Talking Pictures

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Jean Cocteau and Surrealism.

Posted by keith1942 on October 24, 2014

Cinelists- Orphee- Jean Cocteau (32)

Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée offers number characteristics, which reflect his interest in the artistic work of the Surrealists. The film is variation on the classical myth of Orphée who follows his dead wife into Hades. He is able to return with her to the world above, but with the strict instruction that he should not look back at his wife as she follows. He breaks the commandment and both are lost. In Cocteau’s version we have a successful post-war poet who apparently loves his wife but also develops a passion for a mysterious woman – who turns out to be the messenger of death.

The film opens in a Café des Poets, which is presented as a venue of existential youth. A fracas develops and Orphée is taken away by the mysterious woman, along with an injured younger poet. She takes the young poet across a threshold [a mirror] into the world of death. Orphée is literally haunted by an aide of the woman. His wife’s death is in an accident and she is also taken into the underworld. As in the myth Orphée follows and returns with his wife. The prohibition about looking at his wife carries over into the world above. Its breach returns Orphée to the underworld. Here, in a change from the myth, the mysterious woman wills her own destruction and Orphée returns to the upper world and his wife. But he carries with him the mark of death, seen by Cocteau as a compulsion necessary to his poetic work.

The only poems in the film are a series of mysterious messages over the radio, which Orphée copies. It transpires that the dead younger poet has written these. It has been suggested that these are a sort of veiled reference the cryptic messages heard over the radio in wartime France directed to the French resistance. This seems to tie into the events in the café. An informer calls the police who break-up a fracas. But the leather and black suited motorcycle riders turn up as well. It does conjure up the atmosphere of wartime occupied France, with the indigenous police but the all –powerful German Gestapo.

The most powerful sequences in the film are the visits to the underworld. Here Cocteau uses slow motion and an almost apocalyptic landscape to suggest this threatening underworld. The judges of Hades seem excessively bureaucratic and there is a ghostly sense again of wartime France and of Vichy.

In addition to those on our list there are some important characteristics associated with Surrealism, which are also found in Jean Cocteau’s films.

Mirrors offer reflections. As a mirror reverses the character or object reflected they are not necessarily reliable. Mirrors frequently turn up in film noir and can suggest the deceitfulness of the femme fatale: especially when she is seen in more than one. Orson Welles features a bravura sequence in a hall of mirrors at the end of The Lady from Shanghai (1947), emphasising both deception and the way characters misread events.

In psychoanalysis the mirror is associated with identity. One Freudian theorist [Jacques Lacan] identifies a ‘mirror stage’ in the young child when s/he comes to understand what is meant when the mother says ‘that’s you’. Magritte’s painting The False Mirror emphasises the surrealist view that the ‘closed’ or ‘inner ‘ eye was a truer guide to life and feeling.

And in traditional stories mirrors are often portals to another world. A favoured literary work of the surrealists was Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, including Alice Through the Looking Glass. All these three meanings can be discerned in Orphée, but especially the latter two.

Amour fou – mad love. Surrealists privileged love that broke beyond the boundaries of conventional behaviour, overcoming restrictions, even death. Thus another favourite novel for them was Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights [Filmed by Buñuel as Abismos de Pasión, 1953], which powerfully dramatises the love of Cathy and Heathcliff beyond the grave. Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or is also focused on the ‘mad love’ of the two protagonists. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a classical expression of a similar passion. The desire to overcome death, both in terms of love and in terms of artistic fulfilment, is a central theme in Cocteau’s work.

Transference is a term used in psychoanalysis. ‘the redirection of attitudes and emotions towards a substitute’. This offers possible explanation of some of the plotting in Un Chien Andalu. And it also offers a possible interpretation for the ending that Cocteau adds in his version of the Orpheus legend.

Where Cocteau’s film differs markedly from the official surrealist films is their response to authority or the establishment. Dali proclaimed in 1929 ‘Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.’ The surrealist placed great emphasis on the ‘act’. So Buñuel at various time wondered if he should destroy his early films, they having achieved their effect. Cocteau clearly places more importance on preserving his work and its impact of later audiences. And he clearly was an establishment person who enjoyed critical success.

In post-war France the official Surrealist movement was far less influential, though there are individual surrealist artists, both in France and abroad. Surreal becomes an adjective applied to works that possess characteristics now associated with the earlier movement. In particular the word if often applied to art works that have a ‘dreamlike quality’, A famous example would be the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (USA 1945). The film does involve psychoanalysis in the plot, but the dream sequence is as much about solving the murder of the film as it is about an analysis of  the hero, played by Gregory Peck.

NB The English language version of Orphée is seventeen minutes shorter than the French original: but I have not been able to find out what is missing.

This piece was written for a session at the National Media Museum on the film.


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