Feb 5, 2015

The Eternal Return

While I would have never dreamed of such a seemingly splendid yet equally unlikely aesthetic marriage in a million years, French poet and cine-magician Jean Cocteau (La belle et la bête aka Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus aka Orphée) was actually responsible for penning and collaborating on a Vichy era Nazi themed Nietzschean reworking of Tristan und Isolde featuring Jean Marais as the ultimate screen blond beast and a swarthy evil midget as the most repugnant, if not hilarious, of untermensch villains. Indeed, the rather underrated film in question is L'éternel retour (1943) aka The Eternal Return aka Love Eternal and it is most certainly the most Cocteau-ian of the Cocteau cinematic adaptations that the poet did not actually direct himself as a work that makes Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terribles (1950) starring Hebraic hag Nicole Stéphane (real name 'Nicole de Rothschild') seem like cheap counterfeit Cocteau by comparison. Directed by Golden Age era French filmmaker Jean Delannoy (La symphonie pastorale aka Pastoral Symphony, Notre-Dame de Paris aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame)—a once well respected film director whose career began to suffer during the late-1950s because he was attacked by the then-trendy members of the young French New Wave, including Truffaut and Godard, who considered him the ultimate ‘anti-auteur’ because he did totally 'uncool' things like carry a briefcase to film sets—The Eternal Return features a classic story with an emphasis on Nordic beauty that not only features an overt Aryan propaganda angle, but also contains nostalgia for France’s Norman Viking history as personified by the platinum blonde heroine played by Madeleine Sologne who, like her tragic lover, is an “orphan of the sea” whose racially superior ancestors hail from the great white North. Condemned by the National Legion of Decency in 1948, this underrated classic masterpiece certainly has a certain pre-Christian romantic spirit about that is hinted at in its title which, as revealed at the beginning of the film, was borrowed by Cocteau from Nietzsche, who first wrote about the ancient idea of ‘eternal return’ (or ‘eternal recurrence’) in his work Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882) aka The Gay Science.  Featuring a somewhat assholish hero who gets a kick out of torturing the weak and who certainly does not subscribe to what Nietzsche described as a Christian slave-morality, an oftentimes bitchy heroine whose lifetime of misery and poverty has made her hard and frigid, and an old ugly fat scheming wench and her malevolent midget son as villains who owe their god-given visceral hatred to genetic misfortune, The Eternal Return is certainly a work that contemporary viewers will find politically incorrect yet at the same time it does not subscribe to the old school Hollywood idea of good and evil, thereupon making for a truly timeless work that transcends zeitgeist and is tune with a cyclical, as opposed to linear, view of history. Delannoy’s Cocteau adaptation is also probably the only film made before the late-1960s that I found myself laughing at loud at, as few things seems to be funnier than the pathological buffoonery of an evil young dwarf, especially of the superlatively swarthy bulging-eyed frog sort. Additionally, to me the tragedy of Cocteau’s take on Tristan und Isolde was not that the two lovers die at the end, but that the hero ultimately died for such an ungrateful and treacherous bitch of a ‘heroine’ who could have easily thwarted her and her beau's tragic fate had she not chosen wealth and luxury over the man she loved. In that sense, The Eternal Return is more relevant today than it was upon its original release over seventy years ago. 

