“When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming. Only the people and places of the dream matter. I have difficulty making contact with others, as one does when half-asleep.”–Jean Cocteau
FEATURING: , María Casares, François Périer, Marie Déa, Edouard Dermithe
PLOT: Orpheus, a famed poet in post-war France, is stagnating until his life takes a sudden turn when a brawl at the Poets Café precipitates a ride with Death and her latest victim. Smitten by her mystery and charm, Orpheus becomes obsessed to the point of neglecting his wife, who is dispatched by supernatural agents. It turns out the underworld has rules, though, and complications force Orpheus, Death, and the innocent people in their orbit to redress their unauthorized actions.
- The film is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1926 play of the same title.
- Orpheus is the middle film of Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy”, preceded by The Blood of a Poet (1932) and followed by Testament of Orpheus (1960).
- The credits for the movie were all drawn by Jean Cocteau, who was something of an artistic jack-of-all-trades: poet, painter, filmmaker.
- Orpheus is played by Jean Marais, a matinée idol whom Cocteau launched to critical acclaim with Beauty and the Beast (1946). Marais was also Cocteau’s lover. By the time Orpheus was being filmed, Cocteau had a new lover, whom he cast as Orpheus’ professional rival, Cegeste.
- The unearthly transmissions from the Princess’ car radio were inspired by the coded BBC broadcasts Cocteau heard during World War II.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau’s bag of tricks in Orpheus is a large one, but the most memorable bit of legerdemain shows up when Orpheus is making a second trip to “the Zone,” a wind-scarred mass of ruins that makes up the Underworld. Orpheus and his guide, Heurtebise, struggle against gusts of tremendous force as they travel, only to plummet laterally upon turning the corner into the tribunal chamber.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forward in reverse; Underworld radio; mirror doorways
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cocteau’s obsession with mirrors continues unabated, and in Orpheus they explode, dissolve, and are traveled through with a magic so commonplace it borders on the mundane. The Underworld is overseen by judicial bureaucrats, time is flexible (but at a price), and for a movie about poets and poetry, it’s interesting that there are no examples at all of the latter.
Criterion Collection promotional video for Orpheus
COMMENTS: As a writer and as a director, Jean Cocteau hit the peak of his powers with Orpheus. Moving on from the fairy-tale trappings of Beauty and the Beast and far beyond the amateurism of The Blood of a Poet, Cocteau here gives the viewer a dose of what could be described as “mythological realism.” He recreates Left Bank life in this story of a French hero of letters: Orpheus (Jean Marais), who is “resting on [his] laurels and…must wake up.” What wakes him up is an encounter at the intellectual shrine, the Poets Café, where he happens across his young rival, Cegeste, before a brawl breaks out among the literati. Cegeste’s handler is known at first only as “the Princess” (María Casares), whom the café’s proprietor obliquely remarks is “…not from here, but needs to be among us”—an apt description of Death if ever there were one.
After a car ride to the beyond, Orpheus is left largely in the dark about the Princess’ true nature. She is a hyper-noir femme fatale, both enticing and, necessarily, deadly. Half convinced he is in a dream, Orpheus passes out in front of a traversable mirror before he wakes up on the outskirts of Somewhere, eventually finding Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer). Orpheus is compelled by his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), as well as a police chief and Aglaonice (a radical feminist and self-appointed guardian of Orpheus’ wife) to explain his whereabouts. Luck shifts for the couple, and soon Heurtebise becomes as smitten with Eurydice as Death is with Orpheus. Death plots an unauthorized “accident” for the wife, and what follows involves gloves, mystical gateways, and an Underworld tribunal.
Cocteau restrains the fantastical extravagance found in his previous movies. The supernatural flourishes in Orpheus act more as tools for the story rather than vice versa. Take Cocteau’s mirror effects, for example. When traveling through to the Underworld (or, as it is called in the movie, “the Zone”), Cocteau makes use of mirror-image film sets. Seeming as if it were a mirror reflection, Orpheus’ bedroom is actually doubled, in reverse, on the other side of a partition. As Orpheus walks toward the camera, having donned the rubber gloves Death left, the hands of someone else appear in front of the lens. This holdover from Beauty and the Beast—wherein the Beast’s magical glove allowed Belle to travel to her father—muffles the tactility of our world, allowing the wearer to break the boundaries of time and space. In the case of Orpheus, Death inadvertently brings about her undoing by carelessly leaving them behind.
