Wednesday, December 22, 2010

through the looking glass

Seeing Jean Cocteau's classic film Orphée on an HD televsion is the next best thing to the big screen. I was lucky enough to see this film in a revival house movie theater many years ago while I was in art school. But I don't think the print was in any near as good condition as what I just saw on HD. The blacks are so crisp. the subtitles are sharp and easy to read, the grays are a gorgeous silver—it is beautiful to get immersed in, as is the French language.
Je vous livre le secret des secrets. Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la mort vient et va. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans un miroir, et vous verrez la mort travailler, comme des abeilles dans une ruche de verre.
[I am letting you into the secret of all secrets, mirrors are gates through which death comes and goes. Moreover if you see your whole life in a mirror, you will see death at work, as you see bees behind the glass in a hive.]
Heurtebise, Death's chauffeur, speaks those words to Orpheus. He knows what he's talking about, as he is no longer alive—a suicide who knows what he has lost. The movie is interesting in that it retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but doesn't focus exclusively on them. Heurtebise is probably the most poignant character in the film, but each character is given a depth, a gravity, that many modern films lack. At different times the viewer will connect with Heurtebise, Orpheus, Euridice, the young poet Cégeste, who was Orpheus's rival, and even Death herself.

The look and style of the film is amazing. All the CGI in the world can't compare to the lyrical beauty of the passage to the Underworld scenes. Death's minions are motorcycle toughs in black leather. Death, played by María Casares, is a gorgeous dark-haired femme fatale clad in trés chic attire, and chauffeured in a shining black Rolls. All the boys have James Dean haircuts, open shirts and cashmere sweaters. Everyone smokes. It's the ultimate post-war cool. The film opens with a gang of young dudes fighting over poems—art and poetry. It's fabulous Greek tragedy come to life. Vive l'art, vive le France.

As much as I fell immediately in love with the tragic character of Heurtebise, it is clear that the movie is a love poem from Cocteau to the beautifully handsome Jean Marais. They were partners in life. Marais was Cocteau's muse and appeared in his best films, Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus, and Testament of Orpheus. Marais is wonderful here, convincing as the obsessive artist, the confused lover, the tragic poet.

Jean Marais as Orphee at the gate to the underworld, From SkyArtsHD

Cocteau uses repetitive radio broadcasts and reverse print film to depict the Underworld. Mirrors, windows, walls are the doorways and barriers to both worlds. Seemingly simple effects, and set design using classical sculptures are perfect at referencing the original myth, while still depicting contemporary France. The second World War, the results of which were still keenly felt in Europe in 1950, also echoes throughout the film:
Cocteau adds many elements from the culture of his time. For example, the messengers of the Princess of Death are grim, leather-clad motorcyclists. The underworld is represented by buildings in France which remained in ruins after World War II, and Orpheus's trial in the underworld is presented in the manner of an inquest held by officials of the German occupation attempting to discover members of the French resistance. At the very end of the film, the Princess and Heurtebise are prisoners, brought forward to face the tribunal, ominously elevated on a pedestal above them.—Wikipedia
It's interesting to ponder that love gets even more complicated after you die ... Heurtebise, as he watches Orpheus stupidly lose Euridice the first time observes wryly,
I am delighted that I am no longer alive.
Cocteau must have been feeling generous, as he is much more into depicting love conquering all in his telling of the myth.
I wanted to touch lightly on the most serious problems, without idle theorizing. So the film is a thriller which draws on myth from one side and the supernatural from the other. ... I have always liked the no man’s land of twilight where mysteries thrive. I have thought, too, that cinematography is superbly adapted to it, provided it takes the least possible advantage of what people call the supernatural. The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic. Radios in cars, coded messages, shortwave signals and power cuts are all familiar to everybody and allow me to keep my feet on the ground. ...

The three basic themes of Orphée are:
1. The successive deaths through which a poet must pass before he becomes, in that admirable line from Mallarmé, tel qu’en lui-même enfin l’éternité le change—changed into himself at last by eternity.
2. The theme of immortality: the person who represents Orphée’s Death sacrifices herself and abolishes herself to make the poet immortal.
3. Mirrors: we watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death.—Cocteau on Orphée, from The Criterion Collection
Jean Cocteau. L'Ange Heurtebise, Poème. Paris,Librairie Stock. 2°, 26 leaves,
one heliogravure showing a rayogramme by Man Ray, 1925.

Cocteau visited the Orpheus theme a quarter-century earlier, in his poem L'Ange Heurtebise.
L'Ange Heurtebise

Angel Heurtebise on the steps
Beats me with his wings
Of watered silk, refreshes my memory,
The rascal, motionless
And alone with me on the agate
Which breaks, ass, your supernatural


Angel Heurtebise with incredible
Brutality jumps on me. Please
Don't jump so hard,
Beastly fellow, flower of tall
You've laid me up. That's
Bad manners. I hold the ace, see?
What do you have?


Angel Heurtebise pushes me;
And you, Lord Jesus, mercy,
Lift me, raise me to the corner
Of your pointed knees;
Undiluted pleasure. Thumb, untie
The rope! I die.

Maria Casares as Death with Orphee, from Abbracci e pop corn

Angel Heurtebise and angel
Cegeste killed in the war—what a wondrous
The role of scarecrows
Whose gesture no frightens
The cherries on the heavenly cherry trees
Under the church's folding door
Accustomed to the gesture yes.


My guardian angel, Heurtebise,
I guard you, I hit you,
I break you, I change
Your guard every hour.
On guard, summer! I challenge
You, if you're a man. Admit
Your beauty, angel of white lead,
Caught in a photograph by an
Explosion of magnesium.
Cocteau seems to be wrestling with a far less gentle Heurtebise in his poem than the character who tries to guide both Eurydice and Orpheus between both worlds in the film.

This movie has so many wonderful, magical transitions I will surely have to revisit it sometime soon. But I'm not sure I will ever look into a mirror in quite the same way again.

Quotes imdb

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