Thursday, January 26, 2006

Jean Cocteau and Orpheus

Incredibly I had not seen any works of this legendary French film-maker until recently. And I managed to make up some ground by watching his Orphic trilogy -- The Blood of a Poet , Orpheus and The Testament of Orpheus .

Le Sang d'un poète was Cocteau’s first movie released in 1930. This is a very abstract movie along the lines of Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou which was released in 1929. The story of Cocteau’s first feature is broken into a few sections, each interesting in their own way. All the sections are sandwiched between an image of a falling chimney. The chimney is on the verge of collapsing at the start, and after all the sections are done, we see an image of the chimney as it finally falls down. The opening section lays the foundation for the next 3 episodes that follow. A painter erases a picture of a woman’s lips from his canvas. Next thing, he finds that her lips have imposed themselves on his palm. In order to get rid of the living, breathing lips, he covers his palm onto a statue’s lips. And just like that, he brings the statue to life. But the lips manage to spin things around for the painter and he finds himself plunged into a different world. The statue asks the painter to step through the mirror into another dimension. Even by today's technical film-making standards, the images in Cocteau's film are remarkable. The sequence of the painter walking through the mirror into another world is just done superbly.

Orphée (released in 1950) : Of the three movies, this is the most structured movie with a defined story. That being said, the story is not as simple as it seems but Cocteau wanted his audience to interpret the movie in their own way. The movie is loosely based on the Greek myth of Orphée who goes to the Underworld and asks his dead wife be returned to the earthly world. The wife is sent back with one condition – Orphée must never lay eyes on her again (directly or indirectly via a mirror) and if he breaks this condition, his wife would be sent back to the netherworld. While all this is going on, the princess of death falls in love with Orphée and wants to be with him. That complicates matters as she can’t spend her life with a mortal. So what is the resolution of all this? I don’t want to talk too much about the story because it is worth watching without knowing what happens. A lot of elements from The Blood of a Poet show up in this movie like the difficult walk through the Underworld, going into another dimension via the mirror, etc. Overall, this is an excellent movie!!!!

Le Testament d'Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi! (released in 1959)

The title translates to ‘The Testament of Orpheus or Don’t ask me why’. This was Cocteau’s farewell to cinema and he signed off with this autobiographical movie which mixes elements from his real life and revisits characters from Orphée . The film consists of Cocteau thinking out-loud and it is fitting that he plays himself in the movie and is present in almost every frame of the film. Fellini's 8 1/2 comes to mind as The Testament of Orpheus progresses. There are discussions about science, time travel, art, death, life and everything else in between. Cocteau even gets into a debate with Heurtebise (one of the main characters from Orphée ) about what some elements from the movie Orphée meant. Throughout the movie, Cocteau is accompanied by his real life adopted son, Edouard Dermithe. Dermithe reprises his role of Cégeste from Orphée but this time he gets a better living role. One thing that comes up a few times in the movie is that Cocteau laments making Cégeste spend most of Orphée in the Underworld and in order to make up for that, he has made Cégeste accompany him on the real world in this movie. The film has a thoughtful pace but provides some very memorable images and scenes.

These three movies are very unique and one would be hard pressed to find such soul in modern movies. It is clear that Cocteau wanted cinema to be an expression of poetry (or art) and he detested how cinema was being reduced to a money making industry in the hands of ignorant producers. Given how things have advanced since 1960, it is clear that some of Cocteau's fears turned out right (he felt the money makers would shut art of the movies in place of brain dead entertainment). But even in the middle of such commercial junk that gets produced today, there are some real cinematic gems to be found. Sort of like a lotus growing in a pond of mud. Cocteau was that precious lotus who left us with a fine collection of rare images and words. A true poet, indeed!

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