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France, 1950 (MIFF 1955, Programme 6)

Director: Jean Cocteau

There is a story that in 1912 Diaghilev said to Jean Cocteau in a half serious mood, “Etonne-moi” (Astonish me) - and for the last forty years Cocteau has never ceased to surprise his contemporaries an the public generally.

His film, Orphee, taken from one of his first plays produced in 1926, was made in the teeth of opposition. His usual producers withdrew their support; the distributors hung back; his friends were apprehensive.

Cocteau finally financed the film himself and persuaded his actors to invest their salaries in the production. Since its issue the film has split the critics and the public into two camps. To one group the film is the greatest screen event of the last twenty years; to the other it is pretentious poetical humbug.

It is hardly possible to describe the atmosphere or the astonishing fantasy of this film in a prosaic plot synopsis. Briefly, Cocteau has attempted to popularise one of the most beautiful of all myths and one of the most fruitful: that of Orpheus, magician of poetry, fisher of truths from the abysmal depths of death and madness; seeking even in Hell the secret of survival.

Death, beloved of the poet, is one of the principals of the film and the key to all its symbols.

Cocteau's Orpheus is a poet who goes down into the Shades, less to bring back his commonplace wife, Eurydice, than to enjoy the embrace of Death, the beautiful dream that has enslaved him. The film, astonishing in its camera tricks and devices of pure cinema magic, is grounded here and there in moments of contemporary realism.

The ferryman, Charon, becomes a smart chaffeur; the messengers of death are goggled motor-cyclists; code messages are tapped out by a secret radio; a trial in the Shades is conducted along the lines of a war crimes tribunal.

Whatever opinions or interpretations we may place upon the film there is no doubt whatever as to its extraordinary power and fascination. Brilliant cutting and photography, a fine musical score by Georges Auric, notable acting by the cast, particularly Maria Casares as the Princess, and the particular magic that only Cocteau seems to know how to distil, combine to make a cinema experience that is quite unique.

See also...


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