By Moira Sullivan.
The remaining three days of the festival continued an ongoing feast of cinematic treasures. Salle Bunuel screened a double feature on May 24th to honor Jean Cocteau. Fifty years have gone by since his death in 1963 and the festival paid him tribute. Cocteau was a previous President of the Jury of Festival de Cannes.
The extensive work of this legendary filmmaker, playwright, designer, artist, and poet is extraordinary and fascinating. Cocteau was also a regular visitor to Côte d’Azur. In 1956, he decorated a chapel with frescos that can be seen today on the port in Ville franche sur Mer nearby Cannes. Cocteau’s friend Francine Weisweiller invited him and his adopted son and lover Edouard Dermithe to spend their vacations at her home in St. Jean Cap Ferrat near Villefranche. Cocteau continued to come for years and painted frescos, mosaics and tapestries in her mansion.
The first feature was a digital version of La Belle et Le Bête (1946) as part of the Cannes Classic program. The restoration work was done by SNC/Groupe M6 and La Cinémathèque française, with the support of the Franco-American cultural fund. The copy is crisp and clean, however the size of the film was smaller than expected since it is digitalized from the original 35mm print. The classic film features Jean Marais as both Avenant and Le Bête and Josette Day as Belle. Cocteau does his own credits at the beginning of the film, writing the names of different characters on a chalkboard. He also uses this chalkboard to write out the magic words “Once upon a time,” and allows his film to deliver on the enchantment imbued in this iconic opening line. The director’s classic tale about a maiden who offers her life in exchange for a rose that her father picked, and who later falls in love with a beast, continues to be as magical today as it was so many years ago.
The second feature faced the difficult task of creating a biopic about the legend Jean Cocteau. To Opium‘s credit, the filmmakers and cast tried to breathe life into a short history of the film poet: a creative assemblage of Cocteau’s life and words during his time as an opium addict. The title of the film is therefore to the point, directed by Arielle Dombasle with acting by Grégoire Colin, Samuel Mercer, Julie Depardieu, Hélène Fillières, Niels Schneider, Philippe Katrine, Marisa Berensen and Anna Sigalevitch. Opium also focuses on Cocteau’s short relationship with Raymond Radiguet (Sam Mercer), a young bon vivant with Rimbaud-like behavior: wild, playful and promiscuous. It is suggested that Cocteau became an opium addict after Radiguet’s tragic death at age 20 from eating shellfish.
In Opium, several black and white scenes try to duplicate Cocteau’s mise en scène from Blood of a Poet (1932). Cocteau’s imagery in this film featured a statue that came to life, the memorable Lee Miller who asks the poet (Enrique Rivera) to “Try, Try” to go through a mirror. Interestingly, in the hallway of doors in Blood of a Poet, one of the secrets is the eye of an Asian man, suggesting Cocteau’s usage of opium and his dangerous narcissism. Dombasle’s film gives context to this poetic inflection, showing Cocteau attempting to kick his drug habit, going into rehab and withstanding a gruesome detoxification process. Opium also makes generous use of white wire constructions as seen in early Cocteau films, which serve as foundations fitted over the human body. Most notably, Dombasle uses the white wires to cover Radiguet’s face, foreshadowing the man’s premature extinction by a shellfish.
Opium does not altogether gel and borders on the chaotic, but the project is ambitious and the ensemble committed. They must have had an exciting time making it and were present at the screening to honor the work and memory of Jean Cocteau. The French theatrical release of the film is slated for October 2013.
Moira Sullivan is an accredited journalist at Cannes, member of FIPRESCI and served on the Queer Palm Jury 2012. She has a PhD in cinema studies at Stockholm University and studied filmmaking at San Francisco State University.