cops, and car radios — the mythological Orpheus has become a famous modern poet-artist, also called Orpheus (played by Jean Marais), who’s adored by the public and scorned by some of the intelligentsia (like Cocteau), who is obsessed with subjects from religion and classical myth (like Cocteau), who is happily married to the beautiful Eurydice, played by Marie Dea (unlike Cocteau, who was gay), and who seemingly cannot pass a mirror without looking in it (probably like Cocteau).
In the film’s lively opening, Orpheus, who views his artistic enemies with disdain (perhaps like Cocteau) runs into a clique of them at a local cafe, a hangout here for the real-life pop idol Juliette Greco and her crowd, where he also meets his young teenage poet-rival, Jacques Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe) who, some feel, will surpass him, along with Cegeste’s apparent patron The Princess (the great Maria Casares) and her chauffeur, Heurtebise (Francois Perier). In a resulting brawl, Cegeste is injured, two ominous motorcyclet cops (drivers of death, we will learn) appear, and Cegeste and Orpheus are driven by Heurtebise to the Princess’s estate, which, like the castle of Cocteau‘s Beast (a role also played by Marais) in Cocteau’s 1946 fairy tale masterpiece Beauty and the Beast, proves to be a palace of wonders — of mirrors you can walk though, of magical gloves, of sudden negative images, and of a passageway to the underworld (set in the ruins of the Saint-Cyr military academy) — where the Princess, it turns out, is an emissary of Death.

Like the enraptured Beauty in the astonishing chateau of the Beast, the hot-tempered but art-besotted Orpheus succumbs to the temptations and wonders before him. With the help of the very obliging Heurtebise (played by Perier, later one of Melville‘s ambiguous film noir flics, with an almost constant expression of worried concern), Orpheus keeps moving back and forth between his own happy home, and the gateway to the land of Death. He also becomes obsessed with the mysterious poetic messages that keep emanating from The Princess‘ car radio. Example: “The bird sings with its fingers.”

Eventually the myth kicks in. Eurydice falls into Death’s hands, and Orpheus must try to rescue her. But there’s a twist. In the interim, Orpheus has fallen in love with the Princess of Death, and Heurtebise has fallen for Eurydice. Death’s shadow government, which meets round a corporate table and acts like a partisan tribunal, is not amused.

Orpheus has the kind of script few truly mercenary producers would dare to back. (The film, by the way, was a hit.) But, like Beauty and the Beast, which had the young Rene Clement as Cocteau’s “technical” director, it benefits richly from all the technical brilliance the studio system could lavish on its projects. Orpheus’ cinematography, by Nicholas Hayer, is alternately bright and rich (in the world of the da) and drenched in shadows (in the underworld of death). The technical tricks, which often involve reverse or slow motion (or both), black and white negative images, and at one point, a set that has literally been built tipped to the side, so that Orpheus and Heurtebise can crawl along the walls like voyagers in a dream — are ingenious and amusing. They aptly fit Cocteau’s artistic credo “Astonish me.”


Then there are the mirrors. They are Cocteau’s favorite symbol, and his narcissism is reflected in them. Orpheus gazes at himself in it, and often, like Lewis Carroll‘s Alice, passes into and through the trick mirror surface that ripples like water. In Orpheus, the mirror in the home of the Princess, is passageway to the underworld of Death. The implication is clear. When we gaze into a mirror, we are watching our own death at work. (Cocteau, never one to waste a symbol, said of the cinema that it was the only art that could show death at work.)

Orpheus is the second film in what came to be known as Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, a gallery comprising his 1930 surrealist gem Blood of a Poet, Orpheus (1950) and his last and most obviously personal film, Testament of Orpheus (1959). (Criterion has them all in an Orphic Trilogy box set.)

All three of these films are about Cocteau and they are all in a way, segments of his dream autobiography. But he only appears, as himself, in the last, Testament of Orpheus. In the second, Cocteau‘s surrogate, Orpheus, is played by his ex-lover (and one of France‘s matinee idols of the ‘40s and ‘50s) Marais — while Cocteau‘s then-current lover, Dermithe, plays Cegeste. In the third, Testament of Orpheus (sections of which appear in some of this DVD’s special features), Cocteau finally plays himself: a birdlike man with frizzy hair, expressive fingers, a wary expression and a very recognizable face.

Of all the great directors and cinema stylists who flourished in the years between World War II and the New Wave — including geniuses like Renoir, Ophuls and Bresson — Cocteau is the one probably still most fondly remembered by the public. And that’s because he made himself a public figure, and because he never forgot to be an entertainer as well as an artist. Orpheus, like Blood of a Poet, and along with Bunuel and Dali’s 1928 Un Chien Andalou, was for years regarded as a high point of cinematic art and experimentation. But it has its pop side as well. It’s constructed somewhat like a thriller and a movie romance, and it makes ample use of some of the visual clichés of both, as well as the visual archetypes of the myths Cocteau borrows. But Cocteau makes the mix work, precisely because he was a dilettante of genius. Orpheus, his myth for the ’50s, and forever, still amuses us, still entertains us, still astonishes us. (In French, with English subtitles.)


All films below are in French, with English subtitles.

Also includes: La Villa Santo-Sospir (France: Jean Cocteau, 1951) Three and a Half Stars. Cocteau’s dazzling color tour of the villa whose walls and doors he decorated with paintings, and the nearby church he adorned as well, shot in the deliberately bare bones 16mm style he recommended to young filmmakers. Narrated by Cocteau. 

Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown (France: Edgardo Cozarinsky, 1984) Three Stars. A fine Cocteau portrait by prime cinematic chronicler Cozarinsky. 

Other Extras: Commentary by French-film historian James S. Williams; Featurette: Jean Cocteau and His Tricks (France: Marc Caro, 2008) Informative interview by Caro with Cocteau’s assistant director Claude Pinoteau; Interview with Cocteau on French TV show “In Search of Jazz” (1956); TV Interview “40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau”; Photo gallery by Roger Corbeau; Newsreel footage of Saint-Cyr academy; Trailer; Booklet with article excerpt by Cocteau and essays by Williams and Mark Polizzotti.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon