Orpheus – The Criterion Collection #68 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
August 18, 2011 by Dennis Amith
One of the greatest, visually poetic films of all time. Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” (the second film of “The Orphic Trilogy”) is a wonderful film and those who owned the previous box set will definitely want to pick this Blu-ray release up because it contains plenty of new, lengthy special features. Highly recommended!
Image courtesy of © Comite Cocteau, 1950. 2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: Orpheus – The Criterion Collection #68 (Orphée)
MOVIE RELEASE: 1950
DURATION: 95 Minutes
DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio, 1:19:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural in French with Optional English Subtitles
COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection
RELEASE DATE: August 30, 2011
Directed and Written by Jean Cocteau
Executive Producer: Andre Paulve
Music by Georges Auric
Cinematography by Nicolas Hayer
Edited by Jacqueline Sadoul
Production Design by Jean d’Eaubonne
Set Decoration by Albert Volper
Costume Design by Marcel Escoffier
Jean Marais as Orphee
Francois Perier as Heurtebise
Maria Casares as The Princess – Death
Marie Dea as Eurydice
Henri Cremieux as L’editeur
Juliette Greco as Aglaconice
Roger Blin as The Poet
Edouard Dermithe as Jacques Cegeste
Jean Cocteau’s update of the Orpheus myth depicts a famous poet (Jean Marais), scorned by the Left Bank youth, and his love for both his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), and a mysterious princess (Maria Casarès). Seeking inspiration, the poet follows the princess from the world of the living to the land of the dead, through Cocteau’s famous mirrored portal. Orpheus’s peerless visual poetry and dreamlike storytelling represent the legendary Cocteau at the height of his powers.
In French cinema, there are many filmmakers named Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, to name a few. But among these filmmakers who really never craved the spotlight was Jean Cocteau. A proud man with humility and creative talent that extends beyond cinema.
Before Cocteau was a playwright, a screenwriter, a director…he was one of the most prestigious, talented poets living in France.
At a young age, similar to Jean Vigo who suffered through pain throughout his childhood after the death of his father, Jean Cocteau lived a different life. Coming from a prominent family, like Vigo, at a young age, Jean Cocteau lost his father (who committed suicide).
Where a filmmaker like Vigo had cinema at a young age to escape reality, Cocteau had poetry.
In fact, his first volume of poems titled “Aladdin’s Lamp” was created at the age of 19 and would eventually become popular through his poetry.
But it was World War I which changed Cocteau. He would meet poet Guillaume Apollinaire, artist Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani and would later collaborate with many talents which include Russian choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, who persuaded the poet to write a scenario for his ballet “Parade” in 1917.
As one of the great poets, the introduction to writing for a ballet would lead him to writing and directing plays but also novels. Among the novels he is known for are “Les Enfants Terribles” (1929), “The Blood of the Poet” (1930), “Les Parents Terribles” (1948), “Beauty and the Beast” (1946) and “Orpheus” (1949).
In 1930, is Cocteau’s “The Blood of a Poet” would be the first film that would become the start of a trilogy known as “The Orphic Trilogy”, followed by film adaptations of his novels “Orphee” and “Testament of Orpheus” (1960). The trilogy which are not connected to each other in terms of story would showcase Jean Cocteau the writer, the poet, the novelist, the playwright and filmmaker. Utilizing the Orphic myth to explore the relationship between artist and their creations, reality and imagination.
In 2000, the Criterion Collection released “The Orphic Trilogy” on DVD but recently, Cocteau films/works are now being released in the US by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray. While “Beauty and the Beast” is the first Cocteau film to be released on Blu-ray in America, the second is “Orpheus” (Orphee) which is also the second film of “The Orphic Trilogy”.
A film that remains poetic and influential for many artists today. In fact, for music fans, an image from the film is used in the Smith’s single “This Charming Man”, the music video for “Take On Me” was inspired by “Orpheus” and radio messages from the film were sampled in “DJ Culture” by the Pet Shop Boys. And in 2010, the film was voted in Empire Magazine’s “100 Best Films of World Cinema”.
And while the film has its place in cinema and also pop culture, from a cultural, poetic and creative artist such as as Jean Cocteau, its the symbolic nature of the film, people who want to delve further into the life of Jean Cocteau and the era of when the film was written, to grasp how World War II had an impact in the making of the film but also, at 60-years-old, “Orpheus” was also a film that included elements of how Cocteau was feeling about his past-life, how he felt about his peers.
How he saw the new generation of poets being free, but at the same time, showing disdain towards how they lived their lives. A different experience when Cocteau was younger.
But as for the story of “Orpheus”, it was a chance for the talented artist to bring his passion but also part of his life to cinema. In a much different style than what he had done years earlier with “Blood of a Poet”.
“Orpheus” is a story that begins with the Greek myth of the legendary musician, poet and prophet Orpheus. The Man who has the ability to charm all living things through his music.
