French filmmaker Marcel Camus was a unique visionary in world cinema. Over the course of his career, he directed around a dozen productions including the famous 1959 masterpiece Black Orpheus. On the 109th anniversary of his birth, we take a look at how the works of Camus have influenced future generations of artists and why they are still relevant.
Born in France in 1912, Camus chose art as his discipline because he wanted to make a living while working as an art teacher. The Second World War disrupted his plans, forcing him to enlist as a soldier. During this period, he ended up in a German Prisoner of War camp. It was during this dark and desolate environment that he discovered his love for the performing arts, staging productions for other prisoners and participating as actor, director and decorator.
Eventually, Camus made it back to France and contacted his uncle Roland Dorgelès who was a famous writer. Dorgelès took the initiative to introduce Camus to several renowned filmmakers, marking the start of Camus’ career in cinema. He started out by working as an assistant under prominent directors like Luis Buñuel, Jacques Becker and Alexandre Astruc among several others. Camus also wrote screenplays for films like the 1951 effort Champions Juniors before starting his journey as a filmmaker.
He made his first film at the age of 45 called Fugitive in Saigon which was based on the novel by Jean Hougron. Intended as a sign of protest against the Indochina war, it was a largely neglected project but Camus would achieve critical acclaim with his next film – the legendary Black Orpheus. A modern interpretation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the film changes the original context by conceptualising it in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during the annual carnival season.
Black Orpheus remains Marcel Camus’ magnum opus. Based on a play by Vinicius de Moraes (who disagreed with Camus’ adaptation of his work because it deviated from the source material), the film changed the landscape of cinema by including an all-black cast and combining it with the spectacular Bossa Nova soundtrack by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. It’s a visual spectacle that inspired other artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Bong Joon-ho who watched it on television.
The film ended up winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film as well as an Academy Award. It would be the biggest success in Camus’ career. American filmmaker Mario Van Peebles recalled: “My father made the first Black Power film in 1971. But more than a decade earlier, you have Black Orpheus, which showed people of colour with three-dimensional humanity. It didn’t take on race issues, and this was revolutionary.”
Adding: “In America, we were making films that were very conscious of class and race and struggle. The film ignores the whole race question. It shows people having a self-sufficient life that doesn’t depend on a white person giving them their rights. My goodness, what a wonderful piece of cinema. I first saw it as a kid and it made quite an impression – so lush and colourful and rich. It shaped my vision and still holds up.”
Camus went on to direct multiple other films like Le Chant du monde and Atlantic Wall but none of his subsequent projects could come close to the legendary status of Black Orpheus. For his final film, Camus tried to revisit Brazilian themes in Bahia which was an adaptation of Jorge Amado’s novel. However, it did not recreate Black Orpheus’ success for Camus and he ended his career while working on television series like Ce diable d’homme, an account of the life of Voltaire.
Although Black Orpheus is undoubtedly the most significant contribution that Camus made to the world of cinema, most of his works are underlined by his brand of humanism. Camus thought of the medium as a way of revealing what it meant to be a human. In an interview, he said: “For me, the cinema is not a goal; it is a way to find contact with men.”