Orphée (1950)

Jean Marais is in love with Death in Cocteau’s poetic Orphée

Director:  Jean Cocteau

Cast: Jean Marais (Orphée), François Périer (Heurtebise), María Casares (The Princess), Marie Déa (Eurydice), Henri Crémieux (L’éditeur), Juliette Gréco (Aglaonice), Roger Blin (The Poet), Édouard Dermit (Cégeste), René Worms (Judge)

Cocteau is perhaps the only major poet who became a filmmaker. His films introduced, naturally, a poetic beauty into the French New Wave – something that has led many to overlook their embracing of the techniques of modern cinema. Orphée is his most successful work, a beautiful re-imagining of the Orpheus myth, set in a smashed up post-war France, with the afterlife a bombed-out industrial wasteland. It’s a beautifully made, inventive and hugely impressive film, not without flaws, that allows you to see the potential magic and inventive sleight-of-hand in cinema. It’s a treat.

Orphée (Jean Marais, Cocteau’s real life-partner) is a poet who attracts the attention of a mysterious Princess (María Casares) during a poets’ café brawl that leaves her current protegee Cégeste (Édouard Dermit) wounded after he is hit by speeding motorcycle riders.  He helps her “transport him to the hospital” only to find that Cégeste is dead and that the Princess is some sort of manifestation of Death, transporting artists to the afterlife. The mysterious motorcycle riders are her assistants, while her driver Heurtebise (François Périer) also has some sort of role in carrying souls to the afterlife. Orphée wakes the next morning obsessed with Princess and the cryptic messages he heard on her car radio, that echo the seemingly meaningless messages of the Free France radio. His obsession distracts him from his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), but when the Princess’ assistants claim her life, Orphée with the help of Heurtebise (who has fallen in love with Eurydice) feels compelled to journey to the afterlife to rescue her.

Cocteau’s film captures the poetic beauty of a dream, many of the events happening with a strange logic in a world that feels a few degrees askew from ours. It’s a film in love with the personal interpretation of great poetry, presenting a series of events we are invited to form our own impressions of. Cocteau’s film also suggests the ever-present link between the dead and the living – the dead still yearn, in their way, for life (some wander the afterlife unaware that they are even dead) while the poet Orphée falls in love with the mystical immortality of death, the all-encompassing love-affair our soul can have with the afterlife. The Princess is herself drawn towards poets, whose grace and beauty she can help promote to their own immortality.

To present this strange and unsettling world, Cocteau uses a host of inventive cinematic tricks that constantly surprise and delight. The Princess’ helpers feel like they invented the cosplay aesthetic with their burly short-sleeve shirts, helmets, dark glasses and machine guns. The afterlife is a blasted, burnt-out factory with ruined homes and houses around it and vital meetings and trials taking apart in worn-out rooms with cracked and decaying walls. The characters move through this afterlife depending on their status – Orphée crawls through it like treacle, battling against his own brain struggling to understand where he is, while Heurtebise glides through it seemingly without moving his feet. 

The afterlife is accessed by moving through mirrors. Cocteau uses reflections intriguingly throughout the film – after all mirrors show us only a version of our world, not the real thing. Mirrors are moved through either as if they are not there, or melt into liquid that souls can pass through. Cocteau uses film in reverse to show mirrors smashing and then reforming themselves, a brilliant effect that looks disconcertingly wrong. He uses the same technique to show dead souls rising under the Princess’ influence, standing with a bizarre disjointedness (the actors were filmed falling and the film reversed). The rubber gloves that must be used to move through mirrors are also shown being put on using reverse photography – the actors were filmed taking them off and the film is reversed making the gloves seem like they fly onto the hands. It’s a simple effect but brilliantly done.

Cocteau continues this inventiveness in the afterlife. Some sets are built on an angle, meaning Orphée at one point crawls along one wall before sliding impossibly down the next wall. Back projection is brilliantly used to show Heurtebise manipulating the afterlife around him. It’s a feast of inventive and imaginative angles, ideas and concepts brilliantly shot. And mirrors are always the key, the doorway to death and a world like ours but not.

And behind that door, Cocteau presents a fascinating afterlife. Is the Princess Death? Or just one of many functionaries? Heurtebise too seems to have some sort of role as Death – and the functionaries of the afterlife operate under a series of rules that suggest they barely understand the world of the living any more. Orphée is allowed to take Eurydice home – on condition he never looks at her, a condition nearly impossible to meet in the real world, despite Heurtebise’s best efforts. Meanwhile Orphée is fixated on Death, chasing the Princess through cloisters and a marketplace in the real world, drawn towards the ghostly messages on the radio (their echoing of French Resistance messages indicating their link to a deathly past of destruction). 

The film throws in a love triangle with Death as the third wheel. Orphée is moved by the desire for the immortality death can bring, while the Princess herself perhaps causes Eurydice’s death out of envy and bends the rules anyway she can to bring herself closer to Orphée. Orphée’s quest for inspiration and immortality distract him from the everyday love of his wife – and her pregnancy. Only Heurtebise still seems to yearn for the quiet normality of everyday life.

The film’s main flaw is that it often fails to invest the relationship of Orphée and Eurydice with any real emotional depth. Part of this is the fault of Jean Marais, who delivers a performance that is aiming for brooding but instead generally comes across as sour and sulky, making him hard to warm to or invest in, while Marie Déa is given very little to do. The real interest is in the figures from the afterlife, and María Casares is superb as a cold, almost dominatrix like Death who slowly finds in herself great longing (perhaps in part for her previous life on earth). François Périer is similarly superb as Heurtebise, desperate to feel again as he did when alive.

Despite the film’s lack of real heart and warmth among (of all things!) it’s living characters, there is so much depth, inventiveness and bizarre longing in the afterlife that you can more than forget this. Cocteau’s film is a wonderful dream, an immersive, brilliantly created feast for the imagination that marries art and cinematic techniques in a way few others have managed before or since.

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