Saturday, March 31, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Jean Cocteau

This is the second in my 2018 series watching two movies per month by auteurs whose films had previously been unknown to me.

Jean Cocteau turns out to have been just the type of filmmaker I was hoping to discover in this series. Not necessarily because I liked his films, though I did, but because he really fits my idea of an auteur -- an artist with a distinct vision whose films are immediately recognizable as the work of the same person.

There are two very specific things I found in the Cocteau films I watched, and I'll tell you what those things are before I reveal the films themselves. The first was an opening that breaks the fourth wall and exists completely outside the the apparent themes and/or time period of the movie, as Cocteau himself gives a short amount of narration talking about the film itself in its status as a story we collectively share (both of these films' stories existed in the culture before he filmed them). One of these films even has its opening credits on a chalkboard, which is very much not in keeping with the location or art direction of that film, but underscores the idea of the film itself being an academic exercise of sorts.

The other thing is that Cocteau is a surprise visual innovator who had a knack for special effects -- something I found a bit surprising, I guess, because what I assumed about him was that he was just an arthouse guy, existing alongside technical progress in filmmaking but probably not participating in it. In both of these films he uses camera tricks to execute magical phenomena that deepen the sense of wonder generated by his subject matter. I'll save the specifics until I'm actually discussing the films.

But first a bit about Cocteau. He lived from 1889 to 1963 and was a man of man titles -- artist, designer, writer, playwright and director. His film output was actually relatively small given all the other things that occupied him, and the people who occupied his time -- his Wikipedia page lists a number of famed associates in its opening paragraph, who are all from all walks of celebrity, from visual art (Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali) to music (Edith Piaf and Igor Stravinsky) to film (Yul Brynner and Marlene Dietrich). As a writer he was associated with Marcel Proust, and he also excelled in set design. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he also designed buildings and composed symphonies. He appears to have been a true renaissance man.

He made only nine feature films, which is significant because they were stretched over exactly 30 years from 1930 to 1960. The two films I watched were right in the middle of that period, and the second was the middle film in a trilogy that comprised an entire third of his filmography.

1. Beauty and the Beast (1946)

I was especially interested to see Cocteau's take on Beauty and the Beast after having recently revisited both Disney's classic take from 1991, and Disney's dull live-action take from 2017. And as it so happened, I could borrow it from the library, which was how I acquired a total of three Cocteau films, only two of which I needed to watch this month.

The film of course follows all the beats of the story I was familiar with, though that chalkboard title sequence did indeed put me on alert for something far more weird. Once the film actually starts, though, its narrative is actually fairly straightforward, with a few key differences that may in fact be more true to the source material for all I know. The primary one of those is that when Belle returns to her village, she does so for something like a week before the climactic return to the beast's castle. I believe there might have been some teleporting involved as well, though as I saw this nearly two weeks ago and did not make notes at the time, some of the details are a bit fuzzy.

Speaking of fuzzy, I really liked Cocteau's design for the beast. He's quite cat-like and hairy. I think maybe for an older film, I expected him to be clearly studly with a few tufts of hair thrown around to make him seem a bit superficially grotesque. But no, this is clearly an "other," and it's easy to see why Belle would fear him. Curiously, this Belle (Josette Day) does not seem to fear him to the same extent as the others I've seen, and also comes around on him more quickly, without many of the montages of increasing affection the other incarnations rely on. I guess I found that a bit strange, especially since the film does have a lot of slow and plodding parts, which means they had the time for it. But it shouldn't surprise me that Cocteau chose to spend his energies elsewhere than giving us a conventional narrative thrust.

Specifically, he's interested in the beast's magical mansion. There are of course no clocks or candelabras that come to life and speak in French accents. To have even attempted something like that would have been silly. But that doesn't mean Cocteau doesn't have other ways of depicting a mansion that "comes to life." When Belle walks down a hall lit by candles, the candles are held aloft from the walls by human arms. See below:

The mansion is also adorned with faces in the ornamentation at various junctures, like there might be on a door knocker or other internal accoutrements. Doors open magically by unseen hands. Little design details like that appear throughout, without any apparent living souls in the mansion other than our two title characters.

It's hard for me to describe Cocteau's perspective on this story beyond his contributions to the art direction. I don't know that he necessarily cares about the larger themes of beauty being skin deep and the value of true love. And as discussed previously, he does not particularly care to tell the story by providing us the exact things we feel we need when we feel we need them. For example, I was waiting to be told that the beast has been cursed and is trying to attain his prior human form by racing the ticking clock of a flower losing its petals. That never happens, and in fact I don't think we know why he's a beast at all (though he does return to human form at the end, and he and Belle elevate into the sky -- more seamless special effects by Cocteau). Neither are the men back in Belle's village who are trying to save her as sinister as, say, Gaston, though it's ultimately clear why the beast is a preferable match.

