In Greek mythology, Orpheus is a talented musician who travels to the underworld to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice. Upon entering the realm of the undead, the mournful music that Orpheus sings and plucks from his lyre convinces Pluto, the God of the underworld, to allow him to return to earth with Eurydice on the condition that he does not turn back until he has left the underworld. Failing to keep this promise, Orpheus turns to glance at Eurydice and loses her forever. The centrepiece of a trilogy that begins with Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930) and concludes with Le Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960), Jean Cocteau’s 1950 imagining of the tragedy reframes Orpheus as the title character, Orphée (Jean Marais) – a famous poet who is both loved and reviled by the Parisian avant-garde in equal measure. Like Orpheus, he will lose his Eurydice (Maria Déa) in death to a shadowy otherworld that is not ruled by Gods but governed by an emotionless tribunal, inhabited by an enigmatic woman known as the Princess (María Casares), who is also a manifestation of death.

Noting in the opening voiceover that “It is the privilege of legends to be timeless,” Cocteau’s transportation of the myth to post-war France is inflected with contemporary issues of the period, as well as Cocteau’s own preoccupations. While Pauline Kael describes Orpheus as inducting a “new mythology” derived from the “emblems and images of the then recent Nazi period,” the film also takes on far more personal resonances with Orphée an obvious echo of Cocteau himself.1 Not content to work within one medium, Cocteau’s prolific output spanned not only cinema but also novels, poetry, plays, essays and the visual arts, with the character Orphée a distillation of his occasionally tormented creative genius. Creating what René Gilson describes as “a film portrait, a film of memories […] and true autobiography,” Orphée’s search for truth and poetic epiphany in the face of public adulation and derision was mirrored in Cocteau’s own life and artistic pursuits.2

Cocteau’s Orphic autobiography does not situate the viewer in the realm of the everyday, but in an oneiric space where the quotidian is interwoven with magic. Film critic Mark Kermode evocatively suggests that the opening credits, which are hand-drawn by Cocteau, invite the viewer “into a dreamy world wherein reality and mythology are intertwined.”3 However, the film does not merely play with the boundaries of reality and myth, but creates slippages between truth and fantasy, and dreaming and wakefulness, as well as life and death. Utilising one of Cocteau’s preferred visual devices of the mirror, the reflective surface provides the border through which the characters traverse the film’s two worlds. In his meditation on the film, Cocteau also illuminates the more insidious symbolism of the mirror: “we watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death.”4 As a poet who both contemplates and is seduced by Death, Orphée’s gaze in the mirror foregrounds the tension between death and immortality that underpins the film’s action.

Guided by the Princess’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), Orphée’s pilgrimage to reclaim Eurydice takes a detour from the itinerary of the Greek myth to pass through a zone “made of memories and the ruins of human habit.” While Heurtebise appears to glide through this space, Orphée trudges in his stead as they pass the zone’s inhabitants who have yet to realise that they are dead. Filmed at an abandoned military academy that was bombed during World War II, the scene encapsulates not only the haunting remains of trauma experienced by post-war France, but also the privileged role of the poet as the only living character who is able to traverse this unknown, liminal space. When Heurtebise asks Orphée, “Is it Eurydice or Death you seek?”, Orphée’s reply that he is seeking both Eurydice and Death emphasises Cocteau’s positioning of the poet as a mediator poised between life and death who must experience “successive deaths” to reach immortality.5

In Orpheus, poetry does not simply function as a thematic concern but is employed as a structuring device for the composition of the film imagery. Arthur B. Evans credits Orpheus with reaching “those heights of technical credibility and ‘unreal reality’ that Cocteau chose to label as the Marvelous [sic], which is the first stepping-stone toward the communication of poetry.”6 By manipulating the film’s images — such as presenting the action in reverse, superimposing shots in ghostly apparition and using a vat of mercury to create the molten effect of the characters passing through the mirror — Cocteau embeds the expressive syntax of poetry in the strange and spectral rhythms of the cinematography. In so doing, the film blends the states of reality and dreaming so effectively that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the distinction between the two as the film progresses.

Indeed, for Cocteau, the link between the marvellous, poetry and dreaming finds its ultimate embodiment in the film medium. As he writes in “Poetry in Cinematography”, “A film is not the telling of a dream, but a dream in which we all participate together through a kind of hypnosis […] By dream, I mean a succession of real events that follow on from one another with the magnificent absurdity of dreams.”7 The division between reality and fantasy in Cocteau’s cinema comes second to the hypnotic flow of imagery that lends to a visual poetry. This dream logic is articulated in Orpheus when the Princess advises Orphée that “The role of the dreamer is to accept his dreams.” By extension, the film viewer is also rendered a dreamer tasked with joining Orphée on his journey, which is made immortal in celluloid.

• • •

Orphée (Orpheus, 1950 France 93 minutes)

Prod. Co: Andre Paulve Film, Films du Palais Royal Prod: André Paulvé Dir: Jean Cocteau Scr: Jean Cocteau Mus: Georges Auric Phot: Nicolas Hayer Ed: Jacqueline Sadoul Prod Des: Jean d’Eaubonne Set Dec: Albert Volper Cos. Des: Marcel Escoffier

Cast: Jean Marais, François Périer, María Casares, Marie Déa, Edouard Dermithe

Endnotes:

  1. Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1968), p. 327.
  2. René Gilson, Jean Cocteau: An Investigation into His Films and Philosophy, Ciba Vaughan, trans. (New York: Crown Publishers, 1969), p. 91.
  3. BFI, “Mark Kermode reviews Orphée (1950) | BFI Player,” YouTube, 27 September 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-jVZhQmJ_k.
  4. Jean Cocteau, The Art of Cinema, Robin Buss, trans. (London and New York: Marion Boyars, 1992), p. 158.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Arthur B. Evans, Jean Cocteau and His Films of Orphic Identity (Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1977), p. 108-109.
  7. Cocteau, op. cit., p. 40.

About The Author

Danica van de Velde is a writer based in Perth, Western Australia. Her work has most recently been published in Representing 9/11: Trauma, Ideology, and Nationalism in Literature, Film and Television (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and Home: Concepts, Constructions, Contexts (WVT, 2016).

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