 As stated in the introduction written by Cocteau: “The Eternal Return…This title, borrowed from Nietzsche, means here that even legends can be reborn unbeknown to their heroes. An eternal return of the very simple circumstances which comprised the most famous of all great love stories.”  Indeed, the same stupid circumstances do tend to repeat themselves, though in The Eternal Return they play out in a slightly more eccentric way.  Despite being a rich and opulent man who lives in a castle, Marc (Jean Murat) has become more or a less a slave and cuckold in his own home, which in inhabited by his deceased wife Edith’s scheming and calculating old cunt sister Gertrude Frossin (Yvonne de Bray of Cocteau's Les parents terribles (1948)) and her evil 22-year-old midget son Achilles (played by ‘Piéral’, who would later appear in Delannoy’s later Cocteau adaptation Princess of Cleves (1961)) and weak and lazy husband Amédée (Jean d'Yd of Carl. Th Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc) who, like so many mainstream American republicans, collects guns as a pathetic means to compensate for his lack of masculinity. The only person that lives in his home that Marc likes is his 24-year-old orphaned nephew Patrice (Cocteau’s lifelong muse Jean Marais), who he more or less considers a son since he has raised him ever since the boy’s parents drowned when he was very young. Indeed, as a tall, blond, handsome, athletic, and enterprising young man, Patrice is everything thing that Marc’s other nephew Achilles—an exceedingly resentful ankle-biting dwarf who is a thorn in everyone’s side, including his parents—is not. A superlatively shrewd scheming old bitch that hates the world because her sole progeny is a puny midget who will most certainly never produce an heir, Gertrude hopes to inherit Marc’s fortune, but she most get rid of Patrice first, which seems like an unlikely task considering that the wealthy widower loves his blond nephew and is not exactly too fond of his sister-in-law or her pint-sized progeny. Even though her evil dwarf son kills a dog with one of her husband’s shotguns, Gertrude has the gall to lie and claim that Patrice got his dog ‘Moulouk’ to bite her bastard boy Achilles.  Of course, as a young man who acts like a perennial toddler and oftentimes eavesdrops on people by listening to them through keyholes, Achilles is not exactly someone that Marc believes.  Hoping to help get Gertrude and her family off his uncle's back for good, Patrice offers to hunt down a hot new young wife for Marc who, although initially rejects the idea, eventually givens in.  Unfortunately for Patrice, he never considers that he might become attracted to such a young woman.

 In the hope of procuring his uncle a young beauty, Patrice sails to a nearby island with his dog Moulouk where it seems somewhat unlikely that he will be able to find any sort of delectable dame as the remote area is mostly inhabited by ignorant drunken seamen and superstitious old women that seem completely untouched by the civilizing effects of Christianity. The first place Patrice heads to upon arriving at the island is a bar where he gets in a fight with a tall drunken cretin named Morholt (Alexandre Rignault of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) aka Les yeux sans visage) after the big boorish brute grabs a stunning, if not seemingly bitchy, 22-year-old young blonde beauty named Nathalie (Madeleine Sologne in her most famous role) by her hair and attempts to force her to drink liquor off a bar table after she refuses to take a shot of cognac. While Patrice manages to defeat Morholt by breaking a bottle over his head, he suffers a horrible knife wound to the leg and is left bedridden, so Nathalie, who has fallen in love with the dashing young blond beast who came to her rescue, nurses him back to health with the help of her adoptive mother Anne (Jane Marken of Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945) aka Les enfants du paradis). An overtly frigid chick that was dealt a sorry lot in life as a Norwegian orphan who was left a bastard as a little girl after her parents drowned after their boat capsized, Nathalie soon makes Patrice realize he and she, “We’re both children of the sea” and were practically born for one another as soul-mates in the most truest sense, but the hero still absurdly asks her to marry his old fart of an uncle. Knowing that she will most likely be killed by her ‘fiancé’ Morholt if she stays on the island and realizing that she can at least be close to her beloved Patrice if she marries his uncle, Nathalie reluctantly agrees to marry Marc, not realizing how hard it will be to hide her feelings from the man she has so hopelessly fallen in love with while living in the same home with him.  While Patrice and Nathalie are unequivocal soul-mates who would most certainly sire the most immaculate of brood and memories, time and circumstance has forsaken them to a truly tragic fate that would make any sane man question the existence of god and morality.

