April 10, 2011

Orphée (France 1950)

I mentioned Cocteau in the introduction to my blog and since I'm afraid not everyone is familiar with his films, I decided to make his magical film "Orphée" my first review:

After the hand-painted opening credits of the film, the voice of the master himself announces after telling the basic outline of the Orphée myth:
"It is the privilege of legends to be timeless."

This, of course, is true for legendary films as well. People will still be able to watch "Orphée" 50 years from now and be mesmerized by the sheer beauty of its images. One thing has changed though: when the film came out in 1950, some critics instantly saw it as a landmark film while countless others dismissed it as being merely a visually great but shallow fantasy of a pretentious artist. Partly this was because of the use of "special effects" which were revolutionary then but are quite subtle - if still stunning - by today's standards. The big difference is that no contemporary critic would dare to call "Orphée" superficial - a sure sign how much more intellectually demanding the average film was back then compared to now.

In fact, there are endless ways to read this film and in an interview with Cocteau from 1950 printed in the booklet of my DVD, he actively encourages that. He compares himself to a cabinet-maker who builds a table. It is - in his words - up to the 'consumer' to use the table as he thinks best. Following his advice, for me the film is on one level an allegory about the choices we make in life. Orphée seems to make his decision to stay with his wife rationally and not by heart. He chooses the careless decadence of the bourgeoisie instead of going for the femme fatale he secretly desires. But he and all the others involved have to live with the consequences...

Cocteau saw himself not as a cinéaste but as a poète cinématographique and "L'Orphée" - possibly his greatest work as a filmmaker - is indeed best described as a cinematic poem. Like many other poets, Cocteau was also concerned with darker subjects like mortality for he knew that beauty wouldn't exist without them. It is therefore no coincidence that mirrors are used in the film as gates to the underworld. He even makes this explicit in one line that particularly stayed in my mind: "Look at a mirror for a lifetime and you will see Death at work."

That is why I sometimes prefer cinema to reality - it preserves beauty forever...


Ageless Beauty: Jean Marais

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