“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 Continue reading 231. ORPHEUS (1950)