In the end though I did get caught up in this movie's spell, and liked it quite a bit. I felt like I had been in the presence of someone with a unique perspective, and enjoyed a bit of an eccentric take on a story that's already been told to me a number of times in its more straightforward form. It's also interesting to me that this was one of the first, if not the first, feature length versions of this story audiences got -- most of the previous ones I've looked up on IMDB seem to be shorts. Maybe that explains a bit more the ways Cocteau stuck to the existing story, as you need to have a definitive version out there in order to feel free to wildly diverge from it.

2. Orpheus (1950)

My second Cocteau film was also his second film in a very distended trilogy, which certainly wasn't envisioned as such when he began it. Ordinarily this would not be an ideal place to start with three films on the same theme. But in talking with a friend, I was convinced that as long as I did not start with the third film -- The Testament of Orpheus (1960), which I also had from the library -- then the second was a reasonable place to start. After all, the first was 20 years earlier than that, and a silent film, giving it quite a sense of being disconnected from these other two, which are only separated by ten years. The Blood of a Poet from 1930 is considered the first in the so-called Orphic Trilogy.

I was less familiar with the story of Orpheus than the story of Beauty and the Beast, though I've seen Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus and of course know the broad strokes of the myth. This film put me in mind of Luis Bunuel at the very start with its sense of absurdist social commentary. Set in modern-day Paris, it begins with a riot at a place called the Poets Club, and someone deadpanning a phone call to the police as if this type of thing happens regularly. Poets being particularly unruly and violent types.

The film does not continue in quite that vein of black comedy, as it becomes more mystical and involves the travelings between the land of the living and the land of the dead, as the does the myth on which it's based. And here is where one of Cocteau's patented camera tricks comes in. When a character has died and is "revived" to serve as an operative for the spirits of the dead, he or she rises from the ground as the film is played backwards. It was shot as a person falling, but then reversed. It's not that this trick is so hard, probably, but that it comes on so quickly and seamlessly, often when there has been a long period without anything like that. It's all the more startling for its suddenness, and seamlessness.

A couple other tricks I wanted to point out. There's one bit where the characters travel through mirrors by wearing these special gloves, as mirrors are the gateway between realms. In the same shot, Orpheus himself is unable to do so, and bangs on the solid mirror -- again, seamlessly. Also liked a shot where he later dips his hand into an apparently solid mirror, and its now-watery surface receives him. Then there's the bit in the land of the dead that reminded me of the technique Spike Lee would later make a hallmark of his style, where one character is progressing forward on a platform without moving his legs, while another character pursues in the normal fashion. The two planes ultimately separate into action in the foreground and a screen in the background, though it is not at first apparent that this is what's happening. All part of creating a great mood.

I probably shouldn't dive too much into the story, as there were parts of it that escaped me, though I didn't care at all. Suffice it to say that Orpheus is a famous poet who is becoming obsessed with these cryptic messages that are coming to him through a certain station on his car radio. They are in fact being sent by the personification of his death (played by Maria Casares) and her minions. (I should say that Orpheus himself is played by Jean Marais, who plays both the beast and the Gaston character, called Avenant, in Beauty and the Beast.) Orpheus begins neglecting his pregnant wife (though she shows no signs of pregnancy), so she is killed by being hit by two men on motorcycles, who take several lives in this movie (they are the executioners, of sorts). This kicks off the story proper that we know, where Orpheus must get his wife back from the land of the dead but must pay the price of never being able to look upon her again.

Interestingly, though, the main romance of the story seems to be between Orpheus and the actual personification of his death, who falls in love with him. This must ultimately be mediated in a sort of afterlife courtroom, at which Orpheus makes his agreement to save Eurydice by not being able to look upon her. It's a bit convoluted but in the best possible sense, as in, you do not care. There's also a spirit played by Francois Perier, who is in love with Eurydice. It makes as much sense as it needs to.

And there continues to be a fair bit of black comedy sprinkled in, as in the absurdity of having to walk around their modern-day Paris home without him looking at her. The spirit who loves Eurydice, named Heurtebise, constantly intervenes to prevent an accidental look. Some of these scenes play like farce. It's a welcome mix of tones, as the land of the dead stuff is very mystical and ponderous in an existential sense. It all comes together to make a film I really dove into, and want to see again.

Okay. I've got my guy picked out for April. We'll stay French with Robert Bresson, and I will likely be watching Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette. Both are available on Kanopy, the library-affiliated streaming service to which I now magically have a free membership through the Melbourne Public Library. Join me, won't you?

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