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poetry from the airwaves – which only gets him in further trouble with the mob when they realize he’s ripping off the unpublished work of their missing hero.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:
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: