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Titus

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 28 December 2016 08:38 (A review of Titus)

William Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy gets the aggressive visualization treatment in Julie Taymor’s big screen debut. To watch Titus is to discover a film that argues that the limit does not exist for what constitutes “over the top.” This doesn’t just shake the rafters, nor does it blow the roof off of the place, because there is no foundations for the film to destroy. Titus is a film of uncompromising beauty, sensationalism, and obnoxious pretentions, and it must be applauded for having the courage to go beyond broke into something grander.

 

None of this is to say that Titus is an entirely effective or even coherent whole. It’s very much not, but there are moments of grand beauty that are equal to the moments of near camp or overly zealous symbolic heft. The opening of the film, a young boy in a picturesque 1950s home playing war with his action figures and bits of food, is a harbinger of things to come with this youth serving a multi-purpose function. This innocent is supposed to be our witness to the carnage and depravity, but this idea is half-formed and more distracting than anything. His eventual reveal as Titus’ grandson and a supporting player in the action is something of a muted response.

 

Taymor has said that this youth was symbolic, a silent, observing symbol of the younger generations and their inheritance of violence, war, and tension, but it doesn’t work. If Titus is supposed to be something of a screed on the evils and perils of these things, then it completely undermines that point with its addiction to aesthetic and synesthetic overload. Titus practically licks its lips in its various depictions of gore, and by keeping them so colorful and artfully orchestrated, the audience is left at a remove from the realities and visceral reactions of the vengeance.

 

There’s a certain reality that sinks in about Taymor’s work when you watch Titus, and it is this: for all of her strengths in creating visual splendor, she seems completely disengaged with narrative. The faults of Titus as a play carry over to Titus as a film, but a better director might have wrestled with the material in a more satisfactory manner. The play contains no hero, no moral, just a series of violent delights having violent ends. If Taymor wanted to call attention to the audience’s consumptive tendencies of violence-as-entertainment, then perhaps she should have dialed back on the series of ornate pageantry on display.

 

The rape and mutilation of Lavina (Laura Fraser) by Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a perfect example of this dichotomy. This moment should be an emotional reckoning where we as the audience feel the terror and anguish that she suffers, but we don’t here. Taymor has Fraser wear a deer’s head as a hat while Rhys and Meyers lunge and transforming into tigers and cheesy heavy-metal rock music roars in the background. This moment is all at once absolutely beautiful, completely laughable in its lack of subtlety, and maddeningly literal in its destruction of virginal innocence.

 

Where Titus and Taymor excel is in its uniformly strong acting ensemble. Naturally, a player like Anthony Hopkins is not a surprise in how well he sinks his chops into the Bard’s poetry. His lilting Welsh tones caress the words so wonderfully that he can make Titus’ eventual dissent into mania and madness something quite elegiac. But it’s the two American actors who provide the best performances. Jessica Lange gives one of her great performances that depend on her ability to stop-and-start with emotional alacrity. Lange’s Tamora, Queen of the Goths is a sleeper waiting for the perfect time to burn everything down in revenge. Even better is Harry Lennix as Aaron, one of the outsider players in a Shakespeare tragedy that is slowly revealed as a major contributor to the destruction. Aaron is something of an “angry black man” prototype, but Lennix tries to invest him with some soul and understandable fury in his machinations and nearly pulls the trick off.

 

Titus is a grand production that is worth the journey it takes you on, even if the end results is a muddied, complicated imperfect work. Taymor’s visual splendor keeps things continually interesting, even when it contradicts or turns the play’s meanings and dialog prosaic. It’s an uneven but good debut from an artist obsessed with using every multimedia tool she can get her hands on to bring her ideas to life.



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Great Performances: Oedipus Rex

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 26 December 2016 11:54 (A review of Great Performances)

A filmed performance of Julie Taymor’s variation of the Igor Stravinksy opera, Oedipus Rex originally aired as part of PBS’ Great Performances series. If you’re still with me after that introductory sentence, I suggest you seek this out for its artistic daring and soaring theatricality. Some of the things that mar Taymor’s film work soar when taken into the context of a proscenium arch and a live audience just outside the frame.

