Blu-Ray Review: Jean Cocteau’s ‘Orpheus’ Gets New Life on Criterion

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CHICAGO – “Interpret as you wish,” invites narrator and filmmaker Jean Cocteau prior to his contemporary retelling of the Orpheus legend and the second installment of his Orphic Trilogy, which also includes 1930’s “The Blood of a Poet” and 1960’s “Testament of Orpheus.” Cocteau’s 1950 masterwork, simply titled “Orpheus,” is one of his most emotionally complex and deeply personal projects. It’s also a lot of fun.

Unlike other avant-garde filmmakers, Cocteau sports a immensely playful spirit that causes viewers to wholly embrace his onscreen abstractions rather than dissect them for their intended meaning. The titular protagonist in “Orpheus” is told by another character that the “dreamer must accept his dreams,” and Cocteau expects his audience to follow suit. This results in a picture of unforgettable images as whimsically absurd as they are dramatically resonant. Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

Jean Marais stars as Orpheus, the poet famous in Greek mythology for journeying into Hades to save his wife Eurydice. Though Cocteau honors his source material, he takes several intriguing diversions from the legend. Instead of placing the conventional love story between Orpheus and Eurydice at the film’s heart, he replaces it with the obsessive relationship that develops between the poet and Death (French stage legend María Casares in a riveting performance), who takes the form of a seductive princess. When the poet watches his young rival, Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe), get killed in a supposed hit-and-run, the Princess recruits Orpheus as her witness and orders him to accompany her in a car ride. A series of eerie events occur, leading to the unforgettable image of Death guiding a resurrected Cégeste through a mirror into the netherworld (referred to as “the Zone”), as Orpheus watches in astonishment. The poet eventually returns home to Eurydice (Marie Déa), while accompanied by Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer). Eurydice fails to garner the attention of her husband, who’s too busy listening to ominous poetry emanating from Death’s car radio in sequences modeled after England’s coded messages during the occupation.

Jean Marais stars in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus.
Jean Marais stars in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus.
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

When Eurydice’s sudden death reawakens Orpheus’s senses, he prepares to take his fateful journey through the looking glass, and this is where Cocteau dreams up some of his most indelible stagings of visual trickery. There’s a startling POV shot in which Orpheus appears to be approaching his own reflection in the mirror while raising his hands covered in the gloves previously worn by Death as a mode of entrance. Another dizzying sequence follows Orpheus and Heurtebise on their treacherous journey along a wall in the Zone as they resist being carried by a howling wind. Many of Cocteau’s most humorous moments occur late in the picture, as Orpheus and Eurydice return to the mortal world under the condition that he resist looking at her. This causes their domestic squabbles to become especially comical, as Eurydice reflects on the benefits of their inconvenient living situation by saying, “At least you won’t see my wrinkles.” Equally priceless is a line delivered by an exhausted Death who sighs, “If I were of our former world, I’d say…let’s have a drink.” The final sequence is entirely different from the myth’s bleak ending, but it achieves a similarly bittersweet power as would-be lovers acknowledge the unsustainable nature of their relationship and decide to commit the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. “Orpheus” is a beautiful, haunting and exhilarating work that serves as a perfect entrance for filmgoers into the brilliant world of Cocteau.

Orpheus was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on August 30, 2011.
Orpheus was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on August 30, 2011.
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

“Orpheus” is presented in luminous 1080p High Definition (with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and features a plethora of extras that benefit greatly from Cocteau’s marvelously entertaining interviews. His words are enigmatic, provocative and consistently witty. An accompanying booklet includes an excerpted article written by Cocteau in which he clearly lists the film’s three basic themes: immortality, the ability of mirrors to bring us closer to death and the successive deaths through which a poet must pass before changing into himself by eternity (try wrapping your head around that one).

Author Mark Polizzotti writes about how the film is reflective of both the viewer and Cocteau himself, and his insights are elaborated further by French film scholar James S. Williams on the disc’s excellent audio commentary. Williams argues that “Orpheus” is in fact a “scathing self portrait” of Cocteau’s own postwar period, and analyzes the film’s various traces of homoeroticism. In a fascinating bit of casting, Cocteau chose his ex-lover Marais for the lead role, while recruiting his new lover Dermithe to play the intimidating young poet Cégeste. Marais and Dermithe’s similar features create nothing less than a doppelgänger effect. Several of Williams’s researched facts were taken from recollections by assistant director Claude Pinoteau, who appears elsewhere on the disc in an interview conducted by Marc Caro, artistic director of “Delicatessen.” Caro asks Pinoteau about the film’s ingenious effects, such as the double set built for scenes in which characters passed through the mirror.

Criterion’s typically magnificent assemblage of special features include the film’s original theatrical trailer, a gallery of gorgeous production photos taken by Roger Corbeau, silent newsreel footage of the Saint-Cyr military academy ruins that were used as the backdrop for the Zone, and two televised interviews. In an episode of 1956’s “In Search of Jazz,” the director talks about the necessity of placing percussive jazz over the score by his longtime composer Georges Auric, while in 1957’s “At Home With…” profile, Cocteau discusses why he chose to take a seven-year break from directing features. During that break, Cocteau made the amateur 37-minute 16 mm color film, “La villa Santo-Sospir,” which is featured in its entirety on the disc. The picture is mainly a guided tour of the decorative art covering the walls of Cocteau’s house, through there are several motifs and techniques that would later reemerge in the filmmaker’s “Testament of Orpheus.” Clips from both films can be compared in Edgardo Cozarinsky’s remarkably candid 1984 documentary, “Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown,” a 67-minute gem that includes the disc’s best interview footage with Cocteau. He reveals his preoccupation with Salvador Dali’s “phoenixology,” in which new life rises from the ashes of death. This concept is externalized by Cocteau’s reverse photography, which can cause dead flowers to bloom through the magic of cinema. He also talks about the divide between his public persona and his inner life, leading to an unforgettable shot of Cocteau sternly lecturing a wax dummy of himself.

‘Orpheus’ is released by The Criterion Collection and stars Jean Marais, François Périer, María Casares, Marie Déa, Henri Crémieux, Juliette Gréco, Roger Blin and Edouard Dermithe. It was written and directed by Jean Cocteau. It was released on August 30, 2011. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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