Orphée (1950)

ORPHEUS (Orphée)

(director/writer: Jean Cocteau; cinematographer: Nicolas Hayer; editor: J. Sadoul; music: Georges Auric; cast: Jean Marais (Orpheus), Maria Casares (The Princess, Death), Marie Dea (Eurydice), Francois Perier (Heurtebise), Juliette Greco (Aglaonice), Edouard Dermithe (Cégeste), Pierre Bertin (The Inspector); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: André Paulvé; Janus Films; 1950-France-in French with English subtitles)
“Comes as close as cinema can to poetry.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Another tantalizing highly personal surreal fantasy film by poet/artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau (“The Blood of a Poet”/”The Testament of Orpheus” — the other films from his Orphic trilogy), with enough meanings to keep a curious sort going for years as it plays out as an allegory for Poetry. The film won first prize at the 1950 Venice Film Festival. The black-and-white film was made without enough money to pay the actors, who instead worked gratis and got a share of the profits. This turned out to be a good deal for them, as the film was not only critically acclaimed but received a great box office.

Cocteau creates a magical set through old-fashioned camera tricks used back in the days of the silent film and not through use of the special effects available to him at the time. To bring his characters back from the dead, he runs the film in reverse and to enter the world of the dead he uses two sets with mirrors that have no glass.

It updates the Greek myth of the troubadour Orpheus, from Thrace, who must travel to Hades to bring back his deceased wife Eurydice with his artistic talent and is warned by the gods not to look back at her or else he will lose her. Our Orpheus (Jean Marais, Cocteau’s companion) is a rich and famous national poet who pleases everyone but the struggling younger Left Bank radical poets who both hate and envy him. The handsome blond poet married the bourgeois Eurydice (Marie Dea), a former waitress, and leads a dull life in a country home outside of Paris. While sitting with a casual acquaintance at a Left Bank café, a riot breaks out and an aspiring 18-year-old angry poet named Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) breaks free from the police arresting him and is run over by two motorcycle riders. The mysterious woman, who brought him there in her chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and is referred to as the Princess (Maria Casares), takes the wounded man in her car and then asks Orpheus to come along as a witness. Instead of taking the now dead vic to the hospital, they drive to the remote location of her expansive villa and she miraculously raises Cégeste from the dead and will disappear with him through a mirror into the otherworld. The chauffeur, Heurtebise (Francois Perier), drives Orpheus home the next morning after he slept in the villa all night and the poet ignores his loving wife as he becomes intrigued by messages he hears coming from the car radio that inspire him to write in the same way Cégeste’s wrote. The imperious princess represents Death and knows she can’t have the poet but is still enamored of him, while he remains faithful to his wife but is intrigued by this mysterious woman who gives him inspiration to write again and keep up with the young rebels. At one point when asked what a poet is, he states “it’s to write without being a writer.” From hereon the film generally follows the traditional way the myth goes, as the Princess will give up her immortality to help Orpheus return Eurydice from the dead after having her associates kill her, as the chauffeur though in love with the bland Eurydice will act as the poet’s faithful guide.

It has many memorable scenes, an air of magic and comes as close as cinema can to poetry, but it won’t please those who can’t take the leap into an illogical world it demands of its audience to take without questioning even if makes no sense. On the mundane level it pictures fascists as cops who work for those in power by doing their bidding (like the motorcycle aides of Death), it rails against phony artists, the nastiness of living under Occupation and the paranoia certain dreams induce. There’s a lot more in this delightful madness to get yourself involved in, as its weirdness and cryptic meanings serve it well.