 

Of course, something as expansive and gigantic as an opera was built for Taymor’s artistic cross-pollination and cultural borrowings. A tale of ancient Greece done for a Japanese festival with a heavy dose of Noh Theater and exoskeletal puppets and sung in Latin, it sounds like a collision of someone’s artistic obsessions and it very much plays as this. I doubt you’ve ever seen a version of Oedipus Rex as deeply strange. The clockwork like infant puppet of Oedipus that opens the show is a harbinger of the hallucinatory aspects to come.

 

If there’s any knock I can give against Oedipus Rex it’s simply that the camera placement occasionally undermines the drama as it unfolds. With so much spectacle going on the detours away from the full view of the stage hamper the impact. Of course, a few of these moments actually work beautifully like a close-up of Philip Langridge that dims the lights across his face before focusing in on his eyes. Too often though, the camera zooms in on a performer’s face while the business of the dancers and moving parts of the stage are ignored. Taken as a whole, this version of Oedipus Rex is a haunting, beautiful, strange experience and well worth the journey.



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Fool

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 26 December 2016 09:30 (A review of Fool's Fire)

Produced as a part of PBS’ American Playhouse, an independent producer of high-quality television films for first-time filmmakers, Fool’s Fire is something of Julie Taymor’s entire career in microcosm. There’s an obsession with using puppetry and masks, the ostentatious imagery, the general sense of artistry that borders on the pretentious and imaginative.  There’s also that bubbling sense of aggressive adaptations, a sense that everything must be included and played for maximum effect when something smaller would clearly do.

 

Based on the Edgar Allen Poe story “Hop-Frog,” with the poems “The Bells” and “A Dream Within a Dream” thrown in for good measure, Taymor uses eccentric techniques to create a work of abstract wonder. Sometimes Fool’s Fire is filled with too much wonder, and it tiptoes into esoteric territories of beautiful images and hypnotic costuming proving too much of a muchness. There can be such a thing as overly designing a film.

 

The basic story of “Hop-Frog” is followed very closely, with relatively little added or removed, including the horrifying denouement where the hero completes his transformation from victim to avenger. The choice to leave Michael J. Anderson and Mireille Mosse uncovered by masks or elaborate makeup and the rest of the players as asymmetrical puppets forces us into identification with them and their suffering. It’s a unique and creative choice, like many of Taymor’s, and it pays off well in the end.

 

Although other choices are slightly bewildering, like having Trippetta forced to live in a birdcage or having her recite “A Dream Within a Dream.” These moments feel like unnecessary distractions or too heavy-handed in the point Taymor is trying to make about prejudice. I doubt anyone would ever accuse Taymor of being prosaic, but sometimes dialing it back just a little will do wonders for the bigger moments. Fool’s Fire is perhaps too overstuffed with incident and imagery causing a strange cancellation effect, as the smaller moments feel too slumberous and the larger ones start feeling too theatrically synthetic. There’s a lot that’s tremendously good about Fool’s Fire, but it also presents the weaknesses of Taymor’s filmmaking style. In the end, Fool’s Fire is something of its creator’s brain exploding across the celluloid, and it is magnificent and convoluted to watch.



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Winnie Mandela

Posted : 6 months, 1 week ago on 15 December 2016 03:25 (A review of Winnie Mandela)

Winnie Mandela tries to have it both ways as a conventional biopic and as a warts-and-all glimpse into a contentious figure, but it fails at being both by never digging deep into the material. It’s all handsome surfaces, Clint Eastwood style cinematography (so much blue filter), and a solid lead performance from Jennifer Hudson in service of an awkward final product. The tonal shifts are jarring, and the script is a succession of events with little that comes before or after anyone scene that figures prominently shortly thereafter.

 

Though it is a fascinating mess to watch. For a film dubbed Winnie Mandela, the first half of the film sure is devoted primarily to Nelson Mandela. It would be impossible to make a movie about either figure without the other appearing in a centralized role, but Winnie is shoved to the side for large chunks of time despite being the title character. This isn’t just a travesty for how it sidelines Jennifer Hudson’s strong performance, but it makes us focus in on Terrence Howard’s anemic one. Howard is a fine actor, but he doesn’t have the gravitas that Idris Elba and Morgan Freeman brought to the same role.

