The incomparable Maria Casarés (above), contrary to general knowledge, was "discovered" for the movies by the great Marcel Carné who cast her as Natalie in 1944's masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis. Even in this debut Casarés manages to withstand the sheer cyclonic force of leading lady Arlette, playing Garance, a part in which the latter lady not only chews up the scenery but several of the other not inconsiderable players.
Casarés second movie in 1945 was for Bresson, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne also his second movie, just after war had ended. Bresson seems to have loosely adapted Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses, as much as he did the titular Denis Diderot novel for the triangular psychodrama of guilt and malevolence with the least hint of redemption.
Many have remarked upon Bresson's subsequent abandonment of professional actors with his next picture, Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, from 1950 which had an unknown Claude Laydu in the lead. But the whole of Les Dames is cast with professionals, including Paul Bernard as Jean and Elina Labourdette as the girl who's being corrupted by her pimp mother. The film is even more astonishing and outrageous in conceits on the screen than it seems on paper.
It also seems to me Les Dames is entirely successful within its own intentions and form as a fully professionally cast movie, produced by Raoul Ploquin to reach a subtler, more "poetic" atmosphere and psychology than might first appear. There are two elements for this, apart from Bresson's own direction: one is Cocteau's anti-realistic, fluid soliloquy-like dialogue, and the other is the sheer self-consuming pianissimo ferocity of Casarés incredible performance.
TFI France have released a recent 4K restoration of the title in their "Héritage" Blu-ray series. This unfortunately means Francophone friendly. No other subtitles apart from French HOH which leaves us waiting for some worthy Anglophone label to port the movie. I hope it's sooner rather than later. The movie needs rescuing from a languishing reputation and weak older DVD sources that are less than brilliant.
Also released recently, with English subs from the BFI is another new 4K restoration, here of Cocteau's 1950 Orphée (above). The previous Blu-ray released by Criterion from a superlative 2K from ten or so years ago is so good It initially seems churlish to have gone out and done it again. But the new work, from scanning in the higher rez 4K to superior detailed grading, deeper black levels and a flawless lossless audio to showcase Auric's fabulous score delivers an incomparable experience of the movie. BFI's extras also command attention including a 51 minute study, "Les Rêves de Cocteau en numerique" and a commentary track from Christopher Frayling.
Cocteau's fortunes have waxed and waned in the public view since he died. But for such an original, trailblazing multi-media artist his movies, as director, writer and as amanuensis (Melville's superb Les Enfants Terribles) have never been matched by any other "dabbling" filmmaker. It seems more than absurd now to write Cocteau off as did so many contemporaries, including his fellow 20th century famous homosexualist, André Gide.
But how many people still read Gide, even radicalized gay youth, as they once did. Both men interestingly enough managed in their day to transcend the pre-80s French distaste for "les pédés" through sheer cultural estimation. They were otherwise entirely antipathetic to each other in art and life.
Cocteau is the artist still for every new viewer who watches him for the first time, L’Étonneur; the astonishing creator of myth, spectacle and mystery buried in the everyday. The astonishing thing about his adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is not only the multiple deaths theory to denote the gestation of poetry, but the way in which Cocteau anchors the setting in the embrace of a contemporary bourgeois marriage. The addition of other quasi mythic characters - Cégeste, Aglaonice, and the sad, handsome Heurtebise, played by a deliriously beautiful François Perier (below) , is answered in setting by the involvement of contemporary popular culture myth makers like Juliette Greco, Roger Blin and Edouard Dermithe. And Maria Casarés. Casarés is not merely Orpheus' death, says Cocteau, she's one of Death's many emissaries.
She also becomes with this masterpiece an axiom of cinema. The new BFI disc is completely essential.