Tag Archives: Jean Cocteau

231. ORPHEUS (1950)

Orphée

“When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming. Only the people and places of the dream matter. I have difficulty making contact with others, as one does when half-asleep.”–Jean Cocteau

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , María Casares, François Périer, Marie Déa, Edouard Dermithe

PLOT: Orpheus, a famed poet in post-war France, is stagnating until his life takes a sudden turn when a brawl at the Poets Café precipitates a ride with Death and her latest victim. Smitten by her mystery and charm, Orpheus becomes obsessed to the point of neglecting his wife, who is dispatched by supernatural agents. It turns out the underworld has rules, though, and complications force Orpheus, Death, and the innocent people in their orbit to redress their unauthorized actions.

Still from Orpheus (1950)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1926 play of the same title.
  • Orpheus is the middle film of Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy”, preceded by The Blood of a Poet (1932) and followed by Testament of Orpheus (1960).
  • The credits for the movie were all drawn by Jean Cocteau, who was something of an artistic jack-of-all-trades: poet, painter, filmmaker.
  • Orpheus is played by Jean Marais, a matinée idol whom Cocteau launched to critical acclaim with Beauty and the Beast (1946). Marais was also Cocteau’s lover. By the time Orpheus was being filmed, Cocteau had a new lover, whom he cast as Orpheus’ professional rival, Cegeste.
  • The unearthly transmissions from the Princess’ car radio were inspired by the coded BBC broadcasts Cocteau heard during World War II.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau’s bag of tricks in Orpheus is a large one, but the most memorable bit of legerdemain shows up when Orpheus is making a second trip to “the Zone,” a wind-scarred mass of ruins that makes up the Underworld. Orpheus and his guide, Heurtebise, struggle against gusts of tremendous force as they travel, only to plummet laterally upon turning the corner into the tribunal chamber.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forward in reverse; Underworld radio; mirror doorways

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cocteau’s obsession with mirrors continues unabated, and in Orpheus they explode, dissolve, and are traveled through with a magic so commonplace it borders on the mundane. The Underworld is overseen by judicial bureaucrats, time is flexible (but at a price), and for a movie about poets and poetry, it’s interesting that there are no examples at all of the latter.


Criterion Collection promotional video for Orpheus

COMMENTS: As a writer and as a director, Jean Cocteau hit the Continue reading 231. ORPHEUS (1950)

202. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

La Belle et la Bête

“Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy…”–Jean Cocteau, prologue to Beauty and the Beast

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Marais, Josette Day

PLOT: A merchant who has fallen on hard times wanders onto a mysterious estate and plucks a single rose to take back to his daughter, Belle. He is suddenly faced with a bipedal Beast, dressed as a nobleman, who says that the penalty for the theft is death, but who offers to spare the old man’s life if he will send his daughter in his place. Against her father’s wishes, Belle volunteers to be kept as the Beast’s prisoner, but the longer she stays in his magical castle the more she sees the noble heart beating underneath the bestial hide.

Still from Beauty and the Beast (1946)
BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau considered himself a poet who dabbled in filmmaking, although today he is best remembered for his contributions to cinema rather than literature. La Belle et la Bête was his first narrative feature film after making the 55-minute Surrealist film Blood of a Poet [Le sang d’un poète] in 1932.
  • This version of the story is based on 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont; it was a faithful adaptation, except that Cocteau invented the role of Avenant.
  • Cocteau suffered from a painful skin disease during shooting, and even had to be hospitalized once while filming continued (technical adviser Rene Clement directed in his absence). At times he wore a mask while directing to hide his inflamed countenance.
  • Jean Marais, who played Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince, was Cocteau’s lover. It is rumored that he convinced Cocteau to take on the project, thinking the role would launch his career as a French matinee idol (it did).
  • Minimalist composer and frequent film scorer Philip Glass composed an alternate soundtrack for the film (conceived of as an opera).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s difficult to disregard the Beast’s magnificent makeup, it’s the candelabras made of living human arms lining the castle’s corridors that have made the strangest and most lasting impression over the years.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Handelabras; statues that watch you; the steaming Beast

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There is no movie before or since that manages to strike the same tone of dreamy believability as Beauty and the Beast. It’s a spectacle picture wrapped in the trappings of high art, mixing conventional storytelling with a smattering of Surrealist visuals. Too dry to entertain the very young, Cocteau nonetheless begs us to look at the film as if we were children; to surrender to the Beast’s enchantments and enter his mysterious halls lined with arms and statues that calmly watch us as we watch them.

Trailer for La Belle et la Bête

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau argued with his cinematographer, the Continue reading 202. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JEAN COCTEAU

The late critic Leslie Halliwell wrote of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1949): “It is the closest cinema has gotten to pure poetry.” The same might be said of Cocteau himself. Poet, painter, filmmaker, librettist, historian, stage designer, and playwright, Cocteau refused to be confined to the parameters of a single artistic medium. His circle of friends and collaborators included Pablo Picasso, , Serge de Diaghilev, Les Six, Igor Stravinsky, Marcel Proust, and Erik Satie. He was a dominating figure in virtually every “ism”, including Dadaism and Surrealism. Cocteau only made six movies, and insisted that he was merely an amateur who “dabbled” in the medium. Despite his self-proclaimed amateur status, four of those films are frequently hailed as masterpieces of cinema. These four have been collectively given the Criterion treatment.