 

Even worse is how the film can’t make up its mind about what it wants to say about Winnie Mandela. Racism was an all-consuming, all-encompassing problem with Apartheid era South Africa, but Winnie Mandela gives us Elias Koteas as the face of it and makes him a poorly written grotesque caricature. Then there’s the problem with Winnie’s transition from non-violent protest to necklacing and operating a roving band of thugs, it just happens. The complexity and continued political and social relevance of the themes and lives at play here are smothered and smoothed flat to fit into neat check-boxes.

 

The one time Winnie Mandela rises to the material is the mid-section where she is placed in solitary confinement. She refuses to break down, becomes defiant, and begins singing to herself and befriending the ants in her cell in order to keep her sanity. It’s a moment where the film roars loudly when so much of it is a dry, basic history lesson completely lacking in nuance. Hudson not only proves that her Oscar winning work in Dreamgirls was no fluke in this section, but that she’s wasted potential in a few of her most recent film roles. Watch the film for her, but be prepared for a film that dresses up its leading actress and then gives her nowhere to go.



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Testament of Orpheus

Posted : 6 months, 1 week ago on 14 December 2016 04:31 (A review of Testament of Orpheus)

A culmination of sorts of an artistic life, and the most deeply personal and revealing film that Jean Cocteau ever made. Testament of Orpheus is the final film in his Orphic trilogy, only this time Cocteau is Orpheus and the underworld is his own mind as we examine both the birthplace of his creativity and his memories. It’s nearly impossible to discuss the film on its own as so much of it depends on a familiarity not only with Orpheus, but with Cocteau’s entire body of work, including the films and paintings.

 

Testament of Orpheus begins with the concluding scenes of Orpheus, where death (Maria Casares) and Heurtebise (Francois Perier) carted off while Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe) watches on helplessly. Right after this, Cocteau appears and begins speaking directly through the camera to the audience. This will be the primary mode of the film, hallucinatory images surrounded by Cocteau’s musings about his life, art, and the reflexive introspection. Some may find this self-indulgent and precocious, but I found his collage of surreal images, poetic musings, and the ethereal score by an enthralling, entertaining cinematic hodge-podge.

 

But Orpheus isn’t the lone film that Cocteau cannibalizes here. His short documentary, La Villa Santo Sospir, gets threaded back through this tone poem. Not only do we glimpse many of the paintings he displayed there, but a section of the film uses that villa as a shooting location. Once again Cocteau destroys and reassembles a flower, and the effect is not diluted here. If anything, given the context of the film, the artist-as-God symbolism of that image hits just a bit harder. Eventually the flower will become a reoccurring motif throughout the film, but that first sequence is still powerful for the pureness of Cocteau’s aesthetic it displays.

 

As a self-made elegy, Cocteau could have not conjured up a better farewell. A few years after making this Cocteau would die from a heart-attack, and he frequently wanders the frame with a placid face, one that reads as a man making peace with the life he’s about to leave. Cocteau seems possessed with death and decay, with where our legacies will leave us, and how art grants its creator immortality. That last point would seem irksome from another artist, but Cocteau blessed the world a small number of films, many of them among the greatest works of cinematic art, and the point seems valid.

 

There’s also the behind-the-scenes drama where Cocteau was desperate to make a final grand artistic statement and he had trouble finding the funds. The younger generation of film-makers that named him as an influence came to his rescue, primarily Francois Truffaut who donated money earned from The 400 Blows to this project as a thank you. Cocteau also brought along his longtime muse/lover Jean Marais for a brief cameo, close friends like Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso show up, and his current lover, Dermithe, guides him through a vast chunk of the film, working as both soothing spirit guide and the luscious personification of death.

 

Do I know exactly what all of these elusive images and epigrammatic phrases mean? No, but the film functions as a dizzying series of moving hieroglyphics that one will either groove along with or keep at an arm’s length. I found it absorbing for what it reveals about Cocteau as a human, his deep belief in these musings and the transportive power of art and ideas, his confrontations with his creators and how they rebel against their creator, and his personal style of painting and drawing.

 

If you chose to merely look at Testament on a surface level, there’s plenty of off kilter beauty to keep you engaged. But I suggest trying to dig through the rubble, as there’s plenty of meanings to be mined from this material. Cocteau clearly doesn’t want to lead you to any one solid conclusion, but present a wide platter of ideas and loaded symbolism for you to wrestle with. This last will functions as much as a mirror to Cocteau as it does for the audience. Cocteau’s particular brand of whimsy would disappear with his passing in 1963, but we’ll always have his essential films to return to.