 To everyone in the castle, especially cold cunt Gertrude, who initially enjoys seeing the two platinum blond Aryans interact with one another in such joyous fashion, it is readily apparent that that Patrice and Nathalie were born for one another and are deeply in love, yet uncle Marc has also fallen in love with the little lady and asks her to be his wife, which she naturally accepts, even though she clearly does not love the old man and wants nothing more than to be with his Adonis of a nephew instead. Indeed, only knowing poverty in her seemingly accursed existence, Nathalie cannot turn down a life of wealth and luxury in chateau. Of course, assuming they might lose their chance at receiving a hefty inheritance, Gertrude and Achilles begin plotting a way to catch Patrice and Nathalie together doing dirty deeds so that they can convince Marc to kick them both out of the castle for good. One night while Patrice and Nathalie are flirting with one another in front of a fireplace, menacing midget Achilles finds a bottle with the label ‘poison’ and secretly pours the serum in the two love bird’s alcoholic beverages, not realizing it is a love potion. Indeed, before leaving the island, Anne, who is a pagan witch of sorts who managed to heal Patrice's wounds with herbs, gave Nathalie the love potion and put a ‘poison’ label on it so that no one would touch it. If the two lovers were not in love before, which they most certainly were, before taking the potion, they are deleteriously joined at the hip with one another after taking the serum and it does not take long for Marc to catch them in bed together with the heinous help of Gertrude and Achilles. 

 Naturally, heartbroken Marc decides to banish both Patrice and Nathalie from his castle, which initially seems like a blessing in disguise as it gives the two lovers the opportunity to finally be with one another and they soon settle into a small shack where everything seems to be absolute perfection despite their poverty. Unfortunately, one day while Patrice is out working to provide nourishment for his darling, Marc shows up and takes away the heroine, who is so soulless inside that she chooses wealth over love, thus causing her to almost instantaneously develop a metaphysical affliction that no amount of comfort or luxury from her cuckolded husband can cure. Needless to say, Patrice is heartbroken when he comes back to the shack and discovers that both Nathalie and his dog Moulouk are missing, so he heads to the city where he takes a job at a mechanic shop owned by a goofy yet friendly chap named Lionel (Roland Toutain of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) aka La règle du jeu) who lives at the business with his sister who the hero is saddened to learn is also named ‘Nathalie’ (played by Junie Astor, who originally appeared in works by Renoir but later appeared in exploitation trash like José Bénazéraf’s Joë Caligula - Du suif chez les dabes (1966)) and who is a femme fatale-like brunette. Naturally, as her name hints, the brunette Nathalie becomes a sort of sorry substitute for Patrice's true love of the same name.  In terms of appearance and character, brunette Nathalie is the complete opposite of her blonde namesake, so naturally Patrice is not too happy when Lionel attempts to get the hero to marry his chain-smoking and tabloid-reading sister.  When Patrice hears bullshit rumors that blonde Nathalie is apparently happy with Marc when in reality she is so lovelorn that she falls bedridden, he reluctantly agrees to marry his pal Lionel’s sister in a desperate attempt to get over his undying love for his soul-mate. In the hope of seeing Nathalie one more time before he is married, Patrice schemes to have the wedding on the island where he first met his beloved. 

 Naturally, it does not take long for brunette Nathalie to realize that she is nothing more than a ‘rebound’ babe at best after arriving at the island and talking to Anne, who shows her a photograph of the golden-haired Nathalie. When Lionel learns of Patrice’s love for a woman other than his sister, he decides to confront the hero, who tells him everything about his heartbreak and then agrees to marry his sister so long as he accompanies him on a journey to his uncle’s castle so he can see blonde Nathalie one last time to confirm that she no longer loves him. When the two arrive at the castle, Patrice is shot by his evil midget cousin Achilles before he even has the chance to see Nathalie. Upon arriving sailing back to the island after their failed mission, it is obvious that Patrice has been fatally wounded, so the hero begs for Lionel to fetch blonde Nathalie for him before it is too late so that he can see his lover one more time before he dies. Unfortunately due to brunette Nathalie’s lies, Patrice loses the strength to survive long enough for his beloved and perishes just seconds before she gets there. When blonde Nathalie sees Patrice’s still warm corpse upon finally arriving at the island, she is so heartbroken that she also dies after shedding a tear and collapses next to his corpse. As Marc says to Lionel upon seeing Patrice and Nathalie’s corpse lying next to another, “No one can reach them now.”  Indeed, although dead, Patrice and Nathalie are reunited with one another for eternity and their corpses are symbolically laid next to one another in an empty room in Marc's castle.

