Tag Archives: Jean Cocteau

329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

Weirdest!

Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Cocteau, , ,

PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.

Still from The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

BACKGROUND:

  • Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
  • Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
  • Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
  • The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
  • Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director . Former Orpheus appears briefly as Oedipus.
  • Edouard Dermithe, who plays the key role of Cégeste, was Cocteau’s adopted son, a fact alluded to in the script.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.

Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus

COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of Continue reading 329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

Le sang d’un poète

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”–T.S. Eliot

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller

PLOT: A man sketches a face on a canvas; when he sees the mouth he has drawn beginning to move, he smudges it out, but finds that the orifice has affixed itself to his hand. He eventually gets rid of it by wiping it onto the face of a statue; the statue comes to life and sends him through a mirror into a strange hotel where he spies on surreal scenarios through keyholes. Returning through the mirror, he smashes the statue, is transformed into one himself, then finds himself playing a card game and shoots himself in the head when he realizes he cannot win.

Blood of a Poet (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau was already an established playwright, artist and novelist before creating this, his first film.
  • Le sang d’un poète was financed by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also produced L’Age d’Or. They were both filmed in 1930, but first public screening of Blood of a Poet was delayed for over a year until the scandal caused by ‘s sacrilegious film had died down. (This history explains why the Blood of a Poet‘s date is sometimes given as 1930, its date of production, and sometimes 1932, based on when it was first screened.)
  • De Noailles and his wife and friends originally appeared in the film as members of the audience, but they did not know what they were supposed to be reacting to. When the Vicomte discovered they were applauding a suicide he demanded the scene be cut. Cocteau re-shot it with a different audience composed of his friends, among whom was the female impersonator and acrobat Barbette, an underground Parisian celebrity.
  • Elizabeth Lee Miller, who plays the statue, was the student and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray. She later became a successful photographer in her own right and never again appeared onscreen.
  • Blood of a Poet is the first in Cocteau’s loose “Orphic” trilogy, followed by Orpheus (1950) and concluding with The Testament of Orpheus (1960).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau recommended that we view his movie as if it were an enigmatic painting, which leaves us with a plethora of surrealistic frames to consider. We picked a particularly bizarre composition: the “desperate hermaphrodite” in Room 23. The scene begins with a chaise lounge with a spinning hypno-wheel, and with a periodic drum roll new elements are added: a pancake makeup face, line-drawn breasts, a white fright wig, stars and various pieces of clothing strewn about the scene. In a final gesture he/she pulls off a black cloth to reveal the words “danger de mort” (“danger of death”) labeling his/her crotch region.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Collapsing tower; hand mouth; desperate hermaphrodite

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blood of a Poet is Jean Cocteau’s initial attempt to translate poetry—or rather to place one inside the trancelike state enjoyed and suffered by the poet—on film. Simultaneously quaint and avant-garde, it’s raw, primitive opium-dream weirdness; pioneering in its day, but still capable of startling today’s viewers with its irrational exhuberances.


Trailer for The Blood of a Poet made for a 2010 screening with a new score by DJ Spooky

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau denied making a Surrealist film as vehemently as René Magritte denied painting a pipe. (“It is often said that Continue reading 326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

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: , , , Marie Déa,

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