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The Criterion Collection: Orpheus Blu-ray Disc Review

Orpheus (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] (1950)

ORPHEUS (1950, Blu-ray released August 30, 2011 – MSRP $39.95)

MOVIE: ★★★★★ 
VIDEO: ★★★★½ 
AUDIO: ★★★★☆ 
EXTRAS: ★★★★★ 
BLU-RAY: ★★★★½ 

Fans of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus and collectors of Criterion Collection discs no doubt already own the classic, surreal film as part of the label’s excellent Orphic Trilogy DVD set from several years back. Their new, updated Blu-ray release, however, provides more than a few reasons to upgrade, not least of which is the formidable collection of special features.

    Jean Cocteau’s update of the Orpheus myth depicts a famous poet (Jean Marais), scorned by the Left Bank youth, and his love for both his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), and a mysterious princess (Maria Casarès). Seeking inspiration, the poet follows the princess from the world of the living to the land of the dead, through Cocteau’s famous mirrored portal. Orpheus’s peerless visual poetry and dreamlike storytelling represent the legendary Cocteau at the height of his powers.

I can’t help but feel the legacy of Oprheus every time I watch it. I see so much that Jodorowsky, Coppola (in particular, in his Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and others plucked from the film that if I’m not careful, watching it can become more like playing a game of Where’s Waldo and less like enjoying great filmmaking. But Cocteau’s masterpiece of the “cinematograph”, as he prefered to call it, is easy to enjoy and fall in love with of its own accord. The dreamlike imagery, often accomplished with in-camera effects, is innovative and effective even today. Cocteau’s script, so subversive and political while adapting the well known myth, is still thrilling in its brave genre shifts – from drama to spy-thriller to horror in a handful of beats. And Orpheus himself, the striking Jean Marais, for all his weaknesses as a thespian, maintains the perfect tone of the somnambulist throughout. With gorgeous photography by Nicolas Hayer and a landmark jazz soundtrack by Georges Auric, Oprheus approaches the gates of perfection and remains a must-watch for each and every film fan to this day.

The transfer of the film on this new Blu-ray edition of Oprheus from Criterion is culled from a well-restored internegative and and is jaw-dropping. When you compare the footage of the film from the supplemental documentaries to the feature on the disc, you’ll be blown away. Those looking to compare this new edition to Criterion’s previously issued DVD from 2000 won’t be left quite as breathless but will no doubt find themselves quite pleased with the increase in detail, contrast and overall more film-like look of the transfer.

From the booklet:

    This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Spirit 2K Datacine from a 35mm fine-grain internegative struck from the original nitrate negative. The restoration of Orpheus was carried out in collaboration with the Archives français du film in Bois-d’Arcy, France, under the supervision of assistant director Claude Pinoteau. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.

The new lossless audio track is also a marked step up from the previous compressed track of the DVD. It still sounds its age and won’t impress those cinephiles who only appreciate modern multichannel audio but it’s clean and clear with enough dynamic range to reproduce the score in a very enjoyable way.

From the booklet:

    The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

All right. This is the great stuff here. The special features on this Oprheus disc make the Blu-ray a no-brainer as a first purchase or an upgrade. This thing is packed! From the brand new, brilliant-but-sleepy commentary by scholar James S. Williams to the interviews and features appropriated from the now out-of-print Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus DVDs, the sheer wealth of material presented here provides a richness of insight into Cocteau as both a man and artist that you’ll feel closer to his process and closer to the film as a result. In fact, after watching the feature-length Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown and 40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau docs, I found myself so familiar with the director that his rambling philosophizing on the nature of man, art, society, fame and the poet became somewhat tiring. It seems the Cocteau could tend to get so wrapped up his own notions that even the questions of an interviewer would go unheeded, as evidenced in the 16-minute In Search of Jazz segment.

All in all this is an unrivaled package of features related to the film and the director. My only true wish is that the film’s companion pieces in the Orphic Trilogy, Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus, had been included. I fear, however, that Criterion no longer holds the rights to them and that it might be some time before they make their way to Blu. With that in mind, this Oprheus Blu-ray is pretty perfect.

Highest possible recommendation!

Special Features:

  • New high-definition digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by French film scholar James Williams
  • Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown, a 1984 feature-length documentary
  • Video piece from 2008 featuring assistant director Claude Pinoteau on the special effects in the film
  • 40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau, an interview with the director from 1957
  • In Search of Jazz, a 1956 interview with Cocteau on the use of jazz in the film
  • La villa Santo-Sospir, a 16 mm color Cocteau film from 1951
  • Gallery of images by French film portrait photographer Roger Corbeau
  • Raw newsreel footage
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by author Mark Polizzotti, selected Cocteau writings on the film, and an essay on La villa Santo-Sospir by Williams

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