Orpheus (Orphée), Blu-ray (1950/2011)
Director: Jean Cocteau
Starring: Jean Mariais, Marie Déa, Maria Cesares, Francois Périer, Henri Cremieux
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection 68 [8/30/11]
Video: 1.33:1 B&W 1080p HD
Audio: French or English dubbed PCM mono
Music: Georges Auric
Extras: Audio commentary track by film scholar James S. Williams, “Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown” (1984) feature-length documentary, “Jean Cocteau and his Tricks” (2008) interview with Claude Pinoteau, “40 minutes with Jean Cocteau” (1957) interview, “In Search of Jazz” (1956) Cocteau talks about use of jazz in his films, “La villa Santo-Sospir” (1951) 16mm Kodachrome film by Cocteau, Stills by portrait photographer Roger Corbeau, Newsreel footage (1950) of bombed-out St.-Cyr military academy ruins used in Orpheus, Theatrical trailer, Illustrated booklet with essay by author Mark Polizzotti, excerpt from an article by Cocteau, and essay on La villa Santo-Sospir
Length: 95 minutes
Talk about important classic films — Orphée is probably right up there in the top ten or twenty. It was a much more fleshed-out cinematic vision by the versatile French poet/writer/artist/filmmaker that his much earlier Blood of a Poet. In fact Cocteau says in one of the interviews that with the earlier film he was playing with one finger, but with this one he used both hands. It is an update of the familiar Orphic myth: a well-known poet (played by Marais) has lost his “chops” and is now scorned by the youth of the Left Bank. His love for his wife is diminished when he comes into contact with a mysterious princess, who is from the underworld and represents his death. Her assistants are her chauffeur and a younger poet who had the adulation of the young people but has been killed.
Orpheus is fascinated with the princess and seeks inspiration in the cryptic messages which he hears on the radio in her car. When Eurydice is also killed Orpheus is taken to the underworld by the princess’ assistant Heurtebise, to bring her back. He is forbidden to look at her. But after their return to life he sees her in the car’s rear view mirror and once again she is gone. Cocteau’s visual poetry is even more predominant here than in his Beauty and the Beast. Mirrors are the portals to the other world and frequently a part of the dreamlike progression of the film. (Cocteau used a bath of mercury for the shots of hands and arms beginning to enter the mirror, and at one point the vat of mercury broke—with mercury flowing all over the studio.) There is also much creative use of Cocteau’s favored trick of running the film backwards to cause bodies to rise up from the floor, etc. The only odd note here is the very Hollywood ending, with Orpheus and his wife lovey-dovey again; not to be believed due to his fascination with the princess of death, who reciprocated.
The very extensive extras are all fascinating. Hearing of Cocteau’s youth with Satie, Debussy, Picasso, Diaghilev and others, is most interesting. His color 16mm film of the tattoo-influenced art with which he decorated the doors and walls of the Spanish villa he lived in courtesy of a wealthy supporter, his now-dated comments about jazz, the shots of the ruins of the military academy Cocteau used for some of the underworld scenes, are all worth seeing. Another welcome and beautiful film restoration from Criterion.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.