Criterion Sunday 69: Le Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960)

Jean Cocteau’s final film is often apt to be dismissed when compared with his earlier mythologically-hued triumphs like Orpheus (1950) or Beauty and the Beast (1946), but that would be a mistake, because for me it feels like one of his most essential, if not personal, works — and not just because he takes the central role. Once again he reconfigures the Orpheus mythology, with Cocteau as a time-travelling poet, and the stars of his previous film (not to mention celebrity friends and admirers like Pablo Picasso and Jean-Pierre Léaud) showing up in cameos. He utilises all his favourite filmic tricks and tropes, with mirrors-as-portals and living statues and struggles against gravity and painted eyes, but most notably the ripped petals on a flowing leaping back into place thanks to reverse photography. Criticisms of it being self-indulgent may not be inaccurate, but they’re beside the point, for what else should this be if not self-indulgent. It’s a freewheeling, loosely-structured paean to poetic indulgence, and should be celebrated as such. It’s certainly a fitting end to Cocteau’s long and varied career.

Criterion Extras: There’s are some texts by Cocteau about the film, as well as a medium-length film La Villa Santo Sospir (1952), made at a prominent location in Testament, the home of one of Cocteau’s patrons, filled with his artworks. Cocteau tries out some of the techniques he would use in the later feature, particularly the reverse loops of flowers regaining their petals, as well as talking at length about his pieces of artwork for the home. It’s fascinating mainly as notes towards the later work, a film in miniature about Cocteau and his artwork.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau | Cinematographer Roland Pontoizeau | Starring Jean Cocteau | Length 80 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 December 2015

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Criterion Sunday 68: Orphée (Orpheus, 1950)

Orpheus is surely French artist Jean Cocteau’s most famous film; it is justly acclaimed, and it might even be his best (though I have enormous fondness for Testament of Orpheus, his last). I’ve seen it many times now, on the cinema screen and at home, though its sense of forbidding poetic mystery is still strong enough that the idea of putting my feelings into words delayed me writing up this review. Maybe, then, it’s best if I just leave it at some disjointed scraps of feeling and that Criterion cover art. Cocteau’s long-term partner and muse, Jean Marais, plays the poet (Orpheus of course) and though he is married to Eurydice, who figures in the story, it feels far more like a film about Orpheus and his relationship to Death, the ravishing and mysterious Princess who shows up at the film’s start flanked by another poet, and who is played by her usual intensity by María Casares. It’s a film of images, like the eerie motorcycle riders dressed fetishistically in black leather, or the ruined city of the underworld, of reverse photography (a real throughline in all Cocteau’s filmmaking) rendering the ordinary strange, and of mirrors as shimmering, watery portals to other realms. I’ll no doubt watch the film again, and, like the avant garde poetry which recurs on the soundtrack, only dimly perceive what’s going on, but it’s the feeling the film inspires which endures.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau | Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer | Starring Jean Marais, María Casares, François Périer | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 28 March 2004 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 December 2015)

Criterion Sunday 67: Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1932)

Looking back, it feels like there was a real moment in the late-1920s and early-1930s when cinema was the new and exciting form which artists in France wanted to explore, and so we see a number of films by people like Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and of course Salvador Dalí (whose 1928 film Un chien andalou was directed by Luis Buñuel), all better known for their non-film work. Into this fray entered Jean Cocteau, himself at this point better known as a poet, novelist, playwright and librettist, to which he later added designer and artist. As one of his earliest film works (completed in 1930 but not screened to the public until 1932), The Blood of a Poet has a lot of similarities with the other avant-garde work being done around this time, trading largely in the symbolic in its four part structure. There’s the poet (one of many self-portraits throughout Cocteau’s career) and the statue in the first half of the film, boys having a lethal snowball fight, and finally a card player and the dead boy, in which death seems to be returned to the world of art, as the statue makes its reappearance. It’s a film filled with inventive use of sets and staging (favourites include plunging into the mirror/pool, looping images backwards, and having characters move through corridors as if resisted by some unseen force, a trick apparently done by attaching the scenery to the floor and shooting from above). If it never quite coheres in a straightforward narrative way, that’s hardly any discredit to the film, which works far more effectively at an oneiric level, looking towards Cocteau’s later films in this ‘Orphic trilogy’ as well as his fairytale masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (1946).

Criterion Extras: The most substantial extra here is a 66 minute documentary Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d’un inconnu (Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown, 1985, dir. Edgardo Cozarinsky), which largely uses clips from Cocteau’s films in conjunction with a filmed interview to give an overview of his life, although it sticks largely to his artistic career, which was long and varied after all. The film retains an element of Cocteau’s customary opacity, but is engaging all the same. In addition, there are some behind the scenes images of Cocteau at work with his actors, as well as a transcript of a lecture he gave at a screening of the film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau | Cinematographer Georges Périnal | Length 55 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 25 April 2001; and NFT, London, Thursday 4 March 2004 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 December 2015)

Criterion Sunday 66: Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy

Spine number 66 sees something new for the Criterion Collection, which is to say, it’s a spine number which is not linked to a particular film, but rather to a box set. Therefore this Criterion Sunday entry will be a little thin as there’s no single film (I will deal with those over the next three entries). So perhaps I should talk about what the three films share, or indeed maybe it will be easier to say what they are not. They are not a developing story in the modern sense of a trilogy, setting out characters which are built upon in subsequent instalments. Jean Cocteau is a multi-hyphenate artist in the widest sense, contributing not just to film but to the plastic arts, to sculpture and painting, as well as writing and poetry. Therefore his films are more three variations on a classical theme: taking elements of the myth of Orpheus and reconfiguring and recontextualising them in various ways. The first film, Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, made in 1930 but not premiered until 1932), is the most boldly avant-garde, rather in the fashion of Luis Buñuel’s more famous Un chien andalou (1929), while Orphée (Orpheus, 1950) is almost a straightforward telling of the myth. The final of the three films presented here is also the most playful, Le Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, made 1959 but not premiered until 1960). Cocteau himself stars, bringing back the actors of the previous film for brief appearances, but this is a film about being an artist, Cocteau casting himself as a modern-day Orpheus figure of sorts.

Criterion Sunday 6: La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946)

I want to start with the problems I have with this film, Cocteau’s adaptation of the famous fairy tale, because at times I find it a little slow and ponderous. We start out with the banter and knockabout everyday world of Belle (Josette Day), in which she (though hardly servile) is tormented by her vain and grasping sisters, and pursued by a pompous suitor (Jean Marais), but though nicely staged, it’s all rather uninvolving. There’s also something more than just a little camp about the mock-historical setting and the melodramatic acting, which needn’t really be a problem (and indeed Day’s occasional display of self-conscious poses are rather fitting the film’s theatrical staging), though it can make some of the dialogue seem a little risible. And yet, when the film eventually enters the magical, mythical world of the Beast (also played by Jean Marais, under a whole lot of furry makeup), there are sequences which are among the most breathtaking and inventive in all of cinema. There are the animated fittings and statuary, the use of smoke effects, Belle’s gliding movements down the hallway, the expressive set design and the gorgeous monochrome cinematography of Henri Alekan, all of which adds up to create a genuinely uncanny world of magic that permeates the whole enterprise. The character of Belle never really seems more than a cipher, for Cocteau’s interest is far more with Marais and his Beast, but for sheer beauty, the film remains essential.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau (based on the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) | Cinematographer Henri Alekan | Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Victoria University library (laserdisc), Wellington, September 1997 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 21 December 2014)