Orphée [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (27th January 2019).
The Film

"Orphée" (1950)

The well known and divisive poet Orpheus (played by Jean Marais) witnesses an unfortunate event at a local cafe - the death of the 18 year old poet Jacques Cégeste (played by Edouard Dermithe), in a hit and run by speeding motorcyclists. A mysterious woman (played by María Casares) takes the young man in her Rolls Royce with driver Heurtebise (played by François Périer, with Orpheus in tow as he is a witness to the event. But they are not headed to a hospital, but instead to a large mansion at a hilltop. It is there that Orpheus sees the unimaginable - the woman magically reviving the young man, then seeing them float into a large mirror and disappearing. Suddenly the people are gone and so is the mansion. Orpheus cannot explain the bizarre events but he is determined to find the answer...

Loosely based on the Greek tale of the poet Orpheus, especially of "Orpheus and Eurydice", where his wife Eurydice dies and he journey's into the netherworld to rescue her from death's grasp, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau's adaptation "Orphée" is a modern telling of the timeless fantasy tale. From "Black Orpheus" (1959) to "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" (2012) the story has been adapted to cinema, as well as countless stage plays and other artforms over the years, but Cocteau's version has remained in the cinema consciousness for well over half a century due to its inventive visuals and the layered metaphysics. The second film in the "Orphic Trilogy" following 1930's "The Blood of a Poet" and predating 1960's "Testament of Orpheus", the middle film is a technical marvel with its ingenious use of visual effects. Like seeing a magician unveil his tricks, the film uses various in camera techniques such as matte paintings, slow motion, back screen projections, wirework, slow motion, film running in reverse, trick set constructions that seemingly defy gravity and more. The visual tricks are all seen in the scenes in the netherworld - where Orpheus travels to bargain with Death, and the otherworldly quality is one that does not seem like Hell. Instead the place is closer to what many French at the could consider Hell - the War. The area in the netherworld was shot at the Saint-Cyr military academy ruins, which was bombed during the war. The scenes of Orpheus pleading to a group of suited men was similar to a war tribunal. Cocteau was meticulous on how the scenes would be filmed in these sequences and the idea of recent trauma would translate into the fantasy film was fully intentional.

Much of Cocteau can be seen in the character of Orpheus. Cocteau was also a poet first and foremost. Orpheus' works were divisive among readers and critics, just as Cocteau's works were. Also both consciously stayed away from genres, movements, and typecasting. The casting of Marais in the role of Orpheus is also one that places Cocteau in the character. Cocteau always saw Marais as the man he dreamed of being - tall, attractive, masculine, and his casting in the title role was inevitable, considering their relationship over the years both professional and personal. Like his magnificent multiple performances in Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast", Marais' performance as the emotionally torn poet is a fascinating one. As for the other performances, María Casares as the Princess/Death gives a wonderful breath of mystery and sexy evil to the role, always dressed in black and having a dominating look. The beautiful Marie Déa as Eurydice has a very limited yet important role, though plays the polar opposite role of Casares, echoing innocence by dressing in white.

"Orphée" was shot in 1949 and released on March 1st 1950 at the Cannes Film Festival followed by a general release in France on September 29th the same year. Quite surprising that the film was not a big awards contender and largely ignored by the public in its original release. It was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the very generic category of Best Film from any Source at the BAFTAs, but won neither. The film may have been ignored for the most part leading to disappointment from Cocteau, the film has received better attention over the years and highly regarded as a classic in world cinema. It would take another decade for Cocteau to return to screens with "Testament of Orpheus", an indirect sequel and more of a personal metaphysical piece of work, ultimately becoming his last feature before his death on October 11th, 1963 at the age of 74. Is he possibly wandering the depths of the netherworld with Death somewhere watching over him?

Note this is a region B Blu-ray

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The film was restored in 2008 by the CNC French Film Archives using the original nitrate negative. A 2K digital restoration was done with the restored film materials, supervised by assistant director Claude Pinoteau. The black and white cinematography looks excellent with deep blacks, a full greyscale, and fine detail. There are certain sequences that have some issues though, with noticeable fluctuation of the greys, some minor specs and other damage, mostly in crossfades which used a second generation element in editing. The film was previously issued on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in the US in 2011.

In comparison, both releases come from the same restored source, as evidenced by the restoration credits which follow the film on both discs. The BFI notes state the restoration comes from the original negatives while the Criterion notes state the restoration comes from the 35mm internegative struck directly from the original nitrate negatives. Whichever is right, both discs use the same restoration, but there are differences in the transfers. The newer BFI release has a little more image in the frame, showing some rounded corners in certain shots and having a sharper look.

In addition to the original French language opening credits, the BFI release also features the option to see the film with the alternate English language opening credits. This is selectable from the start of the film and is available via alternate angle.