But one day, his wife Eurydice died after being bitten by a viper. Orpheus attempted to retrieve his wife from the underworld and his music managed to soften the hearts of Hades and Persephone. Orpheus is told that Eurydice will be given a chance on one condition, he could never look at her ever again until they reach the upper world. While going back to the upper world, he accidentally looks at her right before he and Eurydice reach the upper world and loses her forever.
The film then switches to modern day Paris, as the famous poet Orpheus (played by Jean Marais) meets with his editor (played by Henri Cremieux), a rich woman known as the Princess (played by Maria Casares) comes out of a Rolls Royce to help a drunken young man named Cegeste (played by Edouard Dermithe).
As some of the men at the cafe try to talk and flirt with the woman, Cegeste becomes jealous and a brawl ensues. The police come in and arrest Cegeste but as Cegeste tries to make a run for it, he is run over by two motorcyclist.
Instead of calling the hospital, the Princess tells the police to bring Cegeste into her car. She sees Orpheus and tells him to join her in the car as he is a witness of what happened.
Thinking that he may be going to a police station, the Princess is vague of where they are going and instructs her driver to drive out to an unknown area. Orpheus tells her that the young man, Cegeste is dead but the Princess keeps rejecting each question that Orpheus tries to ask. During their drive, unusual radio announcements are being played inside the car.
As the Princess and the motorcyclist carry the dead young man to a room, Orpheus is surprised to see unusual things happen. The Princess is able to bring the dead Cegeste back to life and to make things even more surprising, she and Cegeste, along with the two motorcyclist walk into a mirror and disappear.
As Orpheus goes towards the mirror, he is shocked of what has happened and thinks it is all a dream.
When he wakes up in the morning, he tries to talk to the driver named Heurtebise of what happened? And Heurtebise tries to answer the best he can.
Meanwhile, at Orpheus’ home, his wife Eurydice is worried that something bad may have happened to him. Pregnant and wanting to share the good news with him, Orpheus is driven to wanting to meet the mysterious woman, the Princess, he met the other day. And rather spend his time going into the car that Heurtebise drives and listening to the radio in hopes of getting close to her.
Meanwhile, Heurtebise starts to fall for Eurydice and wants to be with her and comfort her because Orpheus is hardly there to talk to her.
But we learn that Heurtebise is not a normal person, nor is the Princess. The Princess is actually death and Heurtebise works for death. And for some reason, both are interested in taking the lives of Orpheus and Eurydice but for what reason? Is it because Death has fallen for Orpheus? Heurtebise has fallen for Eurydice?
And what about Orpheus’ love for Eurydice? Has Death won his heart?
“Orpheus” is one of cinema’s celebrated, visually poetic films ever created and a true representation of the creative genius of writer/director Jean Cocteau.
“Orpheus” is presented in 1080p High Definition, black and white (1:33:1 aspect ratio). As a previous owner of “The Orphic Trilogy” DVD Box set, as expected from the Criterion Collection, the contrast of the film looks fantastic! Black levels are inky and deep, contrasting whites and grays are magnificent and while there may be signs of mild flickering at the beginning, by no means does it ruin one’s viewing pleasure of this 1950 film.
According to the Criterion Collection, the new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Spirit 2K Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain internegative struck from the original nitrate negative. The restoration of Orpheus was carried out in a collaboration with the Archives francaise du film in Bois-d’Arcy, France, under the supervision of assistant director Claude Pinoteau. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“Orpheus” is presented in French monaural with English subtitles. The film is dialogue driven and dialogue is crystal clear through the center channel.
According to the Criterion Collection, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using Audio Cube’s integrated workstation.
“Orpheus – The Criterion Collection #68” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:
- Audio commentary – An excellent and in-depth audio commentary byFrench-film scholar James S. Williams.
- Edgardo Cozarinsky’s “Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d’un Inconnu (Autobigraphy of an Unknown) – (1:08:51) The longest feature of this entire DVD is the 1984 documentary about Jean Cocteau. For those interested in knowing more about the filmmaker/poet, this documentary is very informative as Cocteau talks about his childhood, his artistic contemporaries and more.
- In Search of Jazz – (17:38) An interview from April 24, 1956 as Cocteau discusses the use of music in his films.
- Jean Cocteau and His Tricks – (13:29) A 2008 video interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau by Marc Cairo.
- 40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau – (40:37) From an interview back in August 28, 1957, for the TV series “At Home With…” featuring Francois Chalais talking to Jean Cocteau.
- La villa Santo-Sospir – (36:26) Jean Cocteau’s 16 mm color film from 1951. A visit of Francine Weisweiller’s Villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferat, on Côte d’Azur, which was decorated by Jean Cocteau.
- Gallery of images by French-film portrait photographer Roger Corbeau – Using your remote (or computer arrow button), you can scroll through a gallery of images.
