The BFI has released a restored version of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée as part of their November ‘Fantastique: The Dream Worlds of French Cinema‘ season at BFI Southbank. The new print has been restored by CNC in France and looks good with crisp black & white cinematography from Nicholas Hayer. John Cocteau was a unique figure in French art culture and his limited number of films over a 35 year career from the 1920s are unlike anything else in French cinema. The Sight & Sound article by Virginie Sélavy in the November 2018 issue places Cocteau in context in its exploration of the fantastique in French cinema. He wasn’t part of any movement as such but the tradition of the fantastique – the uncanny in realistic situations – is very strong in French cinema.
The story of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is narrated by Cocteau over the credits and then re-enacted in the contemporary world somewhere in France. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous poet who seemingly accidentally meets ‘the Princess’ (María Casares) who is also his ‘Death’ during an incident outside a café-bar (the Poet’s Café) in a small French community just outside Paris. She will ensnare him and seek to take him to the underworld. She will use Eurydice (Marie Déa) as a tool to break him. Death will be challenged by another character from the community of the dead, Heurtebise (François Périer). Along the way, Cocteau will have a lot of fun in presenting his material to the audience. What should we make of it all?
I deliberately watched the film without any prior research and my first observation was that the film was very difficult to place in the context of French cinema of the 1950s. The Academy ratio (1.37:1) for a film like this is not necessarily a guide (and what a shame the National Media Museum’s usually diligent projectionists didn’t mask the image, leaving the tabs open wide). Many films, especially outside North America carried on using Academy after 1953-4. I thought Orphée might be a 1959 film (Cocteau did make a second film reflecting on the first in 1960, so that might have triggered this thought – there is also Black Orpheus from 1959, an unconnected French film made in Brazil). The film opens with very quickly-paced scenes so that it is difficult to gaze around the image. Caught up in the action, it took me a little while to realise that the characters are mostly young and beautiful. The leads are played by actors in their thirties but there is a large group of younger people led by Juliette Gréco as ‘Aglaonice’ who was in her early twenties and in only her third film. She is the leader of what seems to be a ‘young women’s drinks club’ and she claims to be concerned about the danger faced by Eurydice. (The club represents the ‘Bacchantes’ of mythology, the female followers of Dionysus.) The representatives of authority such as the police inspector, hotel manager (IMDb suggests this is Jean-Pierre Melville) and the tribunal/judges in the underworld are all older but, apart from the postman, there are few older people or children around. I mention all of this only because it adds to the sense of this story presenting a group of young people who might feature in later 1950s films. The ‘mob’ that forms is a youth mob.
Cocteau films in deserted Paris streets and the underworld is represented by ruined buildings which serve to remind us of wartime. The most intriguing characters for me are Death’s two henchmen, dressed as quasi-fascist motorcycle riders wearing helmets, boots and sporting very tight wide leather belts or ‘waspies’. In fact, the use of costume throughout is striking and I thought about many influences on later films. I was taken by all the performances, except that of the central character of Orpheus as played by Jean Marais. I realise that I’ve seen Marais in a range of films across his long career, but not quite so ‘in the spotlight’ as he is here. Orpheus is presented as a vain and rather surly character and Marais appears stolid though potentially beautiful with a leonine head and powerful torso. At one point he poses with a sculpture in his garden. But when he speaks I thought his voice was comparatively weedy. He is supposed to be a famous poet, so perhaps Cocteau was deliberately challenging the stereotypes of poets as ‘fey’ or drunken (like the young poet who challenges Orpheus) or simply not strong and athletic.
If there is a specific artistic discourse in the film it’s possibly something about the need for poets to go through life-changing experiences to make better art but that sounds very heavy. I think Nick Lacey hit the spot on the way out of the screening when he said “I think Cocteau is just being playful”. And the film is playful and quite witty at times. When Orpheus and Heurtebise are on their way to the underworld they pass several lost souls, including a glazier still carrying his glass samples. “Doesn’t he know he’s dead?” asks Orpheus. “Ah, job-conditioning is so strong sometimes!” replies Heurtebise. Well, I laughed anyway. Other than that there is a great deal of play with mirrors and I’d be careful about cleaning mirrors when wearing rubber gloves! Enjoy!