Cocteau’s 1950 masterpiece Orphée interweaves poetic myth with photo-realism, historical and biographical detail with a playful invention, and early 20th-century avant-garde practice with techniques originally designed to facilitate the tropes of popular entertainment cinema. It does this so smoothly, and without apparently expending any effort on the process, that the act of watching or re-watching it is often accompanied by a sensation something akin to passing through one of the director’s own trick mercury ‘mirrors’ to enter that place that, in the film, is called the zone. This, a fanciful artistic construct of Cocteau’s poetic imagination, is a location made from, we are told, "the memories of men and the ruins of their actions": a shadowy nebulous state that is depicted evocatively by the ruins of wartime occupation whilst arguably being recreated inside the mind of every receptive viewer each time Cocteau’s alluring images pass fluidly before our eyes to mingle with the invisible detritus of our own imaginations, memories and sense of history -- sparking myriad associations and countless revelries.
Orphée is simultaneously a simple narrative story (told as such, without pretension) and a fantastical phantasmagoria with its roots planted firmly in the traditions of French fantastic cinema from Georges Méliès to Louis Feuillade. It’s one of the first thoroughly unique popular offshoots of the cinema of the surrealists that is also entirely and unmistakably its authors own autobiographical invention. Borne on the wellsprings of Cocteau’s multidisciplinary approach to artistic endeavour, it represents a development of themes already addressed by the artist/novelist/playwright/director’s 1932 surrealist short film The Blood of the Poet (Le sang d'un poète) combined with a story reworked from his 1926 stage play based on the myth of Orpheus. It is cast with friends, lovers (and ex-lovers) and Left Bank cultural luminaries from the contemporary avant-garde art scene of the day. Although it met with bafflement at the time, the film’s subsequent influence on the cinema of the fantastic is incalculable: from Jacques Rivette to David Lynch, anyone who has ever tried at some point to similarly blur the line between forms of experimental art and popular cinema has ended up taking at least something from the toolbox assembled by Jean Cocteau in his realisation of Orphée for the screen.
Cocteau’s authorial identity is indelibly stamped all over Orphée from its opening seconds: the film’s title cards are written in Cocteau’s flamboyantly illegible hand and decorated with distinctive, spidery pen-&-ink line-sketches; his voice narration begins proceedings with the poetic equivalent of a creator’s ‘once-upon-a-time’ prologue – in which Cocteau relates the classical Greek myth of Orpheus, the lyre-playing bard of Thrace, who, as Cocteau tells it, descends into the underworld in order to save his dead wife Eurydice, but is able to bring her back to the world of the living only on the condition that he never again look upon her face. When he breaks this rule, Eurydice disappears forever and Orpheus is torn apart by the Bacchantes. Cocteau ends this narration by refusing to specify the period in which the tale is meant to be taking place since legends are intrinsically timeless. The irony of this statement, of course, is that the scenes that follow seem designed to identify for us a very specific contemporary setting: we are thrust into the bustling immediacy of post-war Paris, as it was in the late 1940s, with the camera of Nicolas Hayer highlighting with almost neo-realist precision the drab scruffiness of the undeveloped working-class district chosen to stand in here as an alternate version of the Left Bank terrace cafes frequented by the existentialist countercultural types of the period.
Inside the Café des Poètes we find the legendary Orphée has been transformed from a mythical singer, who can charm with the melodies of his beautiful lyre-playing all who hear them, into a handsome bequiffed rock star poet who, as the film starts, has enjoyed many years of popularity and become in the process something of a national treasure who can expect to be mobbed by excited crowds of teenage girls on street corners every time he ventures outside. The brash young up-and-coming artists and poets who frequent this smoky bohemian gathering place, and whom the poet-hero Orpheus tends to look upon with some disdain, have little time for those who, like himself, are considered merely establishment figures whose time has been and gone. Instead, they idolise a young eighteen-year-old upstart called Cégeste who has a rich foreign patron, referred to mysteriously as The Princess, to oversee the publication of his work.
This set-up, established by the opening scenes inside the poets’ café, proffers a much-exaggerated version of Cocteau’s own relationship with his artistic contemporaries, but it is one that many viewers at the time might nevertheless have recognised in outline. He was never quite as unwelcome among the denizens of the Left Bank as his alter ego is portrayed to be in the film, but certainly the Catholic nature of Cocteau’s protean output across the arts had always stood he and his work apart from most of the movements and schools of artistic practice that came to prominence at various times during the course of his life. And, despite the fact that he was reviled for his homosexuality by authoritarian right-wingers and radical movements (such as the Surrealists) alike, there were still questions about the true extent of his associations with leading Nazi figures during the Vichy period that led some to look upon him with a degree of suspicion and scepticism during the post-war years of investigations by the épuration légale: the post-war ‘purification’ committees convened for the judgement of those whom it was felt had prospered under the Occupation -- although Cocteau himself was cleared of any such suggestion of collaboration.
