Le Testament d’Orphee 1961 ****


‘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.



Orphee 1950 ****


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.

Jesus of Montreal 1989 ***


Writer/director Dennis Arcand’s 1989 drama is a startling post-modern take on the idea of a Passion play. Set in Montreal, it depicts a group of actors, led by Dennis (Lothaire Bluteau) who is playing the role of Jesus, and begins to see many similarities between the life of Christ and his own predicament. With the Catholic church protesting the production, Dennis faces betrayal but comes to believe that he’s on a mission from God to perform. With Robert Le Page amongst the cast, Jesus of Montreal is an artistic triumph that skilfully manages to attack organised religion and spoof theatrical pretentions at the same time.

Celine and Julie Go Boating 1974 *****


Jacques Rivette’s 193 minute long whimsical drama requires quite a commitment from audiences, but those prepared to stay the course get a big reward. Aspiring magician Celine (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) strike up an odd friendship, one that leads them to discover a portal to another dimension, in which the interfere in the daily business of a turn-of-the century household. Shot in a sunny Paris summer, Celine and Julie is a magical film, ingeniously filmed on real locations where the public frequently stand gawping at the actors, adding a surreal quality to a film steeped in strangeness.  Somewhere between Henry James and Desperately Seeking Susan, Rivette’s astonishing film is one of the true unseen masterworks of cinema; clear your diary and open your mind.

Post Tenabres Lux 2013 ***


So far from the beaten track that audiences will need a road-map to find their way back, writer/director Carlos Reygadas’s experimental feature defies an easy synopsis; a child wanders in a misty landscape, a group of schoolboys play rugby in England, a businesswoman’[s wife participates in sexual acts in a sauna. And the connections between these events are hard to explain. What is clear is Reygadas’s gift for photography, and there’s also a striking sequence involving an animated devil, which arrives complete with a toolbox before sloping off like a low-res Pink Panther. Pretentious, deliberately obscure and tricky are all valid criticisms, but Post Tenabres Lux is also an antidote to safe mainstream cinema, as elliptical as the title promises.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin 1971 ***


Writer/director Lucio Fulci delivers a thriller as weird and wonderful as the title suggests with this convoluted who-dunnit with psychedelic inserts. Filmed with a druggy ennui that sits oddly with quaint London settings like the Alexandra Palace, Stanley Baker plays Inspector Colvin, who doggedly investigates Carol Hammond (Florida Bolkan) when she becomes prime suspect in a murder case. Surreal aspects include a giant swan and a sculpture made out of living dogs, but the narrative delivers plenty of tension and surprises, leading to a conclusion that shows Balkan at her most iconic. The funked-out score is by Ennio Morricone.