On the Earthly plane, Orpheus faces no end of trouble, either, primarily with rival poets, who simultaneously dismiss him for and are jealous of his success. At the film’s start, he is already a figure of the establishment, and as such is an unwelcome visitor at the Poets Café. Also vexing our hero is an ill-defined clutch of women known as the “Bacchantes” or “the League of Women.” Though their presence makes sense in the context of this being a mythological interpretation (Orpheus’ downfall in the Greek story is at the hands of female Bacchanalians), they fit awkwardly within the film. Competing poets, snooping investigators, Death: these are all adversaries that can be understood. However, it seems Orpheus’ only crime against this League of Women was “stealing” one of them—Eurydice—and being unapologetic about it. Their reaction is on the dangerous side of petty, and in conjunction with some revenge-hungry hipsters, things build to a drum-thumping climax for the beleaguered Orpheus.
Orpheus does not wear its weirdness on its sleeve; nor, even, anywhere obvious on the surface (except, maybe, its gloves). Considering the elements—a poet-turned-painter-turned-director helming the project with a production flexibility that can be only dreamed of—it’s impressive that Orpheus was made with such professionalism. Ultimately, we don’t find ourselves asking why all this strangeness happens, we just go along with Cocteau’s vision of myth and the mundane. Of course Death’s agents prowl on motorbikes, travel through mirrors, and transmit radio messages to us. Naturally a man, given the option of saving the love of his life or her opposite, would want both. The world is full of the fickle, the tragic, and the serendipitous; Death, as we learn in Orpheus, is bound by far stricter rules. No doubt, in the Zone, the cumulative good fortune that allowed Cocteau to make this movie would never have been permitted to fall into place.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A masterpiece of magical filmmaking… as inventive and enigmatic as a dream.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker
“…[a] crisscross of phantoms and images, which clearly defy interpretation along any logical line… the style of Cocteau, while valid, perhaps, does not embrace sufficient intellectual comprehension to justify so much film…”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Its tight cross-lacing of paranoid dreaming and poetic realism grips like a bondage corset. When Alain Resnais in Japan couldn’t get the crew of Hiroshima, Mon Amour to understand, he’d refer to Orphée, whose weird myth fascinated them all.”–Raymond Durgnat, Time Out London
IMDB LINK: Orpheus (1950)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Orpheus (1950) – The Criterion Collection – The trailer, a “3 reasons” video, excerpts from Cocteau’s writing, and more at the Criterion site
Orpheus: Through a Glass, Amorously – Mark Polizzoti’s essay for the Criterion Collection edition
Orpheus Movie Review & Film Summary (1949) – Roger Ebert’s essay on Orpheus for his “Great Movies” series
Why this Orpheus will always live on – Film critic Philip French’s reflections on the personal significance of Orpheus to him
AURIC: Orphee / Ruy Blas / Thomas I’imposteur – The liner notes from a Naxos release of the Orpheus score reveal much not only about the music, but also about Cocteau’s artistic method and his collaboration with longtime composer Georges Auric
DVD INFO: If a Blu-Ray release is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. This credo has served Criterion since well before they even toyed with the compact, high-res technology of the modern disc. Their release of Orpheus (buy) is not only beautiful to behold and a delight to hear, it is also crammed to the gills with pertinent extras. Sporting no fewer than four documentary supplements (including a clever one directed by , of Delicatessen/City of Lost Children fame), Criterion’s edition provides a comprehensive background to both the film and its director. Thrown into the mix is a commentary from a French-film scholar, slides of movie stills and production photos, and a neat little bit of “raw newsreel footage” of the ruins used in the film. Topping off this rich offering is a 27-page booklet with some illuminating essays. In brief, Criterion’s edition of Orpheus is a must-have for any fan of French Surrealism. Or, frankly, simply a must-have.
Orpheus is also available on DVD (buy) with the same features.