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MYTHIC PROPORTIONS

Jean Cocteau, Orphée (Orpheus), 1950, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes. Heurtebise (François Périer) and Orpheus (Jean Marais).

GIVEN THE HELLENISTIC BOMBAST of fascist kitsch—ersatz Parthenons and nude Übermenschen; Giorgio de Chirico’s Gladiators at Rest, 1928–29; Leni Riefenstahl’s partly staged documentary Olympia (1938), Julius Evola’s political manifesto Pagan Imperialism (1928)—it’s no wonder that modernism’s own flirtation with classical antiquity would be regarded as suspect. Mussolini had barely marched on Rome when, in 1926, Jean Cocteau hailed this classicizing tendency as “le rappel à l’ordre” (the call to order); a quarter of a century later, he produced the movement’s belated epitome with his 1950 masterpiece, Orphée.

With the divinely inspired Orpheus incarnated by Cocteau’s hunky former lover the film star Jean Marais, ancient Greece was reborn in midcentury Paris. Of course, some believed that movies were already inherently pagan—see Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (1965) or the writings

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