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Ferrua, Pietro
L’Aigle à Deux Têtes (The Two-Headed Eagle)
A film by Jean Cocteau
Article published on 31 August 2003
last modification on 26 April 2015
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Based on the homonymous play by Jean Cocteau.

France, 1947.

B&W, 35mm. Cast: Edwige Feuillère, Silvia Montfort, Jean Marais, Jean Deboucourt, Jacques Varennes, Abdallah, Gilles Quéant, Maurice Nasil, Edward Stirling.

Jean Cocteau conceived "L’Aigle à Deux Têtes" as a play,which opened successfully in Paris in 1946.

He later made a film version with the same actors. Is it a coincidence that at least five of those actors became famous and continued acting until retirement or death?

Cocteau wrote in the introduction to his play that he was attracted by the captivating life and mysterious death of Louis II of Bavaria. In reality, it seems that Cocteau was more inspired by the sad life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria and her tragic death by the hand of the Franco-Italian assassin, Luigi Lucheni.

Anarchists did not invent regicide: It was practiced long before them and well after the phase of their "propaganda by the deed." In the annals of Swiss - or, for that matter, international - anarchism, very few voices rose in favor of Lucheni’s crime. Lucheni was a forgotten and even despised figure in anarchist circles. He was often called "the stupid one" in anarchist groups, according to police records at the time of the trial. Some considered him to be the victim of the aristocrats’ opposing not empress Sissi (as she was called affectionately in Vienna) but her husband Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria ( in both the play and the film, Joseph dies 10 years before the Queen, but in real life, he survives her). In the Swiss police archives, one can find traces of correspondence between Lucheni and the Prince of Aragon, at whose command Lucheni had fought as "one of the best soldiers."

In "L’Aigle à Deux Têtes", Cocteau exploits all of these unclear and mysterious elements and builds up an interpretation that is as poetic as it is psychoanalytic. The death wish of the 30-year-old queen echoes the same feelings felt by Elisabeth of Austria later when she is mourning several members of her family (including her own son) and close friends. She is already 60, but the portrait painted by Leopold Horowitz, a few months before her death, shows a lady as beautiful as her cinematographic model. Lucheni also thinks in terms of death - that of an important head of government (he declared to the police that he wanted to kill the Prince of Orleans) as well as his own (he ends up committing suicide or being "suicided" in prison).

By killing a queen who was considered a "mad woman" if not an "anarchist empress," (Cocteau cleverly has her say, "If I were not the Queen, I would be an anarchist myself."), Lucheni behaves like a fanatic integralist that no respectable anarchist remembers with any degree of sympathy. He was then 25, as was the character in the play, but far from being as handsome and charming as Jean Marais who played him. Cocteau, however, makes him into a poet who falls in love with his intended victim - and not without having her fall passionately in love with the young revolutionist as well. The instantaneous, deep communion of those two wonderful beings, united by poetry and passion, transcends the ugliness of the crime committed by an alleged anarchist.

Pietro Ferrua

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