 

I love getting lost in Cocteau’s world of make-believe, of smoke and mirrors, of grand pronouncements and sumptuous imagery. To dub Testament of Orpheus as self-indulgent would not be an incorrect assessment, but it somehow feels like it’s missing the mark. The logical progression of Cocteau’s work would lead us to the artist himself taking the center stage at some point, and there’s no more fitting a moment than his final work. It’s a surreal film, a chance for Cocteau to enthrall us once more, and a fitting tribute to a landmark career all at once. Even with all of its faults, I cannot deem Testament of Orpheus as anything less than an essential viewing experience.



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8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements

Posted : 6 months, 1 week ago on 12 December 2016 04:20 (A review of 8 X 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements)

A collaboration between Hans Richter, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Cocteau, 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements is a quirky, avant-garde glimpse of a bunch of premiere artists having a lark. Shame that they didn’t invite the audience along with them. The title reveals the structure, a chessboard is arranged 8 squares high and 8 squares long, and so the film is broken into eight vignettes of surreal nonsense.

 

With the pedigree involved 8 x 8 has a few moments of sublime incoherence, but much of it is baffling and tiresome. The most cringe-worthy segment of the film is the score which pounds throughout, frequently clownish and overly intrusive. While the film may be a series of images that vary in interest with no uniform style, this score never marries to any of the images and undermines a few of them. Case in point, a king, queen, and knight run about the woods battling each other, and a subpar Renaissance Fair song thunders in the background.

 

Despite being of only mild interest as a complete work, 8 x 8 is still worth watching only for the top-shelf names attached to it. It was intended as a fairy tale for grown-ups, made up of equal parts Lewis Carroll and Sigmund Freud (according to Richter and the opening prologue), and even when it proves impenetrable it’s still intoxicating in some strange way.



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La Villa Santo Sospir

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 11 December 2016 07:22 (A review of La villa Santo Sospir)

A 16mm documentary of sorts made by Jean Cocteau at the titular villa, a vacation spot that would eventually feature prominently in his Testament of Orpheus, that surface textures is all about his “tattooing” of the walls but actually provides a glimpse into his artistry and process. Many of Cocteau’s works contained this aura of autobiography and self-reflection on art and how it is made, but La Villa Santo Sospir is nakedly about these subjects.

 

The blurred line between artifice and reality was a popular conceptual ideal for Cocteau, and that gets the full workout here. Most notably, there is an extended sequence where Cocteau restores several destroyed flowers to their original vibrancy and beauty by running the film of their destruction backwards. The artist is breathing life into dead things, creating an experience from a mere idea, and this section is possibly the best, simplest demonstration of the wondrous and dream-like beauty of Cocteau’s film work.

 

The best reason to watch this film is to see the variety of paintings and drawings that Cocteau produced at the villa. Not only did he “tattoo” the walls with a series of images that dip into the religious and mythological, and the space between them, but we also see various canvas paintings that he produced. The myth of Orpheus was a consistent obsession, and there’s no less than five or six paintings detailing the myth here. A personal favorite is Orpheus’ head resting upon his lyre.  

 

Thirty-seven minutes is a tad self-indulgent for this material, but Cocteau keeps it mostly light and ever moving. There’s a few detours into pretentious artistic musings, but it’s hard to be mad at them. They reveal many personal eccentricities and artistic themes from one of the great creative polymaths of the 20th century. La Villa Santo Sospir is as essential a viewing experience as any of Cocteau’s other films, all the more so for how limited a number of films he directed between 1930 and 1959.



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Orpheus

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 11 December 2016 07:22 (A review of Orpheus)

“A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place.”

 

So says Jean Cocteau in a written prologue for his most direct wrestling with the Orpheus myth. Here, he makes not only edits and additions, but entirely new wrinkles and full scale revisions to the myth, these add layers of strangeness, poignancy, and the hint of autobiography. It towers over other fantasy films for the ways it grounds these elements in a solid structure. Cocteau managed to make something that was not only a personally revealing art film, but also a raucous piece of pop entertainment.

