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Friday, June 21, 2013

Orpheus (1950) d. Jean Cocteau

Jean Marais place Orpheus in Jean Cocteau's 1950 film.

Movie Review
Orpheus (1950)
 d. Jean Cocteau
Criterion Collection #68

  Today, special effects are treated with condescension by most film critics. Candidates for "Auteur" status are often given demerits for a body of work that relies heavily on special effects.  Consider the still tentative embrace of Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg by the critical/scholarly film community.  Or James Cameron would be another good example.

Maria Casares as Princess/Death

 And yet twas not always the case.  Jean Cocteau relied on cutting edge special effects in Orpheus, his 1950 retelling of the Greek Myth, (and the second such adaptation ALREADY in the Criterion Collection from the 1950s) as well as in Beauty and the Beast (1946).

  In fact, considering that both were adaptations (1) it seems fair to compare Jean Cocteau to say, a Michael Bay.  What exactly is the difference between a special effect driven adaptation of an ancient Greek myth and a special effects driven adaptation of a toy/Saturday morning cartoon.  After all, are not Saturday morning cartoons our modern myths?

Marie Dea as Eurydice in Orpheus (1950) by Jean Cocteau

  Unlike Black Orpheus, which was a loose adaptation of the myth with no notable underworld sequence,  Jean Cocteau delivers the underworld, which, as it turns out, is governed by a kind of administrative tribunal and looks pretty much like the French country side.

  In this Orpheus, the hero is a pop star of some sort- I imagine him along the same lines as a Serge Gainsbourg.  Death is represented by a wealthy Princess (living in suburban Paris in 1950 of course) and her chauffeur, and it is the chauffeur who ferries off Eurydice to the Underworld.

  Orpheus follows her down and obtains her release after a sort of mini trial, on the condition that he never look at her again.  In the original myth, the stipulation is that he not look at her UNTIL HE REACHES the surface, but it's a small difference.  I'd like to know how that part of the myth came to be. (2)

  The two notable features of Orpheus are the special effects and his use of be bop Jazz to score the sequences of mob violence.  I'm not sure if he was the first to do that- it may have been the case that American directors had been doing that before 1950, but it seems like a pretty early usage of be bop Jazz in that context.

 Orpheus was less tedious to watch then Beauty and the Beast- it's a technically more sophisticated production and the pace is business like and not "dreamy."  The two films make an interesting contrast.  It seems clear from watching both that Beauty and the Beast was a more "shoe string" production, whereas Orpheus is like an "A-list" film from an "A-list" director.


(1)  I try to avoid questions of grammar but the adaptation vs. adaption has been haunting me.  I think the proper spelling is adaptation though according to this article they are both valid.
(2) The non Greek influence on the myth of Orpheus can be seen first, in the fact that Orpheus is from "Thracia" which is an area north and east of the Greek heart land.  Second there is the well known Ancient Near Eastern Myth of Inanna an Dumuzi, where Dumuzi (Inanna's husband) rescues her from the Netherworld.

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