Opium: Film Review

Drugs should be mandatory for this pretentious, poorly crafted Jean Cocteau homage.

Arielle Dombasle's Jean Cocteau tribute played in this year's Cannes Classics selection.

PARIS – Some movies are so bad, they’re good. Then there’s Opium, a kitschy, costumed, song-and-dance homage to the works of Jean Cocteau that’s so ludicrous and poorly made, it plays like a French episode of Drunken History -- except without the drunk part. Hatched in the mind of writer-director-actress-singer and most recently, burlesque performer Arielle Dombasle, this microbudgeted labor of love premiered in the Classic section of the last Cannes Film Festival, and should attract scattered aficionados of early 20th century art, as well as a few of its creator’s faithful fans.

The French-American Dombasle has had an impressive career, starring in films like Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach and Raoul Ruiz’s Les ames fortes, directing a handful of movies (including the rarely seen Omar Sharif thriller, Paradise Calling), singing her way to several gold records in France, and, when she was already in her 50s, leading a striptease show at Paris’ infamous Crazy Horse club. (She’s also well known as the spouse of intellectual superstar Bernard Henri-Levy, whose self-aggrandizing Libya documentary, The Oath of Tobruk, played Cannes the year before.)

But despite her multiple talents and a physique that seems to defy both time and gravity, she’s worked herself straight into a ditch with this latest project, whose meandering, marginally coherent story was inspired by the life and work of poet-artist-filmmaker Cocteau -- particularly his 1929 book of writings and drawings, Opium: The Diary of a Cure.

Cutting back and forth between Cocteau -- played by Claire Denis regular Gregoire Colin, the film’s sole redeeming asset -- whimpering at a seaside detox clinic, his hazy memories of a short but passionate fling with novelist/boy toy Raymond Radiguet (Samuel Mercer, who looks like he was cast out of an A.P.C. catalog, with just about as much range), and musical numbers with cardboard costumes inspired by Cocteau’s own artwork, the film has a free-for-all flair that could perhaps be fun if it weren’t so humorless and shoddily assembled.

One howler of a sequence has Radiguet – whose scandalous novel, The Devil in the Flesh, was adapted to the screen by Claude Autant-Lara in 1947 -- wandering onto a merry-go-round, where somebody shoves a waffle in his face, blowing powdered sugar up his nose. He then enters a dreamscape where an oracle (Dombasle) adorned in funeral garb and spiral breastplates leads a pack of children dressed in tiger costumes through a low-rent version of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast decor.

There are quite a few scenes of this caliber, many where the poet’s words are put to tune by composer Philippe Eveno, with stars Julie Depardieu, Helene Fillieres and Philippe Katerine -- wearing a tinsel bikini, a picture-frame helmet, and a cow costume, respectively -- providing solos. Other actors, including Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim, and vet Marisa Berenson have walk-on parts as members of the 1920s intelligentsia. (For those who are wondering what popular TV/radio host Ariel Wizman looks like as Dada leader Tristan Tzara, this may be the movie for you.)

With hardly a narrative to cling to, and one pretentious, crudely mounted sequence following another with no rhyme or reason, Opium is unpleasant even as a pastiche piece of artist worship, and Dombasle’s attempts to extol (and outright copy, in one bit ripped from The Blood of a Poet) some of Cocteau’s greatest creations are never less than embarrassing.

Opens: Oct. 2 (in France); also in Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)

Production: Margo Cinema

Cast: Gregoire Colin, Samuel Mercer, Helene Fillieres, Julie Depardieu

Director: Arielle Dombasle

Screenwriters: Arielle Dombasle, Patrick Mimouni, Philippe Eveno, Francois Margolin, freely inspired by the life and work of Jean Cocteau

Producer: Francois Margolin

Director of photography: Leo Hinstin

Production designer: Vincent Darre

Costume designer: Fleur Demery

Editor: Xavier Sirven

Music: Philippe Eveno

Sales: Margo Cinema

No rating, 79 minutes