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Orpheus
(Orphée)
Director: Jean Cocteau
Adaptation: Jean Cocteau
Stars: Jean Marais (Orphée), François Périer (Heurtebise), María Casares (The Princess), Marie Déa (Eurydice), Henri Crémieux (L’éditeur), Juliette Gréco (Aglaonice), Roger Blin (The Poet), Edouard Dermithe (Jacques Cégeste), René Worms (Judge), Pierre Bertin (Le commissaire), Jacques Varennes (Judge)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1950
Country: France
Orpheus Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Love and Death (Literally) The middle entry in what would come to be known as his “Orphic Trilogy,” Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (Orphée) is a paragon of magical realism that transports the ancient Greek myth into the then-modern realm of postwar France. Cocteau was a multifaceted artist who worked in (and often mastered) everything from poetry, to novel writing, to playwriting, to painting, and he first lent his voice to the cinema with the avant-garde experiment The Blood of a Poet (1930) and then cemented it 16 years later with the gorgeously wrought fantasy Beauty and the Beast (1946). Beauty began and Orpheus capped a particularly fertile cinematic period for Cocteau, during which he wrote and directed three features and a short film and also adapted his 1929 novel Les enfants terribles for director Jean-Pierre Melville.

Cocteau reimagines the character of Orpheus, a charming troubadour who appears throughout Greek mythology, as a self-centered French poet whose work has made him a famous and revered part of the establishment, which also means that he is loathed by the younger generation (an issue that Cocteau himself would face as his work became a critical target for the upcoming directors of the French New Wave). Played by Cocteau’s former lover Jean Marais, who looks like a more angular Jean Gabin, Orpheus is anything but charming; rather, he is bitter and angry, feeling adrift in his own life and culture, which is why it is so easy for him to be drawn into the Underworld after witnessing the death of rival poet Jacques Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe, Cocteau’s lover at the time). Orpheus follows Cégeste’s companion, a mysterious woman known only as the Princess (María Casares), to what he thinks will be the hospital. Instead, she leads him to a decaying mansion and reveals herself to be Death (or at least one of Death’s incarnations).

Thus begins what has to be one of the strangest love triangles in modern cinema, as the Princess falls in love with Orpheus and arranges for his wife, the dedicated and naïve Eurydice (Marie Déa), to die and therefore be taken from him. Orpheus is just as smitten with the Princess, and he follows her into the Underworld, ostensibly to retrieve his wife, although he winds up in the Princess’s arms (unlike the myth, Orpheus and Eurydice’s marriage in the film is one of convenience and stability, rather than passion and intensity). Meanwhile, the Princess’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), quietly falls in love with Eurydice, although she only has eyes for Orpheus. As in the Greek myth, Orpheus is able to bring Eurydice back to his world, although he is forbidden from looking at her, a taxing situation that Cocteau plays with surprising humor as Heurtebise acts as a middle man, constantly keeping the increasingly frustrated Orpheus from looking in the wrong direction. The fact that Heurtebise is in love with Eurydice gives these scenes an added emotionality, as he is working against his own self-interest in keeping the object of his affection with Orpheus. It is fitting, then, that Orpheus is not really the film’s central character; rather, the film’s heart lies with the Princess and Heurtebise, both of whom, while technically dead, embody the film’s passion and love of love, requited or otherwise. It is they who love unconditionally sacrifice all, while Orpheus reaps the benefits of getting to relive life in another vein.

As is true with Cocteau’s other films, the narrative in Orpheus is ultimately less important that the dreamlike atmosphere it creates. As an artist and painter who also dabbled in theatrical set design, Cocteau knew the value of visual imagery, and Orpheus is a masterpiece of transforming the everyday into the fantastical within limited means. Eschewing complex special effects, Cocteau relies primarily on the kind of primitive sleight-of-hand techniques favored by the turn-of-the-century filmmakers like George Méliès, which adds to Orpheus’ otherworldly aura. Simple tricks like reverse motion subtly endow ordinary activities like putting on gloves with magic and mystery, while his decision to use the ruins of buildings destroyed during World War II to represent the “Zone” (the interstitial space between life and death) is powerfully effective in rendering them ethereal while also drawing attention to the devastating results of modern warfare. Even without any kind of special effects, he proves to be a master of transforming the mundane into the fantastical, such as when he uses a train crossing to stand in for the border between the living world and the world of the dead. This mixture of the ancient and the modern is a recurring theme throughout Orpheus, as is the use of reflective surfaces, which here function as portals between worlds (the idea of literally walking into your own reflection to enter the Underworld makes the journey feel strangely personal while also serving as a rebuke to physical egocentrism).

