Early on in Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus," the Princess takes the hero aside: "You try hard to understand," she scolds, "and that is a mistake."
Not a bad warning for the viewer as well--this filtering of the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice through a lens of modern art can get a little puzzling, especially if you like everything neat and well-pressed.
The 1950 movie, the centerpiece of Cocteau's Orpheus trilogy (with 1930's "The Blood of a Poet" and 1959's "The Testament of Orpheus"), is an abstraction in the poetic sense, without much commitment to a focused story line. Cocteau, a writer and painter as well as a filmmaker, saw his movies as reflections of his poetry.
"Orpheus" (screening at UC Irvine on Saturday as part of the 24 Frames per Second film series) is intriguing, even when it seems self-consciously arty. At its best, the movie has real beauty and can give you a tickle, even a jolt. Cocteau's special effects help create a dreamy fog and his use of contemporary symbols to shade the mythology is imaginative, if somewhat exasperating.
There's also a kind of Dadaist joke-making going on. Cocteau plants little curiosities throughout "Orpheus," like the Rolls-Royce that spouts verse through its radio, enthralling the hero with lyrics such as "a single glass of water lights the world" or "the bird sings with his fingers." Then there's the new poetry style championed by the Princess. Called "Nudism," it consists of books with only empty pages. Orpheus scoffs at Nudism, but he's wild about that car.
In his reworking of the myth, Cocteau presents Orpheus (Jean Marais) as a famous poet revered by most of his countrymen but despised by the young avant-garde. He's got a bad case of burnout and is bored with his wife, Eurydice (Maria Dea). Ready for adventure, he meets the enigmatic Princess (Maria Casares), a Twilight Zone dish with powers over life and death.
They fall in love, but Orpheus remains devoted to Eurydice. One afternoon she's killed by the Princess's henchmen, motorcycle goons who look like they rode out of a fascist version of "The Wild Ones." Orpheus enters the nether world (through a mirror, a recurring emblem in much of Cocteau's work, particularly film) and is told that Eurydice will be reborn, as long as he never looks at her.
It's a tough assignment, considering they live together. Eurydice hides under tables when he enters a room, and Orpheus, a cranky sort to begin with, doesn't show much patience with the arrangement. It's funny watching their exasperation, and how it disturbs Heurtebise (Francois Perier), their spiritual Man Friday, who minces about, trying to prevent the unpreventable.
Essentially, though, "Orpheus" is dramatic, as embodied by Casares as the Princess. With eyes that melt from hardened to mournful in seconds, she is off-putting and attractive at the same time. As the imperious ringmaster to all this, Dea gets most of the best lines, like when she frowns at her gang of spooks and hisses, "Everyone is in a daze. I dislike it!"
There's the taint of miscasting with Marais, one of the era's matinee idols; he's just too self-aware of his screen reputation for his own good. But Marais' offhanded, strutting way can be amusing.
What: Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus."
When: Saturday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m.
Where: UC Irvine's 178 Humanities Hall.
Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive to Bridge Road. Take Bridge into the campus.
Wherewithal: Donations accepted.
Where to Call: (714) 856-8596 or 856-0394.