Blood of a Poet (1930) was Cocteau’s first film. It is often compared to ‘s Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’Or (Blood was, in  fact, financed by the same patron as L’ Age d’or). Yet, Blood of a Poet is its own film, having a texture unlike any before or since. It is, possibly, the weakest of the four on the Criterion set. Despite it’s stage bound milieu, it remains bewitching, startling, and memorable even after the passage of 80 years. It features absurdist mythology and is semi-autobiographical, told in four life episodes. The artist, searching for his muse, is martyr to his art. Cocteau narrates, surrealist Lee Miller plays a statue and Les Six member Georges Auric composed the music. Mirrors are passageways into an inner world, a theme Cocteau would perfect in Orpheus (1950). Budgetary limitations led to improvisation, which worked to the film’s advantage. Upon release, the film was attacked from different corners. Andre Breton and his Surrealist circle were aggressively hostile, obviously fearing a coup d’etat[1]. Coming on the heels of L’ Age d’or, the Catholic Church read an iconoclastic message into Blood, threatening the producer with excommunication, which resulted in a delayed release. In hindsight, this is surprising since the main thrust of the film, which comes through the multifariously interpreted imagery, mostly conveys the artist in the spiritual realm.

Cocteau was nearly sixty in 1946 when he made his first feature-length film, Beauty and the Beast (based on the children’s story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont). Inspired by Gustave Dore’s engravings and the naturalistic paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Beauty and the Beast is sensual, frighting and enchanting in the way only a childhood fantasy can be. It is more aesthetically assured than Blood of a Poet, greatly assisted by Henri Alekan’s exquisite black and white cinematography, Georges Auric’s enduring score, and Christian Berard’s production design, costume and makeup work. Disembodied hands light the way to the Beast’s elegant castle with candelabras. Animated statues convey amusement and dread. Mirrors, doors and jewelry are constant elements of Cocteau’s world. Cocteau and company play with the gifts of the medium, but it is more than a mere display of cinematic trickery. Everything serves the mythical narrative. Stark and magical compositions are the result of a highly collaborative work with unified purpose. According to Cocteau’s diaries, the collaboration was not as seamless as the film appears. Apparently there was much tension between the director and Alekan. Cocteau, knowing nothing about the camera, preferred flat, artistic compositions. Alekan resisted such an approach and pushed Cocteau to think in more classical cinematic language.

Jean Marais’ Beast acts almost entirely with his eyes (peering from behind lycanthrope-like makeup). He conveys pathos, wretchedness, latent savagery and erotic yearning in a tour-de-force performance. His Beast is threatening, and more compelling than the civilized Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JEAN COCTEAU

  1. Cocteau, who never claimed to be a Surrealist, was mostly amused by Breton’s histrionic objections. By this time, Breton was running the movement like an autocracy. Predictably, Cocteau outlived the movement that Breton himself managed to assist in killing. []

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART TWO

Daniel Barenboim and Harry Kupfer followed their acclaimed “Ring” cycle (discussed in last week’s column) with Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, which, if anything, was even more successful.   Alas, the film of this version has been long unavailable.

Scene from Syberberg's Parsifal (1982)
Scene from Syberberg’s Parsifal (1982)

Comparing their geometric, sparse Parsifal to that of Neues Kino director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s controversial 1982 multi-layered collage film would be a pointless task.  Syberberg’s famous film is a case of a director with so much to say, that it literally becomes a truly rare kitchen sink moment in which repeated viewings reap priceless rewards.

Syberberg’s Jungian references abound with fascist symbolism, Nietzsche, Christian mythology, Post World War II Euro culture in a narcotic texture unlike anything before or since.  Entire books could be written about this one of a kind film.

In 1993, long before TitusFrida, or her most recent (and amazing) work, Across the Universe, Julie Taymor was known to modern opera buffs as the director of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Taymor filtered Stravinsky’s opera through her own undeniably powerful, highly individualistic voice.

Undoubtedly, Stravinsky (who, like Picasso, went through numerous phases, from neo-classicism to post Webern serialism and yet made everything  he touched sound like his own) would have approved of Taymor’s kindred aesthetic spirit.

When Taymor’s production first became available on the video market, word spread quickly, with many proclaiming it to be one of the very best, if not the best, opera yet filmed.

The sets (by George Tsypin), masks, sculptures, puppets, costumes ( Ei Wade), make-up (Reiko Kruk), Japanese dance and narration (the libretto by Jean Cocteau, originally in Latin, allowed for translation to the native language), Ozawa’s incisive conducting, add up to one of the most extraordinarily stylized and emotionally draining operatic Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART TWO