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FILM : ‘Eternal Return’ Is Back Again

<i> Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Ancient myths, legends and even fairy tales were touchstones of inspiration for Jean Cocteau, a filmmaker who strived to make his movies as close to animated poetry as possible.

Many of his better-known and most evocative works actually retold these archetype-rich stories, placing them in a more contemporary setting intent on drawing parallels between the past and present, the conscious and subconscious. “Beauty and the Beast” (“La Belle et la Bete,” 1946) “Orpheus” (“Orphee,” 1950) and “The Testament of Orpheus” (“Le Testament D’Orphee,” 1960) are all based on familiar tales.

So is “The Eternal Return” (“L’Eternel Retour”), which screens at the Severin Wunderman Museum in Irvine on Sunday as part of an ongoing Cocteau series. The 1943 film recasts the tale of Tristan and Isolde in typically romanticized, lyrical ways.

While it can’t be called one of Cocteau’s finest works--in this case, his trademark symbolic flourishes and narrative devices border on the precious and indulgent--it is intriguing as a signature piece of his library. As with most of his films, it’s best to remember his own declaration of being an artist first and an “amateur” director second; his films are fiercely, brilliantly subjective, demanding the same open-ended appreciation that any personal art requires.

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Cocteau is only credited with the screenplay for “The Eternal Return”; he handed the director’s reins to Jean Delannoy, a significant French filmmaker in his own right. Movie historians are divided on Cocteau’s influence--most agree that he was the force, exerting influence throughout--but his impact is obvious.

He and Delannoy play it loose with the Tristan and Isolde story, in particular by throwing in Achille (Pierre Pieral), a glowering dwarf fixated on death and evil. He’s the one who engineers the tragic fate of Patrice (Jean Marais) and Nathalie (Madeleine Sologne), the Cocteau incarnations of Tristan and Isolde. Patrice’s uncle Marc (Jean Murat) serves as the legend’s King Mark.

The film moves toward its conflict when Patrice embarks on a noble quest, to find a wife for Marc. He discovers the beautiful Nathalie in a tavern and she agrees to the proposition. The best intentions sour once they return to Marc’s estate and learn they love each other. Disaster, and the lurking Achille, are not far off.

What: Jean Cocteau’s “The Eternal Return.”

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When: Sunday, Aug. 18, at 2 p.m.

Where: The Severin Wunderman Museum, 3 Mason, Irvine.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Alton Parkway, east to Muirlands Boulevard. Turn right and head to Mason and turn right again.

Wherewithal: $3 and $6.

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Where to Call: (714) 472-1138.


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