 

Orpheus reconfigures its narrative from a story about a musician seducing the gods with his art into the story of a poet chasing his inspiration in the face of popularity, a eternally petulant teenager that becomes enamored with the idea of death’s obsession with him as much as he is with his art, his image, and his dwindling inspiration. Cocteau was clearly working through, and poking fun, at some of his own failings and egocentric personality defects here. Orpheus could easily stand in for the artist, a man driven to near insanity to chase his creative expression at the clear detriment of those closest to him, with Eurydice here cast as an amalgam of every long-suffering wife of a great man.

 

This mid-point of the Orphic trilogy follows our modern-age poet (well, modern-age for 1949 France) as he meets the sleek personification of death, follows her into her realm, comes back to ours, and begins chasing rabbit holes looking for her and her strange realm once more. The bones of the Greek myth are all there, but they play now in starkly different beats and to different ends. Cocteau was quite possibly cinema’s greatest interpreter and exploiter of mythologies, using them to explore our collective psyches and as excuses for knockout visual trickery.

 

The love story between Orpheus and Eurydice is there, but it’s expanded to an continually shifting geometric pattern, something far beyond a love triangle. There’s Orpheus and death, Eurydice and Heurtebise, death’s chauffer, and the conflict between Orpheus and Cegeste, a youthful poet that is an object of jealousy for Orpheus whose premature death is the catalyst for all of these events. Orpheus descends into the abyss, returns, and spends a great deal of time trying to return. His eventual return is both for Eurydice and for death, for a chance to gain some of the divine inspiration he witnessed, and the slow dawning horror of what he has allowed to transpire.

 

But it wouldn’t be a Cocteau film without a healthy dose of visual wonderment. Cocteau keeps the reality of the corporeal realm solidly melodramatic, with any supernatural occurrences clearly called out for their aberrations in the docility of domesticity. It is when we escape into the Zone that things go completely bonkers. The Zone is filmed in the bombed out ruins of France, a smart enough visual cue, and Cocteau has made no effort to clean up any of the ruins so the interiors of the buildings are eternally dilapidating and a stench of rot and decay. In one scene, Orpheus and Heurtebise crawl along the sides of a building only for Orpheus to be whisked along the side into the oblivion that waits.

 

Unlike Beauty and the Beast, which parading a continually series of visual tricks, smokes, ornate costuming, and stealth carnality, Orpheus is obsessed with a pervading of impending tragedy. The Zone could easily be read as an existential wonderland, a place where an artist could find eternal inspiration and eternal damnation in equal doses, or as one long elaborate metaphor for Cocteau’s opium addiction, or maybe it’s just his film’s variation of the underworld. Orpheus invites any of these readings, and each of them has a valid argument depending on deep you want to excavate the material and its echoes to Cocteau’s own life.

 

This pervading sense of tragedy extends beyond Orpheus and Eurydice, who end up getting their happily ever after here, but to death and Heurtebise, who sacrifice themselves to set things right. Despite giving our two main lovers as happy ending, this doesn’t translate to the rest of Orpheus. This ends the film with something that feels closer a flustered mixture of emotions. It’s elusive and exciting precisely because it refuses to wrap things up with a proudly declarative ending, much like Beauty and the Beast’s puzzling journey to a castle in the clouds.

 

Cocteau’s personality and obsession are woven into the fabric of Orpheus and his ensembles of actors play their parts beautifully to expand upon this journey into self-destruction. Jean Marais’ Orpheus is the poet-as-rock star, the idol of a gaggle of giddy teenage girls, and a man stuck in permanent teenage emotionality. He seems capable of only one feeling at the time, and it is at its largest volume of feeling at that given time. For instance, as Eurydice dies, Orpheus is perturbed that he’s being interrupted from his important work, then he’s disgusted with what he has allowed to play out, then possessed with the idea of return to the Zone to right things. Marais’ Orpheus is how deftly played and wonderfully played as his Beast.

 

Marie Dea plays Eurydice as the exemplary supportive, long-suffering wife, as if she knows she’s always be the second choice to his art and career. She puts up with Orpheus’ mercurial moods, his descents into callous and cold behavior, and forces him to glance upon as an act of self-sacrifice and love. While Maria Casares portrays death as an ice queen slowly thawing, she is a dominating and haunting presence. Some find her performance wooden or lacking in some way, but I find her a coiled figure that wanders around the outskirts of the frame even when she is not present, always ready to descend on our characters and turn them into her playthings on a whim. She has a fun chemistry with Francois Perier as Heurtebise. She titters on the brink of appearing as fetishistic figurehead while he plays the emotionless straight man to her diva tantrums.

