BluRay/DVD Reviews

DVD OF THE YEAR, 2000

By • Jan 1st, 2001 •

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There have been some magnificent DVDs released in 2000. Polls have been taken. Terminator 2 (Artisan) was a big vote-gatherer. So were Fight Club (Fox) and Gladiator (Dreamworks). And who are we to disagree with the virtues of such magnificent presentations. But Films in Review leans toward more classical triumphs. True, nothing can sweeten the tracks of a pre-80’s film to the level of a recent Dolby Digital source score, and a modern motion picture polished to its extreme is a wonder to behold. But an old classic, let alone three of them, films that have been relegated over the years to either mediocre incarnations or none at all, now restored on disc to some sort of undreamt-of beauty, is a more special achievement, if you ask us. And FIR’s DVD of the year is:

“Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy”: 3 discs containing The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus & Testament of Orpheus as well as 2 documentaries (The Criterion Collection)

Disc # 1: The Blood of a Poet (1930) 50 minutes. 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Settings, montage and commentary by Jean Cocteau. Music by Georges Auric. Cinematography by Georges Perinal. In French with optional new English subtitle translation. Digital transfer with restored sound, rare behind-the-scenes photos, a transcript of Cocteau’s lecture given at a 1932 screening of the film, and a 1946 essay on the film by Cocteau, a Cocteau bibliofilmography, plus Edgardo Cozarinsky’s Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d’un Inconnu (Autobiography of an Unknown), a 66-minute documentary from 1984, narrated and ‘starring’ Cocteau.

Disc 2: Orpheus (1949) 95 minutes. 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Written and directed by Cocteau. With Jean Marais, Francois Perier, Maria Casares, Darie Dea, Juliette Greco, Jean-Pierre Melville. Music by Georges Auric. A new transfer with digitally restored image and sound, in French with a new English subtitle translation, and Cocteau’s 1950 essays on the film.

Disc 3: Testament of Orpheus (1959) 80 minutes. 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Written & directed by Cocteau. With Cocteau, Edouard Dermithe, Jean Marais, Maria Casares, Charles Aznavour, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Pierre Leaud. Music by Georges Auric. New digital transfer, with restored sound. New English subtitle translation.
A collection of Cocteau’s writings on the film, plus Villa Santo Sospir, a 16mm color film by Cocteau featuring many of the locations used in Testament.

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All of the above represents the components of a most elegantly packaged disc release, utilizing Cocteau lithographs even on the surface of the discs. One feels like one is holding a work of art in one’s hands with this lovingly boxed theme set, all in lovely black & white containers.

And the contents are enough to make one dizzy. All three features have been newly remastered, and with the exception of Blood of a Poet and the documentaries, look pristine. And because Cocteau marched to a very different drummer, his work feels outside the rules of time and space: it’s eerie, poetic, and hasn’t dated an iota. The pacing, scripting, and direction is so quirky and artistically personal, it resides in some unique alternate universe to ours. Remember Night of the Hunter? Kiss me Deadly? One of a kind experiences on celluloid. Only here we’ve got one of the century’s most versatile artists, at home in every medium, represented by five filmic creations spanning fifty+ years. Get ready.

Starting with, for me, the weakest of the batch, Blood of a Poet varies in quality but is fitfully watchable. An experimental film drenched in symbolism, some expanded from the earlier Dali/Bunuel Un Chien Andalou (staring into the palm of a hand [and seeing lips instead of ants], etc.], some flirting with narrative, and some laying the cinematic groundwork for Cocteau’s celluloid over the coming decades (to the point where, in the documentary on the same disc, he refers dismissively to Beauty and the Beast, one of the most wondrous of all film fantasies, as already being imitative of his past work). The obsession with mirrors, death, the underworld, the use of simple yet tranforming technical effects, and obscure poetic meaning left for us to decipher, is all laid out for study, so it is recommended one wade through this one first.