As much as Orpheus plays as an effective fable about the interlocking natures of life, love, and death, it is also a sharp-edged critique of the shallow nature of modern life. Orpheus, of course, is the most obvious symbol of the rampant nature of human ego, and his redemption comes only through the lengthy tribulations of passing between our world and the next world and the eventual sacrifices of both the Princess and Heurtebise. More striking, though, is Cocteau’s focus on the petty nature of bureaucracy, while is reflected in his depiction of the Underworld being run by bureaucrats, organized around tribunals, and fastidiously held to a set of laws. The physical, spiritual, and political fallout of World War II is everywhere in the film, and not surprisingly given that Cocteau himself was accused of being a Nazi collaborator (he was eventually cleared, but one can only imagine what a bitter taste it left). Orpheus certainly maintains its effectiveness as a romantic fantasy outside of its historical and cultural context, but seeing it as a direct reflection of France’s then-recent history makes it all the richer and more rewarding--a romantic fable of all-consuming passion in the shadow of the modern world’s dance with self-destruction.

Orpheus Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray
Orpheus is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio French PCM 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary featuring French film scholar James S. Williams
  • Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown (1984) feature-length documentary
  • “Jean Cocteau and His Tricks” (2008) video interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau
  • “40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau” (1957) interview with the director
  • “In Search of Jazz” (1956) interview with Cocteau on the use of jazz in the film
  • La villa Santo-Sospir (1951) 16 mm color film by Cocteau
  • Gallery of images by French-film portrait photographer Roger Corbeau
  • Raw newsreel footage from 1950 of the Saint-Cyr military academy ruins
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by author Mark Polizzotti, an excerpted article by Cocteau on the film, and an essay on La villa Santo-Sospir by James S. Williams
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateSeptember 6, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Orpheus was one of the Criterion Collection’s earlier DVD releases, originally part of a three-disc “Orphic Trilogy” box set. Since that release back in 2000 (which was nothing to sneeze at), Orpheus has undergone an extensive digital restoration that has it looking better than I have ever seen it--probably as good as it looked when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in 1950. Criterion’s new 2K transfer came from a 35mm fine-grain internegative struck from the original nitrate negative and was then digitally restored in collaboration with the Archives française du film in Bois-d’Arcy. The image is positively gorgeous, as the high-definition resolution renders detail with great clarity while also maintaining the natural flow of the film grain. Blacks are dark and strong with fantastic shadow detail, which is crucial for the scenes that take place in the Underworld. Contrast looks superb, and there are virtually no specks, scratches, or other artifacts to remind us that this film is nearly 62 years old now. There are no complaints about the lossless linear PCM monaural soundtrack, either, which was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print and digitally restored.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    While Criterion’s 2000 DVD didn’t have much in the way of supplementary material, the new Blu-Ray is literally bursting at the seams with it. For armchair academics, the erudite audio commentary by French film scholar James S. Williams (a Professor of Modern French Literature and Film at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has written books on Jean Cocteau and Jean-Luc Godard) is essential listening, as it provides deep insight into the film and Cocteau’s career. As usual, Criterion has successful mined the archives and come up with several gems, starting with Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown (1984), a 68-minute documentary that covers the expected biographical bases, but with an avant-garde flare that Cocteau would have appreciated. There are also two interviews with Cocteau: “40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau,” a 1957 episode of the French television series At Home With ..., and “In Search of Jazz” (17 min.), a French television interview from 1956 in which Cocteau discusses his use of music in the film. “Jean Cocteau and His Tricks” (15 min.) is a 2008 video interview with the film’s assistant director Claude Pinoteau, who discusses Cocteau’s use of special effects in his films. Also on the disc is La villa Santo-Sospir, a 16mm color film Cocteau made in 1951; a gallery of images by French-film portrait photographer Roger Corbeau; a few minutes of raw newsreel footage from 1950 of the Saint-Cyr military academy ruins, where the Underworld scenes were shot; and a theatrical trailer. The insert booklet featuring an essay by author Mark Polizzotti, an excerpted article by Cocteau on the film, and an essay on La villa Santo-Sospir by Williams.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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