 In terms of its attributes as a Vichy era National Socialist propaganda flick, The Eternal Return is far too quirky, cynical, and just plain French to appeal to staunch Hitlerites, though it has Aryan mystical elements that would certainly appeal to fans of Alfred Rosenberg's classic tome The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930) aka Der Mythus des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, especially in regard to its völkisch allusions to an ancient godly blond race from the north (notably, during one scene, Aryaness Nathalie remarks regarding Patrice, “His face isn’t from these parts,” as if she instinctively knows that he is part of the same godly race). It should be noted that Cocteau’s biographer James S. Williams described him as “naturally Right-leaning” and his friend, Nazi sculptor Arno Breker, convinced him that Uncle Adolf was a good guy and a serious patron of the arts. Notably, in the German documentary Zeit der Götter (1992) aka Age of the Gods directed by Lutz Dammbeck, it is revealed that Cocteau speculated that Hitler was a homo who saw Breker as a sort of sod son. In the same doc, it is revealed that Cocteau’s man-muse Jean Marais was certainly no Nazi sympathizer as demonstrated by the fact he was arrested for beating up a pro-Nazi journalist during the occupation and if it were not for Breker using his influence over Hitler, the actor may have met a terrible fate. Physically speaking, Marais was as Aryan-looking as Frenchmen come, but as a queer and the father of a half-caste Arab, he was certainly no real-life Tristan.  Incidentally, The Eternal Return director Jean Delannoy would later direct a controversial gay-themed work entitled Les amitiés particulières (1964) aka This Special Friendship, which was based on a novel by queer French novelist and diplomat Roger Peyrefitte who belonged to a homoerotic neo-Männerbünde group called the ‘Alexander Order’ that was co-founded by Cocteau's Nazi sculptor friend Arno Breker and who supported longtime National Front leader and founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

 As a tragic romance where jealous scheming family members commit shameless and treacherous acts to destroy the two soul-mate lovers and where the discernibly frigid heroine is so dead inside that she ultimately chooses comfort and wealth over the truest of love and sexual compatibility, The Eternal Return is a work that I can strangely relate to, which certainly is not true in regard to most romance flicks. Indeed, I must admit that I consider the film to be superior to Beauty and the Beast (1946) aka La Belle et la Bête even though the latter work was actually directed by Cocteau and features far superior special effects. Interestingly, The Eternal Return director Delannoy would later collaborate with Cocteau, as well as Marias and the midget Piéral, on Princess of Cleves (1961) aka La princesse de Clèves—a kaleidoscopic reworking of the anonymously published 1678 historical novel of the same name by Madame de La Fayette—but the film was not as well received as their earlier collaboration because the director’s reputation had already been largely ruined by members of the French New Wave and thus the work was considered far too old fashioned and wrongly assumed to be a moronic swashbuckling flick (which star Marais was famous for at the time). While I have yet to see Princess of Cleves, I do not have to think twice to say that I found The Eternal Return to be superior to any of the romance flicks directed by the likes of Godard or Truffaut and I say that as a longtime fan of former’s Contempt (1963) aka Le mépris and the latter's Jules and Jim (1962).  Indeed, as its Nietzschean title reveals, there is something timeless about the tragic romance contained within the darkly beauteous Cocteau-Delannoy flick and were it not for the film’s Vichy associations, it would probably be regarded as one of the greatest works of its kind. 

-Ty E

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