The choice of casting can only emphasise these autobiographically relevant leanings suggested in the material: Orpheus himself is played by Cocteau’s ex-lover and muse Jean Marais, who appeared in everything Cocteau ever wrote or directed for the screen, starting with Jean Delannoy’s adaptation of Love Eternal in 1943. He shot to stardom in Cocteau’s ravishing La Belle et la Bête in 1946 and continued to star in films well into the 1990s, appearing in over one-hundred overall before his death in 1998. Meanwhile, Orpheus’s artistic rival, the young poet Cégeste, is played in the film by an artist who was also Cocteau’s current lover at that time, Édouard Dermit – a situation seemingly deliberately calculated to reflect the rivalry meant to be playing out between Orpheus and Cégeste on the screen, although by all accounts there was no awkwardness in real life between the two during the making of the film. The lead actor’s distinctive matinee idol looks do lend some symbolic weight, though, to the conceit on which the movie largely depends, which is that when the powers referred to in the ancient Greek myth -- to charm and hypnotise with musical prowess -- get translated into a modern idiom, Orpheus must become a figure who is every inch a film star of Marais’s stature. The actor combines the physical attributes of a Hollywood idol with the gesticulating, overly theatrical airs of a prima donna artist, representing an idealised, mythologised version of Cocteau himself while becoming, in the dreamlike fairy tale narrative of the film, an avatar for all the traumas and insecurities that can plague the artist in general as he/she seeks immortality in an artistic sense through the pursuit of their craft.
With the contemporary milieu of Paris as it was in the post-war years of the 1940s providing the film’s mercurial real-world backdrop, Marais’s heightened declamatory performance style signals his character’s separation from the fashionable ‘earthiness’ of the beat poet and artist rivals who we see surrounding Orpheus at the cafe, no longer impressed by the fame his elevated position in establishment society brings him. No wonder he is seduced by the strange, strategically-dressed nocturnal ruins and derelict landscapes of memory and imagination, entered and interpreted with artful trick photographic devices and backscreen projection, he encounters after following the Princess and her entourage beyond the mirror. For this is a cinematic rendering of the underworld from which all artistic endeavour supposedly originates and, in the film, is glimpsed fleetingly through radio messages relayed through the Princess’s Rolls-Royce in the style familiar from Britain’s wartime London broadcasts to the French Resistance, and which are being specifically created here to be heard and obsessed over by Orpheus.
Interlinked with the heightened representation of the intergenerational particularities of Cocteau’s own rocky reputation within contemporary art circles, there are a related wariness and a suspicion of the role played by femininity and maternity in general -- which is viewed in the film as, at best, an annoying distraction for the sensitive creative artist. Needless to say, this is a horribly outmoded and male-centric metaphor used to stand for the temperament of the artistic character and its processes; it is true that Orpheus’s mirror image of his artistic self -- his Princess of ‘death’ -- also takes on a female form, but hers is an ultra-glamorous, sexually poeticised view of femininity. Poised and aloof yet casually commandeering, and with clear S&M undertones conveyed in both her manner and mode of dress thanks to the striking range of gowns designed by Marcel Escoffier, she is played, with alluring severity, by Spanish-French actress María Casares -- a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who became a doyen of the French stage and had at one time been the lover of the philosopher and novelist Albert Camus. Her role was originally intended for Marlene Dietrich, although in hindsight that casting might probably have been a bit too ‘on the nose’. With her movie star poise and sophisticated aristocratic elegance which, when juxtaposed with her entourage of leathered-up motorcyclist henchmen, provides the film with its most powerful female-centred afterimage, Casares’s Princess offers up a commentary on Hollywood glamour and its fetishisation of femininity into an unobtainable ‘other’that is prone to taking on the femme fatale domination role. But of course, it also recognises and rather revels in the seductiveness of that image at the same time.