 

Orpheus entwines between melodramatic love and inky desiccation, between reality and a heightened fever-dream, between autobiography and classical mythology. Only an artist as expansive and poetic as Cocteau could look at the myth and see it as a defining archetype to build a career. This is equally as potent as his prior Beauty and the Beast, and no less of a great, towering achievement.  



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The Eagle with Two Heads

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 December 2016 05:25 (A review of L'Aigle à deux têtes)

After the storied highs and artistically daring work of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau’s follow-up is something of a drastic comedown and a minor work. It’s the odd man out in his small canon. There’s no flights of poetic lyricism, no smoke-and-mirrors special effects that enchant with their hands-on approach. It’s a claustrophobic and stage-bound film, and incapable of removing itself from its origins.

 

There’s a strong sense of romanticism here, like many of Cocteau’s films, in the traditional sense. Not only is it sweepingly emotional, with melodramatics that thunder from the mountaintop, but there’s a potent sense of tragedy and danger lurking around. This is romanticism in a literary sense, with the emotionally turmoil reflected in the weather, atmospheric castle, and baroque clothing that swallows up the cloistered characters.

 

Even better is how effective the two leads are in engaging in their dance with love and death. Jean Marais again does multiple parts, but this time one of them is a spectral role that is only mentioned and felt but never seen. The late king and his poetic anarchist bear a striking resemblance to each other, one of these roles is only glimpsed in paintings that lurk in the background. The king haunts everything in the castle walls, and Marais’ poet occasionally seems possessed by his spirit.

 

But The Eagle with Two Heads is a clear showcase for Edwige Feuillère as the doomed Queen. She delivers a twenty-minute monologue to a mute Marais that is just astounding for the sheer emotional control and dexterity she brings to the material. She manipulates the actions with subtle control, and navigates the elevated quality of Cocteau’s cinema with ease and comfort. There’s a scene where she’s dressed like a fairy queen come to vivid life with stars placed in her flowing hair. It’s a damn shame that Feuillère never worked with Cocteau again in another film.

 

For all of the sustained atmosphere and wonderful acting from the leads, The Eagle with Two Heads doesn’t add up to very much in the long run. The queen and the poet bicker, fall in love, and drive each other towards inevitable tragedy. This tragedy is a mythology of their own making, a meeting of the bourgeoisie and the rebel to dance with death. It’s very French, enchanting in its own way, but slightly formulaic in its court-bound intrigue. It’s a little shocking to see Cocteau go so routine with his material even if its deeper implications and meanings are baffling among all of the fluttering and loud emotional proclamations.



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Beauty and the Beast

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 December 2016 03:03 (A review of Beauty and the Beast)

If adversity and strife make for great art, then that perfectly explains why Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is one of the towering greats of cinema. As the rubble and dust settled from WWII, Cocteau created this pristine and immaculate piece of fantasy cinema to rouse the collective spirit of the country, spurred on by the encouragements of his muse and lover Jean Marais. The film stock was hard to come by, causing certain scenes to look rougher than others were while maintaining the dream-like disorientation that permeates throughout. Cloth was harder to find, and several morning the crew and cast would go to set to find the bed sheets stolen overnight. And Jean Cocteau was gravely ill midway through production, and his condition required continuous breaks to take painful injections.

 

Now watch the film again and look for where the bleeding sutures from these tears in production show. You can’t find them, but you will find a movie of uncompromising beauty, grace, imagination, and poetry. Beauty and the Beast is equally soulful and fragile, ephemeral and tactile.

 

The film opens up with Cocteau, stars Jean Marais and Josette Day writing their names on a chalkboard, announcing a certain level of self-reflection and theater at play here. Then Cocteau breaks down the fourth wall further with a written prologue by imploring the audience directly to suspend their cynicism and open their minds to a child-like sense of belief and wonder. Beauty and the Beast is perhaps the most revealing and personal of Cocteau’s handful of films.

