Given that Jean Cocteau can never be seen solely as a filmmaker – when you think of him you think of the whole package, as a writer, artist, poet, playwright and filmmaker – and given that his contribution was as much haphazard as it was distinctive, it’s hard to pin down which film would best sum up his achievements. Discounting the screenplays and adaptations, which were often handled by genuine auteurs – from Bresson to Melville – more than capable of making their own mark on the material, we’re still left with a quintet of major works. La Belle et la bête is arguably the most popular (and deservedly so), L’Aigle à Deux Têtes the most conventional, Le Testament d’Orphée the most personal and idiosyncratic. Yet 1950’s Orphée is arguably the most important, the one around which all others revolve. It formed the centrepiece of his Orphic trilogy, begun with 1930’s crude but fascinating Le Sang d’un Poète and concluded with Testament. It reworked a play first written in the twenties that similarly drew upon the Orpheus myth. It gathered together many of the key players from previous Cocteau films (both those he scripted and those he directed) such Jean Marais, Maria Casarès and Edouard Dhermitte as though he was trying to say this is the definitive piece of Cocteau cinema. And it’s also clearly drawn from his own life, or rather his public perception, thus making Orphée serve as some kind of coded autobiography, albeit one that exists in the realms of fantasy and invention.
It’s this latter combination which makes the film so compelling. The opening voice-over retells the Orpheus myth in condensed form – how he was a musician whose wife was taken by Death and how he went to the Underworld in order to get her back, how he did so under the condition he never looked upon her again and how he was torn to pieces by the Bacchantes upon breaking it – only to recast it in the present day so as to emphasise the timelessness. Orpheus becomes Orphée, a poet “rotten with success” and aloof to those around him, in this case the café culture clearly drawing upon the Left Bank. It’s one of a number of contemporary cultural reference points Cocteau makes, the other major one being the leather biker boys who accompany Casarès’ Death. The temptation is almost to read Orphée as a kind of twisted B-movie drawing on potential exploitative elements (the café scene could fuel many a ‘youth’ movie, the biker gang being more self-explanatory) and combining them with a poeticism at once rough and polished: the punch of Cocteau’s dialogue brings that distinctive flavour, like a more literary Samuel Fuller; the black and white photography courtesy of Nicholas Hayer draws on noir, and of course he would go on to lens Melville’s noir homage Le Doulos.
Yet there’s also room for more ordinary, possibly even banal elements. Orphée’s relationship with his wife Eurydice initially exists in the realms of domestic melodrama – she’s at the periphery of his thoughts, especially once Casarès’ ice maiden takes a hold of his imagination. There’s also a hint of alcoholism and a child on the way, possibly unplanned, possibly unwanted, at least from Orphée’s perspective. And later, once she has been rescued from the Underworld, we enter a kind of domestic farce as he is unable to cast his eyes on her, worried that even glimpsing her photograph will bring about his death. Intermingled we also find a kind of love quadrant as Orphée pursues Death, Death’s chauffeur – a young student who gassed himself over an unrequited love, thus furthering the romantic dimension – pursues Eurydice, and the couple grow alternative closer and further apart. The very fact that all these elements sit so well together comes as much from the actors on display as it does Cocteau’s ability to balance their divergent qualities: Casarès’ femme fatale who will only cry tears in the final reel, otherwise wreathed in fatalistic cigarette smoke; Marie Déa, as Eurydice, offering more straightforward characterisation as though only she represents the ‘real’ world; François Périer (playing the chauffeur) providing the comic touch; and Marais – too often dismissed as a wooden performer – acting as a conduit to all these styles whilst remaining self-obsessed and self-important.
Yet for all this Orphée is predominantly a fantasy and, indeed, it is the fantastical moments which remain the most immediate and spellbinding. Cocteau has been here recently with La Belle et la bête in 1946, and that film’s techniques are built upon here – mirrors, slow motion, effects that had been first realised by cinema’s earliest practitioners yet have since become so enhanced and elaborated upon that they often lose their very joy and tactile nature. As a result in Cocteau’s hands they become almost his own, simply because so few others have relied on the simplicity and immediacy of these techniques (both at the time and since), other than to pay homage as was the case with, say, Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin, which even cast Marais as a kind of quasi-endorsement. You could even argue that a shot as simple as the reversed footage to reanimate the dead, to use just one of Orphée’s examples, is now a quintessential Cocteau touch, as distinctive as any of his other auteurist tics. Yet what’s important is how, outside of the very fact that they astound, they also fit perfectly. By shoving these elements against those banalities (and perhaps they even match those banalities in their very baseness) they serve to emphasise both ends: the domestic feels real, the fantastical all the more otherworldly. George Auric’s score – superb as a standalone – therefore becomes only the icing on the cake; swirling, epic and intimate, continually in touch with all these aspects.
And so, needless to say, Orphée is an incredibly rich work, one that repays numerous re-viewings. (There are, of course, a number of other dimensions and elements I’ve not mentioned or barely touched upon, though both the accompanying booklet and commentary cover additional areas, and there’s always plenty more to pick up on the next time I sit down to it.) It’s a film that remains enticing every time, in my case from catching a BBC screening in the mid-nineties, as part of a Robert McKee programmed season, through the BFI’s VHS release, subsequent DVD handling a few years back and now this re-release. As with their recent reissuing of La Belle et la Bête, the reason behind this new disc is a much improved presentation. The cleaned-up print is now sharper and damage-free (save for some rare instances), the subtitles are now optional (and rely upon the same translation), and the soundtrack is in PCM form for additional clarity. All told it’s a definite improvement and as with La Belle et la Bête certainly worth the upgrade.
However, we find that rights issues have shorn the disc of the hour-long Cocteau documentary Lies and Truths that found itself on the earlier BFI disc, and it’s a real shame. The commentary by Roland-François Lack is still present (for all its depth and insight not the most satisfying of tracks given the numerable long pauses) and there are new additions in the form of the original French trailer from 1950, a typically full booklet of contextualising articles both old and new, and the inclusion of the English-language version of the opening titles, designed by Cocteau much like that of the French original. Admittedly none of the newer pieces quite make up for the missing documentary, but the improved presentation undoubtedly deserves the ‘double-dip’ if you already own the BFI’s first dip – that’s a keeper for Lies and Truth, this one’s worth it for the presentation alone.