- Saint-Cyr Military Academy Ruins – (1:41) Raw newsreel footage from 1950 of the , a location used for “The Zone” in “Orpheus”.
- Theatrical trailer – (3:31) Theatrical trailer for “Orpheus”.
“Orpheus – The Criterion Collection #68” comes with a 30-page booklet, which includes the following essays: “Through a Glass, Amorously” by Mark Polizzotti, “Cocteau on Orpheus”, “Cocteau’s La villa Santo-Sospir” by James S. Williams.
Filmmaker Francois Truffaut once asked the question, “Do we still have to prove how important a filmmaker Jean Cocteau is?”
In 2011, there is no arguing of Jean Cocteau’s place in cinema. There is no arguing how influential and how multi-talented he was not only as a poet, a playwright, novelist, filmmaker, etc. He was a person who embodied the life of artistic creation and a man who lived life at the beat of his own drum. A man who lived with humility and lived a long life of being wanted because of his talent.
I use a juxtaposition with Jean Vigo and Jean Cocteau, not to compare their talent but to show how a few films created by these two individuals, would remain as an inspiration for other filmmakers not just in the ’50s but also to filmmakers today.
For Cocteau, while “The Blood of a Poet” and “Testament of Orpheus” were very different kind of films when compared to “Orpheus”, many probably were attracted or repulsed by the level of surrealism in his films, “Orpheus” was not surreal but it was poetic in nature, especially when you work with an actor such as Jean Marais.
You just don’t see films like Cocteau films. Others have their own way of taking on surrealism, but when you have a creative poet wanting to make poetry visual for cinema, its a rarity in cinema.
There is a visually poetic and creative way he directs his talent but also knows what to get out of them. From the way the film is acted, it is like watching a play as Orpheus reactions when he comes home to his wife and is haunted by his exchange with the Princess (Death). From the scene where he wakes up on top of the mirror on the sand, it’s a classic yet artist shot or when we see Death coming out of the mirror to visit Orpheus when he is asleep.
It’s a fantastic blend of fantasy and reality which we have seen before, especially in “Beauty and the Beast”. A whimsical probe of a character done intelligently, a bit of surrealism but a film that show us why Cocteau is an important and unique filmmaker with a style that can never be duplicated.
These are intoxicating images that are strong, beautiful and you feel almost as if you are part of that dreamlike environment that the characters are part of. There have been films where one tries to reach out to their dead spouse, but the film is more sci-fi in nature because of the focus and over-reliance of visual effects.
The people from the netherworld are not shown in demonic forms. Death is not the typical look of a robe with a hand holding a sickle, death is beautiful, death is emotional, death wants to find love in Orpheus, as Orpheus also finds love in the death. And that is something that should not happen.
The film shows us the anguish each side feels towards the unknown. Death loves Orpheus, who loves Death but also loves his wife Eurydice who loves him, but feels alone because of his focus is more on lady death and thus, we see one man staying with her (Heurtebise) when the other, Orpheus is consumed with his passion to find death.
Sure this is somewhat a modern 1950’s retelling of the Greek myth but who else can craft something so genius and mesmerizing? No other than Jean Cocteau. And suffice to say, if you watch “Blood of a Poet” and then you go this film, you realize how far the filmmaker has come since his last film.
But when it all comes down to it, there is nothing like “Orpheus”. It’s a great film and its exciting to see The Criterion Collection bring this out on Blu-ray but most importantly, to showcase the career of Jean Cocteau through many lengthy special features.
I know that many of the Jean Cocteau fans own “The Orphic Trilogy” and in some cases, typically when Criterion releases a classic that was on DVD for Blu-ray, the special features are the same.
In this case, it is not the same. The original DVD version of “Orpheus” didn’t come with hardly any special features but the other films included in the trilogy did. The 1984 documentary and “Villa Santo Sospir” were included in the trilogy DVD box set on the discs of “The Blood of a Poet” and “Testament of Orpheus” but everything else on this Blu-ray is new.
From listening to the in-depth and wonderful commentary and just the sheer amount of well-done documentaries and also classic interviews, this Blu-ray release of “Orpheus” is a wonderful tribute to Jean Cocteau.
And I can tell you right now, because of the enhanced picture quality, the booklet and the additional special features, “Orpheus” on Blu-ray is obviously worth the upgrade, especially if you are a Jean Cocteau fan. It’s a 5-star release and I give it my highest recommendation.
But with that being said, for the newbie Criterion Collection fans who are used to more literal storylines, Jean Cocteau films, especially “Orpheus” is creative and is visually poetic, for some people, Cocteau’s films may not be for them. “Orpheus” may not be for them. It takes an appreciation of Cocteau’s work and his style to really enjoy this film.
So, for those who adore Cocteau’s films, especially “The Orphic Trilogy”, will be happy to know that with this Blu-ray release, you are not only getting a better version of the film to date, there are also a good number of special features included.
Once again, another fantastic Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection that is highly recommended!
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