 

Cocteau was an artistic polymath, with a dizzying number of novels, poems, plays, librettos, drawings, and paintings created by him. He is best remembered for his films and this one in particular. By tapping into the sexuality in the fairy tale, and his own queerness in a roundabout way, Cocteau created the greatest film interpretation of a fairy tale and the definitive example of a monster-in-love.

 

The frustrations of repressed love are palpable in the Beast’s earliest interactions with Beauty. He carries her across the threshold, places her in her bed, and she recoils in terror when she first sees him. Humiliated, as he often will be in these early awkward romantic encounters, he turns from her and demands that she never look him in the eyes. These failed attempts at coitus come to a head when Beauty decides to take a stroll with the Beast in the woods, and the scene of him drinking from her hands is achingly romantic and erotically charged. Name me one queer kid who won’t identify with the abject terror Beauty and the Beast demonstrates in its earlier scenes at burgeoning sexuality and its confusion (Beauty’s bed in Beast’s castle opens up its own sheets, and she flees in terror/horror before fainting).

 

Yet it wasn’t just his own queerness that Cocteau tapped into here, but the scarred psyche of all of France. Beauty’s home life, a wasting bourgeoisie with a dying patriarch and divided loyalty within its unit, can be read as writ large of France’s immediate national id in the wake of the Nazi Occupation. The happy ending of Beauty and the Beast doesn’t declare itself with a strong period, but a more wistful ellipsis. Beauty’s disappointment in the Beast’s transformation from leonine to handsome prince is unmistakable, and this ending while optimistic is not declarative or definitive in any way.

 

It taps into much of Cocteau’s work, a deep love of the artifice and aestheticism. Surface textures, ornate costuming, proudly arcane special effects, and a pervading sense of romanticism merge with the ways he contorts our expectations. We expect Beauty to be an ethereal creature, one defined by her goodness and self-sacrifice, but Josette Day plays her with subtler shadings. Day excavates a dancer’s grace in Beauty’s movements even when she performs mundane tasks, and a weakness that borders on the hermetic. She’s doomed to a life of servitude towards her vain sisters, ineffectual father, lout brother, and the aggressive romantic advances of his best friend (Jean Marais, in one of his three roles). Day’s transformation from this oppressed creature to romantic figure is startling when you think about the trajectory of the character, but she does it with tremendous ease that you never see her sweat.

 

But this is as much Jean Marais’ masterpiece as Cocteau’s, and Marais plays his triple role with grace and confidence. He’s a portrait of toxic masculine aggression as Avenant, the beautiful but morally and emotionally empty friend of her brother’s. He’s poised and regal as the handsome prince with his stiff body carriage and posh manners. Yet these two performances are mere adornments to his work as the Beast, one of cinema’s greatest and most essential performances. His Beast is eternally at war with the regal prince trapped inside and the predatory exterior. The makeup job on him is extraordinary, but it’s the way that it frames and highlights his eyes that truly makes it special. Marais’ eyes are his primary means of expression for a long time, along with his hands that frequently signal his suppressed rages or demonstrate an uncommon grace. Beauty and the Beast is made-up of several great artists bringing their highest operating levels to this project, and Marais’ gesticulations, wounded eyes, and erotic screen presence cannot be praised enough here.

 

And if Beauty and the Beast is best remembered for anything, it’s the never-ending cascade of surreal, painterly images of magical occurrences. The Blood of a Poet had a few of these, but nothing prepares for the transportive powers of Beauty and the Beast’s sequences. There’s the scene where Beauty cries diamonds, one where she emerges from a wall after putting on a magical glove, she floats above the ground in Beast’s castle, and in yet another her clothing transforms from plainclothes to an elaborate gown by entering a doorway. This is but a handful of them, and sights that are even more wondrous as the film goes on. I’m quite fond of the quick glance of spilled pearls creating an elaborate jewel in the Beast’s palm myself.

 

If only more fantasy films would borrow the lyrical, imaginative tone on display here. It never shies away from the darker elements at play in the fairy tale, and it takes great relish in examining what we desire and fear. It’s romantic, it’s mature in its emotional life, it has an indomitable ability to make the fantastical feel as real as the poverty of its earliest scenes. Fuck Disney, Beauty and the Beast is the definitive film document of a fairy tale, and as close to cinematic nirvana as we can get. 



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