The film's runtime including the restoration credits is 95:41.

Audio

French DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0
The original French language track is presented in lossless mono. The sound has also been restored and the results are good but not exceptional. On the plus side major hisses, pops, and cracks have been basically eliminated leaving a clean track. Dialogue is always intelligible and well balanced with the effects track, but there are limitations due to the source, leaving some parts a bit on the flat side. Music has some issues with fidelity, with some distortion on high notes. In comparison to the previous BFI DVD, the track is much cleaner, as the DVD edition was riddled with hiss.

There are optional English subtitles for the main feature in a white font. They are well timed, easy to read, with no issues of spelling or grammar errors.

Extras

Audio commentary by French cinema expert Roland-François Lack
In this commentary from 2008, Lack gives a solo commentary on the film as he talks about much of the making of the film, the cast and crew, as well as other background material. He discusses the intricate credit sequence, the making of the cafe sequence, the use of visual effects, the connections between Cocteau and the character of Orpheus, and much more. There is a lot of good information but unfortunately there are quite a few moments that are just plain obvious with Lack pointing out happenings on screen, and also he seems to run out of topics to discuss after the halfway point, where dry spells become longer. This commentary was previously on the BFI DVD from 2008.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Original French language opening credits or English language credits via alternate angle
As stated above the hand crafted opening credits are available in the original French and in the alternate English, selectable from the menu and available as an alternate angle track.

"Jean Cocteau by Pierre Bergé and Dominiue Marny" 2008 interviews (35:34)
In this featurette from 2008, the former president of the Jean Cocteau committee (Bergé) and the current president (Marny) talk about Cocteau in length in separate interview sessions edited together. Talked about are Cocteau's youth, his father's suicide and the effect it had, his rise as an artist, his relationships, drug use, and much more.
in 1080i AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in French Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Memories of Filming by Jean-Pierre Mocky with Eric LeRoy" 2008 interview (15:53)
In this 2008 interview, artist Jean-Pierre Mocky talks about his connection to Cocteau. From his first encounter with him, how he was able to receive a speaking line in "Orphée", and the film's importance in French cinema.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in French Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtiles

"Jean Cocteau and His Tricks" 2008 interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau (13:32)
In this 2008 interview directed by Marc Caro, assistant director Claude Pinoteau talks about the various visual effects that were used in the film. He discusses how they were meticulously detailed in the script, using the Saint-Cry ruins location for the other world, the trust between Cocteau and his collaborator technicians, and more.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in French Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtiles

"The Queer Family Tree - Reflections on Jean Cocteau" 2018 interview with John Maybury (15:00)
In this new interview, Maybury talks about his first encounter seeing Cocteau's works in the late 1970s, how powerful the films were, and how it influenced his own works in the future.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"La villa Santo Sospir" 1952 short by Jean Cocteau (38:03)
In this documentary short, Cocteau made his first and only full color film on Kodachrome stock, giving a very unnatural and strangely faded look. Shot in 1951/1952 but remaining unreleased for nearly 25 years, Cocteau narrates the piece that discusses art and life in abstraction.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in French Dolby Digital 1.0 with optional English subtitles

Stills Gallery (48 stills)
A manual slideshow of production stills and lobby cards are presented.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

Theatrical Trailer (3:28)
The lengthy original trailer is presented in a slightly windowboxed transfer.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in French LPCM 1.0 with optional English subtitles

2018 Re-release Trailer (1:30)
An excellent reissue trailer by the BFI which has been embedded below.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in French LPCM 2.0 with burned-in English subtitles

Booklet
A 36 page booklet is included. First is the essay "Jean Cocteau's Orphée - Portrait of he Artist as Cineaste" by Ginette Vincendeau which talks about the film and its place in French cinema. Next is "Jean Cocteau and the Many Faces of Orpheus" by Deborah Allison which goes into depth about the Orphic Trilogy and other works by Cocteau. Then there is "Have You Seen Orphée Recently? The Legacy of Cocteau's Masterpiece" by William Fowler on the importance of the film. There is also a 1950 interview with Cocteau reprinted, a 1950 review of the film from Sight and Sound magazine, full credits for the film and special features, acknowledgements, and stills from the film.




As stated before, the US Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection was released eight years prior, and for the most part has a different set of extras. Both releases include "Jean Cocteau and His Tricks", "A villa Santo Sospir", and the image gallery, while the rest of the extras differ. It's hard to choose which is the better selection as both releases have excellent exclusive extras.

Overall

"Orphée" is a visual masterpiece of filmmaking and what Cocteau brought to the screen still inspires over a half century later. The BFI's Blu-ray gives the film an excellent treatment with great extras included on the disc. Very highly recommended.

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: A- Overall: A-

 


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