The narratively-straightforward centerpiece of the Orphic Trilogy. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it’s full of visual effects, mostly with easily identifiable techniques – reversing the film, tilting the camera, a mirror, rear projection – but so handsomely shot and elegantly presented as to seem fantastically unique. I don’t quite understand the point of the Orpheus myth, why his wife is taken away as if she’s a toy, but Cocteau redeems it with his “it was all a dream” ending, the couple back together (and expecting a child) while their now-forgotten underworld lovers are punished for meddling.

Jean Marais (Cocteau’s ex-boyfriend, returning from Beauty and the Beast) is the title poet, nationally famous, but hated by the locals. I suppose they consider him a sellout. Cocteau makes these kids out as an unthinking mob always looking for the next new thing – a response to his own audiences after he’d become famous himself? He’s married to the beautiful Eurydice (Marie Déa of Les Visiteurs du soir), but mostly ignores her, concentrating on his work. Meanwhile, the kids are swooning over young poet Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe, Cocteau’s current boyfriend, also lead in Les Enfants Terribles).

Orpheus and his death:

But Death comes for Cegeste – Death in the form of Princess Maria Casares (Children of Paradise), who runs him over in the middle of a crowd, then takes him away along with Orpheus. Since the townspeople have never seen her, her car or the two motorcyclists that accompany her, but they see Orpheus’s conspiratorial-seeming involvement, they come after him with weapons towards the end. But first, either the Princess or her buddy Heurtebise (Francois Perier of Stavisky and Gervaise) kills Eurydice out of jealousy, H. leads O. on a tour of the underworld, and the agents of Death fall in love with the poet and his wife, and vice versa. Cegeste, meanwhile, is happily writing messages for broadcast on Death’s private radio network, and back in the real world, Orpheus sits in Heurtebise’s Rolls all day, listening and transcribing the poetry from the airwaves – which only gets him in further trouble with the mob when they realize he’s ripping off the unpublished work of their missing hero.

Cegeste gets carried away:

Quoth IMDB: “Orphee’s obsession with deciphering hidden messages contained in random radio noise is a direct nod to the coded messages that the BBC concealed in their wartime transmissions for the French Resistance.”

And quoth Cocteau, “I have always liked the no man’s land of twilight where mysteries thrive. I have thought, too, that cinematography is superbly adapted to it, provided it takes the least possible advantage of what people call the supernatural. The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic. Radios in cars, coded messages, shortwave signals and power cuts are all familiar to everybody and allow me to keep my feet on the ground.”

My favorite stills from this movie have been on my PC screen saver for years, so I tried to get some different ones. This is from a great subjective shot which seems simple until you realize those can’t be Marais’s hands, nor his reflection:

Cocteau again:

Among the misconceptions which have been written about Orphée, I still see Heurtebise described as an angel and the Princess as Death. In the film, there is no Death and no angel. There can be none. Heurtebise is a young Death serving in one of the numerous sub-orders of Death, and the Princess is no more Death than an air hostess is an angel.

The way the French words “my death” are pronounced in this movie, in combination with seeing those words on the subtitles, “my death”, and pondering their meaning. Does everyone have his own death? And like Cocteau is saying above, the Princess isn’t “Death” in the way he appears in The Seventh Seal. She’s an employee of a system, subject to judgement, part of a bureaucracy so vast that someone mentions orders bouncing from place to place, with no identifiable origin. It’s details like this which lift the movie from a well-shot retelling of an ancient myth into something original and exciting.

Orpheus glimpses his wife in the car mirror:

Films de France says:
“Fantômas (1964) is certainly a very different film to Fantômas (1913), although both were targeted at mass cinema audiences. Whereas Feuillade’s film is a chilling and atmospheric work which succeeds in conveying the menace of Fantômas, André Hunebelle’s version is little more than a conventional action comedy which is far more concerned with trivial comic stunts than characterisation. Because their approaches are so different, it is difficult, and perhaps unfair, to make comparisons between the two films.”

The French dutifully line up for the latest Fantomas movie:

I disagree, and shall proceed to make comparisons between the two films. The original was wonderful, groundbreaking, while this one is a bit of fluff that would seem demeaning to the great Jean Marais – except that I somehow had him confused with Jean Gabin. Marais… let’s see, he was in those Cocteau movies and Donkey Skin, and before this he made The Iron Mask, Captain Blood and The Hunchback of Paris, so on second thought, this seems right up his alley. Marais plays Fandor the journalist, a sidekick to chief inspector Juve in the Feuillade, but here his rival. With Fandor’s type of sensationalist journalism, Fuller would’ve made him a villain, but Hunebelle makes him our hero. I think we’re supposed to like him, but it’s hard to tell, because I think by the end we’re also supposed to like Juve, a nasty, hateful little man.

A rare smile from Juve after a prolonged earplug gag:

First half of the movie is barely a movie at all, people standing still and talking. Sometimes there’s a joke, usually one that tries too hard. Sometimes cute comic sound effects play on the soundtrack. Ineffectual Juve is Louis de Funes, supposedly a big enough star to make Marais jealous, but with my fancypants Criterion-groomed New Wave bias, I haven’t heard of his other movies. Fandor’s got a fiancee (Mylene Demongeot of Bonjour Tristesse and Tashlin’s Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell) and Fantomas, who wears a blue robot mask when he’s not being played by Marais, has a girl (Lady Beltham – remember her?) played by some magazine model. It heats up in the second half with some fun vehicle chases, almost becoming a worthwhile action-comedy were it not for the comedy. I was glad that Mylene takes an active role by the end, taking helicopters to rescue people, and that it’s always the men who are in distress.

Jean and Mylene:

Ah, so Fandor ticks off the great criminal Fantomas by faking an interview, so Fantomas kidnaps him and commits some robberies wearing a Fandor mask. He also wears a Juve mask, getting the chief in trouble with his own subordinates. The two victims grudgingly team up and fail to catch him, because there are sequels. Hunebelle made two more in the Fantomas series with the same stars, and also a few OSS 117 movies. People in the 60’s liked this sort of stuff.

Jean Marais will return… on television!