L'Aigle à deux têtes (1948)
A film directed by Jean Cocteau

Genre: History / Drama / Romance

Film Review

L'Aigle à deux têtes photo
The relationship between love and death lies at the heart of much of the art of the poet, writer, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau but it is central to three of the greatest films that he worked on: L'Éternel retour (1943), L'Aigle à deux têtes (1948) and Orphée (1949). The first of these is an inspired retelling of the Tristan and Isolde legend, scripted by Cocteau but directed by Jean Delannoy, another supremely talented filmmaker. The romanticist conceit of L'Éternel retour - that true love can only be fulfilled through death - is echoed in the play which Cocteau subsequently wrote and brought to the Paris stage, L'Aigle à deux têtes. Two years after the first successful Parisian staging of the play in 1946, Cocteau adapted it for the cinema, his second feature as a director after his now legendary fantasy La Belle et la bête (1946). Cocteau created his play specifically with Edwige Feuillère and Jean Marais in mind for the principal roles, so it is fitting that they should reprise their respective roles for the film.

Although L'Aigle à deux têtes exhibits some characteristic Cocteau-esque stylisation (most noticeably the almost theatrical performances) it is the most conventional of Cocteau's films and has much in common with other lavish French costume dramas of the period. The film's visual grandeur belies the difficult conditions under which it was made, at a time of excruciating austerity in France in the aftermath of WWII. Cocteau resolutely avoids the surreal embellishments that feature in most of his other films and, if anything, the film is much closer in style to that of Jean Delannoy than Cocteau. The cinematographer on this film, Christian Matras, worked on several of Delannoy's films - most notably Pontcarral, colonel d'empire (1942), Les Jeux sont faits (1947) and Les Amitiés particulières (1964) - and brings a very distinctive blend of realism and poetry to his art. Another frequent Delannoy collaborator, Georges Auric, contributes the film's lush and hauntingly lyrical score.

The original play was inspired by two historical tragedies - the mysterious death by drowning of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the assassination of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria by an Italian anarchist in 1898. Cocteau's initial idea was to bring together two characters who were themselves contradictions and to some extent mirror images of each other - the queen who had anarchist tendencies and the anarchist who considered himself a royalist. They become each other's destiny and fulfilment when fate throws them together, their conflicting ideals reconciled by a love that is symbolised by the two-headed eagle - two independent spirits married by a common purpose, which is to thwart their political opponents and stay true to their ideals.

Whilst L'Aigle à deux têtes hasn't achieved anything like the degree of celebrity of Cocteau's two other great films - La Belle et la bête (1946) and Orphée (1949) - it is nonetheless a beguiling piece of cinema, beautifully scripted, exceptionally well-acted and directed, as you would expect, with Cocteau's outstanding visual flair. Edwige Feuillère has never looked more stunningly regal in front of the camera, and her performance is a spellbinding tour de force. The perfect complement to Feuillère's indomitable queen is a superlative Jean Marais, Cocteau's favourite actor and a perfect choice for the part of the passionate anarchist Stanislas. The exquisite elegance of Cocteau's mise-en-scène and the heady lyricism of his dialogue could not be better served than by these two legends of stage and screen. L'Aigle à deux têtes is the one film into which Jean Cocteau poured his entire heart and all of his creative energies, and there is no doubt that it deserves to be considered one of his greatest artistic accomplishments.
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Film Credits

Directed by Jean Cocteau
Starring: Edwige Feuillère, Silvia Monfort, Jean Marais, Jean Debucourt, Jacques Varennes, Ahmed Abdallah, Gilles Quéant, Maurice Nasil, Edward Stirling
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