Le Testament d’Orphee 1961 ****

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‘If you don’t like my film, I’m sorry’ Jean Cocteau announces with admirable candor at the end of Le Testament d’Orphee; if only all directors were so blunt. But then again, Jean Cocteau is hardly your average hack; the French poet and surrealist was one of the greatest artistic figures of the 20th century, with film only one of the media he conquered, and this 1961 semi-autobiographical fantasy is something of a curiosity. In today’s world, where sequels often appears decades later, Cocteau’s decision to revisit his 1950’s opus Orphee makes some sense, but it’s only one of a number of angles the artist is working here. Fans of the original were not wowed by Le Testament d’Orphee, but freed from the burden of expectation that goes with sequelitis, there’s a lot going on. Cocteau casts himself as a time-travelling courtier, zapping back and forward through his own life to invent cigarettes so that he can smoke them, and to identify who he really is. ‘I take off my body to reveal my soul’ says Cocteau, attempting to make peace with himself as an artist ‘Aren’t you a pheonixologist?’ he asks himself, hoping for some revival, but his distaste is revealed when he meets and avoids himself coming down a street; ‘I thought when I changed castles, I’d change ghosts’ he laments in a brilliant turn of phrase.  There’s a melange of fashionable names dragged into the phantasmagorical action, from Yul Brynner to Charles Aznavour, and even through subtitles, Cocteau’s knack with words is arresting; cinema, he imagines, is the art of bringing ‘dead acts to life’, and the whole process adds up to a ‘macabre masquerade’. This neglected film is a fitting tribute by a great artist to himself; there’s flashes of magic and genuine insight that make it well worth exhuming, particularly with the helpful mini-features that are included on this 2019 DVD re-release.

ON BLU-RAY, DVD AND DIGITAL DOWNLOAD in the UK – 5TH AUGUST 2019

The Blood of a Poet 1932 ****

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When early American sound cinema was struggling to find more interesting things to film than staid plays from the front row of the stalls, visionaries like Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau were pushing the envelope circa 1930. L’Age d’Or still has a certain notoriety due to a discomforting eye-slitting scene; Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet was being made almost the same time, and is arguably a more successful, less sensational and more coherent film. A series of short vignettes reflect on art and life; an artist finds a mouth growing on his own hand, and attempts to place it within his art, a statue. The same artist makes his way down the corridors of a hotel, climbing the walls and finding living statues within. A snowball fight between children turns tragic when someone throws hard marble instead of soft snow, and an artist’s death arouses applause from a paying audience. Cocteau would revisit the snow-ball fight for Melville’s Les Enfants Terrible, but it’s the most straightforward element here of an experimental film that defies simple explanation. This kind of art is best approached not with a notebook and pen, but allowing the images, rich and personal as they are, to wash over you; the ceramic eyes featured here, and in many of Cocteau’s other films, feel modernist and not dated at all. The best art is timeless, and Cocteau’s inimitable style conferred immediate immortality on himself and his unique world-view. American photographer Lee Miller appears as a statue here; a strange detail, but only one of many in a 55 minute film that still retains a dazzling, mystical allure to this day.

LE SANG D’UN POÊTE (The Blood of a Poet) will be released on DVD, Digital Download and for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK on 5th August 2019 as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage World Cinema Collection.

 

Orphee 1950 ****

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As with La Belle et le Bete, Jean Cocteau’s masterpieces will not grow old; while specific meanings remain obscure, this adaptation of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has a timeless quality. Jean Maris was actor so handsome and robust he makes Kirk Douglas look as weedy as Tom Holland, and he’s ideal as Orphee, a vain poet who leaves his wife behind to visit a fashionable road-side café to hear a recital. There he meets a rival named Cegeste (Edouard Dermit) and when a brawl breaks out, sees him killed and then revived by a mysterious woman who appears to be working for the forces of the underworld, specifically Death (Maria Casares). With his head spinning, Orpheus returns home, but soon loses his wife to the underworld, and must venture forth to get her back. Cocteau’s bag of cinematic tricks gets a good work-out here, with backwards film, inverted negatives, mirrors made of water and talking cars all adding up to a magical environment where anything could and will happen; the most obvious films that lift both mood and iconography from Cocteau are the first two Matrix films. Although made in post WWII France, Orphee is no simple political allegory, and Cocteau was keen to avoid such interpretations; the film’s meaning is, according to Cocteau, exactly what you see. The journey of Orpheus represents the creative process, one that takes away as much as it gives, and the ambiguous ending leaves the viewer to make their own conclusions and judgements without the dots being joined by the film-maker. Perhaps Cocteau’s sequel. Le Testament d’Orphee spells things out too clearly, but this sublime original offers mystery and magic in gloopy, rich black and white images that feel like the fevered opium dream of their esteemed creator.

La Belle et la Bete 1946 ****

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Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film is still one of the most creative and romantic features on record; a fairy tale that works for adults, it makes ingenious use of special effects is a way that’s truly magical. Belle (Josette Day)  suffers under the thumb of her ugly sisters, but when he father unwisely picks a rose from a castle garden, he’s forced to offer her daughter’s life in return. So begins the courtship of Belle and the Beast, unforgettably played by Jean Maris in and out of make-up. Cocteau’s best films (Orphee) are suffused with poetry; this story of true love is for grown-ups what the Disney film is for kids.