Also on disc one is the documentary released in 1984 but I suspect made two decades earlier and sitting in cans, awaiting its assembly and release. Edgardo Cozarinsky’s Jean Cocteau: Autoportait d’un Inconnu, feels about as much like someone other than Cocteau’s work as Poltergeist felt like Tobe Hooper’s and not Steven Spielberg’s. Its differing film sources give it a sloppy feel, but after a while the accumulated material overwhelms the technical inadequacies. Cocteau narrates at times, and speaks in film clips at other times, and the growing sense is that he is there, conducting the entire experience in a timeless void, growing old, growing young (seeing him young for a few moments suggests the perfect casting for his film bio: Alan Cumming), cavorting with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Charles Chaplin, explaining the history of his place in the art world, reminiscing about scandalous creations that he and his cohorts designed and perpetrated on the world. Probably this should come last, because like today’s godawful theatrical previews, it gives away too much of the films to come. Otherwise it would have been quite helpful to see it second.

Though I place Beauty and the Beast (Criterion) among the twenty or so greatest films of the century, others such as Doug Pratt of “The Laser Disc Newsletter”, favor Orpheus. Well and why not. Same artist. Top of his form. You choose. Here’s poetry on the run, rude and egocentric, sacrificing even love to the muse. Guilty and fascinated that his wife has been sent to Hell because of his ill-mannered disregard of Death’s warning, Orpheus (Jean Marais) follows her, mirror-first, and engages in both purely visual ordeals as well as pretentious philosphical debate with the arbiters of the dark universe. It’s a narrative that constantly confounds the cliches, deals us cards from a runic deck we can’t understand except possibly intuitively, and looks just great. I was flabbergasted to find that it wasn’t dated. Quite the contrary, it looked and felt as if a stylish modern filmmaker had chosen a period piece as subject matter.

In 1952, Cocteau made a 26 minute film – Villa Santo Sospir – documenting his transformation of the luxurious digs he hung out at for many years as the guest of Madame Carol Weisweiller, a patron of the arts whose husband, Alec, is the longtime companion of Cat People‘s Simone Simon, both of whom are close friends of mine whom I never fail to visit whenever I’m abroad. Cocteau muralized and otherwise altered the facade and interior of the villa, which must have been a great and enduring thrill for its owner. The quality of this film is only fair, but then again, at least we have it. And in the other documentary, in a church mural he created, Cocteau places Ms. Weisweiller with Jesus and other biblical figures – rather amusing and, I guess, an artist’s prerogative.

The biggest surprise of all, for me, was Testament of Orpheus. A sequel to Orpheus ten years later, it loses the sexual tensions of Orpheus in exchange for casting Cocteau as himself in the starring role. In some way, Jean Marais – Cocteau’s lover for a long period of their artistic lives – was used by the artist a kind of alterego. Now, near the end of his creative life, Cocteau steps gingerly into the frame, and he’s rivetting. Moving carefully and deliberately (his walk reminiscent of Wes Craven’s), he stages a little picaresque through his own fantasy life and death. Films in which a director/actor pictures his/her own death are rare and always provocative – The Shootist (John Wayne), Limelight (Chaplin), and The Tenant (Polanski), to name a few of the best – and this is certainly a sparkling addition to that esoteric jewel box.

From Criterion you can also get the DVD of Beauty and the Beast. Possibly still available on laserdisc from Criterion but not yet on DVD are Les Enfants Terrible (written by Cocteau, directed Jean-Pierre Melville, who acted in Orpheus) and Les Parents Terrible (written and directed by Cocteau) as a double-bill, and there you have almost the entire Cocteau oeuvre on disc. You really must go for it. The Orphic Trilogy menus list a decent bibliography of works on and by Cocteau, but leave out Je l’appelais Monsieur Cocteau by Weisweiller’s daughter Carole, an intimate recollection of life at Santo Sospir as a child in the company of Cocteau, Marais and others. The brief preface is by Marais, contributed shortly before his death. Perhaps the book is not listed because it is available in a French edition only, but it is obtainable, I’m sure, on Ebay. It contains wonderful photos, including a knock-out of her mother with Picasso during the filming of Testament.

The Trilogy draws one into its complexity with a palpable sense of ‘cult of personality’, intertwining the lives of great artists with others of the times – it is not only Cocteau and Marais who keep reappearing over the decades – and after exploring all the collection’s gifts one ends up feeling very much a part of that large artistic family. A most unusual experience indeed, being allowed, via DVD, into the company of such icons.

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