...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Orpheus deux fois

Last night, I spent most of my dreamtime getting stuck in labyrinths.  That’s probably my Unconscious working through my conscious struggle of trying to breakthroughs with my new writing project.

I’m going to honor Hypnos (and perhaps one of the Muses) by presenting these reviews of Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950) and Orfeu Negro (Marcel Camus, 1959), two takes on the story of Orpheus.

The story of Orpheus

According to the greek poets, Orpheus was the son of King Oeagrus and the muse Calliope.  Thanks to the gifts from his mother and her friend Apollo, Orpheus was the master of song.  His music could shame birdsong and cause the rivers to change course.  It was greater than any music the gods themselves could create.

Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice but on their wedding day she was bitten by a viper and died instantly.  In his grief, Orpheus travelled to the underworld in order to get her bring back from the dead.  His music gained him entrance, got him onto Charon’s boat, soothed Cerebus, and won the hearts of Hades and Persephone.  They agreed to let Eurydice return with him to the upper world, but with one condition: as she would walk behind him during the trip back to the earth, he could not, under any circumstance, turn around to see her until they were both above.  Orpheus agreed to this and began his travel back with Eurydice behind him.  At the edge of the upper world, out of anxiety and excitement, Orpheus turned around to see her.  But it was too early; she had not yet crossed out of the underworld.  She vanished, forever.

Orpheus finished his life angry with the gods, no longer worshiping any of them.  Dionysus’ followers tore his body to pieces and scattered them into the river Hebrus.  His lyre went to the heavens to sit amongst the stars.  The Muses buried his body at the base of Olympus, where the nightingales still sing over his grave.  Ultimately, his soul joined Eurydice in the underworld.

Now I’m going to take a look at two cinematic takes on this tale:

Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950)

One important element in film (and art) criticism is to ignore the author’s intent and instead focus on the individual film’s standing within the medium and its relationship to the viewer.  Unfortunately, all of the formal studies on Orphée that I’ve read focus entirely on Cocteau’s intent:  “Cocteau said ____ meant ____”.  I’m going to ignore Cocteau’s intent because his work should stand on its own.

(GREAT screenshot from sohothedog.blogspot.com)
Orphée takes place in an alternate version of post-war France.  Death falls in love with Orpheus.  Eurydice can’t get Orpheus to love her.  Death’s chauffeur falls in love with Eurydice. Orpheus is perpetually in love with Orpheus.  Death is ultimately willing to make great sacrifices in order to bring Orpheus and Eurydice together.

Let me focus on the good stuff first.

My favorite conceit (in a film of plenty conceit) is that Death, known as The Princess, falls in love with Orpheus.  María Casares (fantastic in Children of Paradise) is luminous and lovely as The Princess.  Conflicting emotions burn quietly within her until they tumble out in short bursts.  The struggle between her job and her desires really makes her the protagonist as she undergoes the deepest arc of all the characters.

The special effects surrounding Death are done all in camera and so well placed that despite of (or because of) their dated nature they work hypnotically.  Bodies are lifted up off the floor.  Walls are climbed horizontally.  People glide through watery mirrors effortlessly.  It sets up an atmosphere of dream and dread.

François Périer (great in Le Samourai) shines in his ghostlike role as Death’s chauffer, torn between being Orpheus’ confidant and Eurydice’s lover.  The leather clad motorcyclists as the harbingers of Death are a great touch; you know someone’s dying when they come racing through the scene.  I liked the quick camera-negative Nosferatu homage in the first trip to the underworld.  The mysterious radio station from nowhere, churning out poetry, works well as a metaphor for that stream of inspiration that all artists desire to capture.

So, now the rest.  Jean Marais is Orpheus in name only.  He’s really Narcissus.  The film gives very little proof -- via his words and actions -- that he’s in love with anyone but himself.  Obsessed with his poetry and his artist’s voice, he pays little attention to the women who love him.  All the mirrors, though they visually represent gateways to death, work doubly as a mode for Narcissus Orpheus to gaze at his handsomeness.

(Source: filmreference.com)
Marais was Cocteau’s longtime lover and muse (also cast in Beauty and the Beast).  I only bring this up because the emotional/sexual bias behind his casting does not affect the film positively.  Marais doesn’t act or emote other than to sneer at the people caring for him.  He verbally abuses his wife, sneers (again), sneers some more, ignores her, and is complicit in her death with little believable remorse.  Because Marais brings nothing else in his performance to clear up the character, there’s no reason for the audience to care if he winds up with Eurydice at the end. 

And that’s not a good thing…unless Cocteau’s intent was for the word of the poet to supersede all emotional attachments – but again, if Cocteau can’t communicate it in his storytelling without external explanation, it’s not successful art.

Orfeu Negro (Marcel Camus, 1959)

If Cocteau’s take on Orpheus was Theory and Brain, Camus’ interpretation is Passion and Heart.
Running away from Death, Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn, even her name is pretty!) escapes to Rio de Janeiro on the eve of Carnival.  There she meets trolley driver Orfeo (Breno Mello) who has just gotten engaged to the psychotic Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira).  They fall in love, make love, then head out to the big party.  Though he tries to protect her, Orfeo ultimately loses Eurydice to Death.  He searches the city for her soul.  Finds it, then loses it when he gazes back to look at it.  He winds up only with her dead body and a dark fate of his own.

Often this sweaty, fleshy, feverish film feels like it was just a good excuse to plop a film crew in the midst of Carnival.  There’s non-stop music, dancing, and swirling color.  And it works so well for the storytelling.  Crazed, the worlds of reality and magic crash together until you can’t tell one from the other.  You feel the South American magical realism, present in so much great literature, burst forth.

(3 screenshots, courtesy of my MacBook)
The film, so rich with Brazilian flavor, keeps the original Greek story elements intact.  Orfeo is a grand musician.  All of the animals throughout (including Cerebus, the underworld's guard dog) are inspired by his music.  His voice calls Eurydice’s soul forth from the dead.  And, in a brilliant switch, Orfeo repeatedly ascents into death.

So many great images. The hospital as the land of the dead – a body on a stretcher is wheeled into a room, where despite overhead lights, remains pitch black.  A Limbo of a bureaucratic hallway swirling with papers.  An intense Macumba ceremony, glowing with reds and oranges.  And Rio itself, playing a main character.

The biggest contrast between these two films lies in the final images.  In Orphée's last moment, we see the fates of The Princess, Orpheus, and Eurydice and, because of Orpheus’ deep narcissism, the fates feel unearned.  In Orfeu Negro, the final shot of the children playing music and dancing amongst the animals is a lovely coda to which all of the preceding story and images build.  In neither case is the message blind hope, but – like the original Greek story – our world continues after the players have met their fates.

(Lovely screenshot from thisismyrelaxedexpression.blogspot.com)