Summer archival quickies : ‘HOUSE’ aka ‘HAUSU’ (1977) [6/10] … ‘ORPHEUS’ aka ‘ORPHEE’ (1950) [9/10]

Relentlessly bonkers comedy-horror – seemingly aimed at hyperactive, over-imaginative Japanese teenage girls – which takes a slim plot (hyperactive, over-imaginative Japanese teenage girls visit haunted house in the countryside, experience bizarre phenomena) as an excuse for all manner of over-egged, dayglo surrealism.
   The pace of invention flags from time to time, but for long stretches the jangling collision of tones and moods is genuinely nightmarish – and there are some moments that approach genius. These don’t come during the big elaborate set-pieces (in which director Obayashi and editor Ogawa Nobuo quickly slip into frenzied fugue-states) but appear as daft, inexplicable and fleeting grace-notes, such as a character suddenly leaping across her kitchen and disappearing into a defective refrigerator.
   A missing link between Dario Argento (whose 1975 Deep Red was perhaps a key stylistic influence) and Miike Takashi – and surely ripe for a remake from the tirelessly prolific latter, though in some ways he’s already come quite close with 2001’s The Happiness of the Katakuris. Overall, not quite as mind-bending as its cultish reputation would suggest (the zaniness becomes somewhat self-consciously wild at times) but there’s more than enough here to stimulate the most debased of palates.
A bold re-imagining of Greek myth in modern-day trappings (i.e. France shortly after World War II), Orpheus is the story of a handsome, egotistical celebrity-poet (Jean Marais as the title-character) whom pretty much everyone falls in love with – even Death, who appears on Earth in the form of a beautiful princess (Maria Casarès). Orpheus loves Death – but he also loves his newly-pregnant wife Eurydice (Maria Déa). And when Eurydice is killed, he must travel into a limbo-like Underworld in order to revive her – with the aid of Death’s assistant, Heurtebise (Francois Périer)…
   Any synopsis of Orpheus – more usually referred to by its French title Orphée – can’t help but make the film sound like an insufferable exercise in the most exquisite Gallic pretentiousness. But in Cocteau’s hands this visionary masterpiece confounds such expectations – and most others – at every turn. Crucially, this is a very quick film, one which wastes very little time on explanation, exposition or analysis – six decades on, it’s still startlingly funny when it wants/needs to be. And though it’s clearly intended to work on a very symbolic, metaphyical level, the picture is also grounded in decidedly quotidian reality – a car-radio and rear-view mirror prove crucial to the plot. Indeed, certain sequences forego their considerable tragic potential in favour of a light-hearted, almost sit-com-like tone (as when Orpheus struggles to cope with being forbidden to clap eyes on Eurydice after she’s been restored to life.)
   So much of Orpheus is so disarmingly matter-of-fact – especially Périer’s performance as the no-nonsense chauffeur/factotum Heurtebise (so much more charismatic and interesting than Marais’ scowling, solipsistic, immaculately coiffed and attired beefcake) – that the occasional, wonderfully offhand moments of magic and fancy are all the more effective. 
   David Thomson has described this film as the connection between Feuillade’s Fantomas and Godard’s Alphaville, but the tendrils and tentacles of Orpheus extend much further. It’s certainly a fine companion-piece to the near-contemporary Sunset Blvd. (1950) – Casarès’ Death and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond are similarly stately, remote figures who gradually display unexpected vulnerability – while prefiguring countless investigations of the porous frontiers between the waking and the dreaming, such as (to pick two obvious American 1980s examples at semi-random), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1988). 
   Often using the simplest of methods, Cocteau elegantly transports his audience into a half-awake, anything-goes realm where the effects of gravity and the passage of time are mutable, reversible, negotiable (as illustrated by charmingly low-key, old-school “special effects”) with often overwhelming results. The movie’s influence is almost incalculably vast – but there’s still never really been anything quite like it.
Neil Young
HOUSE : [6/10] : aka Hausu : Japan 1977 : OBAYASHI Nobuhiko : 88m approx : [16/28]
seen at The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle, 9th June 2010 (£4) DVD projection
ORPHEUS : [9/10] : aka Orphée : France 1950 : Jean COCTEAU : 95m (BBFC) : [25/28]
seen at The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle, 10th June 2010 (£4)
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Star and Shadow signage