Yet, in order for Orpheus to achieve his immortality as a poet, even this all-powerful agent of another realm -- after her attempts to manipulate him with the help of her affable chauffeur Heurtebise (François Périer) and the (now dead) poet Cégeste have produced such devastating results -- must eventually prostrate herself before the higher (male-dominated) tribunals of the underworld, becoming a self-sacrificial martyr to Orpheus’s cause so that time can be reversed and his personal mistakes undone. In this scenario -- as in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s recent, heavily Orphée-influenced Twin Peaks: The Return, in which Laura Palmer’s death was seemingly revoked -- Eurydice’s death never happens at all, allowing for a pat Hollywood conclusion satirising the notion of the domestic reunion in a manner that seems to anticipate the ironic intent behind many of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas.
Meanwhile, Orpheus’s condescending attitude towards Eurydice throughout most of the rest of the film belies her role as a muse in the Greek myth from which this contemporary version (played by Marie Déa) takes her name. Orpheus comes back from his transformative experience in the zone between life and death utterly consumed by the pursuit of his poetic muse and obsessed with the Princess (who is, remember, his own death – so his obsession is really an obsession with himself). Throughout this section, he is portrayed as aggressively indifferent to the interest or concerns of his partner, yet his callousness is often used to bring light comedy and farce to the film, even when Eurydice is dying from complications to a pregnancy Orpheus has been far too wrapped up in himself to even acknowledge. When he is granted her safe return to the world of the living, even this becomes a tiresome inconvenience for the flustered poet and is played for comedic farce. "Women love complications!" he sighs. The riotous youths who are prone to congregating at Orpheus’s front gate in protest at his supposed plagiarisation of the work of the disappeared poet Cégeste are led by a rabble-rousing League of Women founder called Aglaonice (played by la Muse de l'existentialisme herself Juliette Gréco, a chanteuse known to many of the writers and artists working in the real Saint-Germain-des-Prés at the time). The name Aglaonice is that of a female astronomer from Greek myth who is also associated with sorcery for her power to supposedly make the moon disappear by predicting eclipses. Here she becomes the leader of Orpheus’s enemies because of her almost Sapphic powers of influence over Eurydice and the callow but violent opposition groups that have started to congregate around Cégeste’s café contemporaries.
But, despite the air of paranoid misogyny that hangs around the form that Cocteau’s mythic modern-day fairy tale takes on, its inherent playfulness and reluctance to take itself too seriously saves it from looking like a completely intolerable relic of the past because of its treatment of its female characters. With his entertaining performance, Marais highlights the vanity, stubbornness and the intractable nature of Orpheus’s self-obsession, and we do feel our sympathy extending outwards to Eurydice and even, in the end, The Princess, for having to put up with him. The film’s success lies in Cocteau’s alchemical ability to convert his alluring mixture of the uncanny and the magical created through in-camera effects, into effective visual metaphors that re-contextualise ideas that have their origination at the very beginnings of western traditions of storytelling. The film probably has more of an appeal today than it did at the time of its release, especially now it has been released from the prison of contemporary (ir)relevance that so often cripples art made for eternity.
This newly restored 2K BFI Blu-ray release presents perhaps the crispest, best-looking transfer of the film yet produced for the home market and comes with a treasure trove of interesting extra features headed up by another outing for Roland-François Lack’s commentary, which was originally recorded for the BFI DVD release many moons ago. A biographical and artistic overview of Cocteau’s career is provided in a 35-minute interview with Pierre Bergé and Dominque Marny, former and current presidents of the Jean Cocteau Committee. The actor and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Mocky reminisces with the film historian Eric Le Roy about working on Orphée, and how the experience has influenced his subsequent career, in a 16-minute piece. In Jean Cocteau and his Tricks – a 14-minute featurette – assistant director Claude Pinoteau discusses the trick photography and effects Cocteau used during the course of the film.
The above features all appeared on the original 2008 DVD release, but also shot especially for this upgrade, there is a 15-minute spot with director John Maybury called The Queer Family Tree, where he talks about the film’s influence on his own films and on gay cinema in general. Finally, Cocteau’s 1952 16mm short film (38 minutes) La villa Santo Sospir -- ostensibly made in order to show off the frescos he created for his friend and patron Francine Weisweiller’s idyllic retreat on the French coast (and which was later used as a location in the 1960 film The Testament of Orpheus) -- is also presented and ends up serving as another showcase for the artist's love of trick photography.
Trailers and stills galleries and an illustrated booklet of thoughtful, wide-ranging essays by Ginette Vincendeau, Deborah Allison and William Fowler cement the deal. The booklet also includes Francis Koval’s 1950 interview with Cocteau for Sight and Sound and a contemporary review by Gaven Lambert, also from S&S. Finally, the artist and filmmaker Sarah Wood offers her reflections on the La villa Santo Sospir short as a final accompaniment to this beautiful rendering of a French classic.