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)
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)