The second film in Jean Cocteau’s so-called Orphic Trilogy, Orphée / Orpheus (the truth is, the films in this ‘trilogy’ do not make up an actual trilogy), deals with the classic Orpheus and Eurydice myth. It is also a better film than its predecessor, Le Sang d’un poète / The Blood of a Poet, in the three-film The Criterion Collection release. Even so, it’s by no means a good film, let alone a great one.
The film’s special effects were long outdated when they were first tried in The Blood of a Poet in 1930, for silent film masters like Buster Keaton did much more convincing work in the previous decade, while by the 1949 release of Orpheus such ‘special effects’ had become a joke – among them, rubber gloves that quickly go onto Orpheus’ hands in manifest reverse photography, or Cocteau’s tired trick of having a pool of water substitute for a mirror. On top of that, Cocteau’s writing and narration of the film is downright laughable – almost an unwitting parody of the way poets act – the ‘sets’ are cheesy, while the acting is so melodramatic one would think the actors were performing in a silent film.
Iit’s that bad a film, though an improvement over the wretched The Blood of a Poet. And as a poet who’s actually written great poetry, believe me when I say skip this film, and avoid the poetasters and apologists who will proclaim its supposed ‘brilliance’ or its relevance to the creative impulse. Orpheus has none, unless one wants to believe that all great artists merely pose and do nothing at all in their supposed art form.
In the original Greek myth Orpheus was a poet whose wife Eurydice died and was taken to the underworld. Orpheus went to rescue her, to lead her back to the land of the living. He could do so only if he dared not turn to look at her while they journeyed back to life. He impulsively turned around and lost her forever. Before Launcelot and Gwynevere, Tristram and Yseault, or Romeo and Juliet, this was the quintessential Love Lost mythos.
Cocteau’s film updates the myth to modern, mid-twentieth-century Paris: Orpheus (Jean Marais) – a national hero as a poet, with an absurd pre-James Dean blond pompadour and always trailed by autograph-seeking babes – sits in a poets’ café, where envious poetasters ignore and mock him. Another poet, Jacques Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe, Cocteau’s son in real life), arrives, with a Princess (Maria Casarés) who is really Death. She looks like a futuristic dominatrix in her slinky black gown, with a wasp waist, and overdone powder job. Cégeste drinks and brawls. Police arrive, Cégeste resists arrest, and is killed by a band of motorcycles. The Princess takes Cégeste’s body away in her limousine, and commands Orpheus to follow. The limo is joined by the group of motorcyclists who killed Cégeste.
At a villa, Orpheus is confused. She commands the dead Cégeste to rise and they walk through a mirror. Orpheus tries to follow, but remains in the real world. He falls asleep in front of the mirror, and wakes up on a sand dune. A chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), of the Princess takes him home. Eurydice (Marie Déa) has heard of the accident, and worries. She is pregnant. Heurtebise is a wraith who committed suicide over lost love.
Orpheus obsesses over his visit to the Underworld. Eurydice is run over by another of the Princess’ motorcyclists. We now find out, that in a few days, it seems, Heurtebise has fallen in love with Eurydice, and the Princess in love with Orpheus – as she stares at him over several nights as he sleeps. He is so obsessed with Death that he ignores Heurtebise’s warnings. The Princess and Cégeste take Eurydice to the Underworld, through a mirror.
Heurtebise tells the stolid Orpheus that Eurydice is dead, and the Princess is Death. The two go through the mirror to retrieve Eurydice. Bad special effects and a process screen are used so Heurtebise does not move as he seemingly stays in front of Orpheus. Then, after Orpheus asks him how he does that, we get a shot of the two on a sound stage walking together, thus negating Heurtebise’s attempt to evade the question because he’s now walking normally. The Princess and Heurtebise appear before a tribunal, accused of the crimes of love.
Thus, Orpheus wins Eurydice back but he cannot look at her. It takes three quarters of the 95 minute film just to get to where the myth really starts. With Heurtebise’s help, Orpheus succeeds in getting Eurydice back to life, but loses her when he sees her in the limo’s rearview mirror. She vanishes.
Meanwhile, for reasons unexplained, angry young poets attack Orpheus’ home and kill him. They want vengeance for the disappearance of Cégeste, and somehow blame Orpheus, even though it was clearly the hit and run motorcyclists of the Princess. Orpheus returns to the Underworld, where he is reunited with Death, whom he inexplicably earlier swore love to before getting his wife back.
That takes place after Orpheus and Heurtebise float sideways along a wall, in a retread of the special effects first tried in The Blood of a Poet. Orpheus is reunited with Death, who inexplicably, after spending the whole film plotting to win him, releases him to go back to Eurydice. She, in an old movie standby, turns back time by rewinding the film to when Eurydice was still alive, before Orpheus first entered the mirror. What was the whole point of her obsessions then, since we have no clear motive for her sudden amelioration – unless cringe alert ‘love made her do it!’ Thus, she and Heurtebise are arrested, and condemned to the underworld, where they existed in the first place! The dim Cégeste stands alone.
This is a bad film in all respects. There isn’t a single positive thing to say about it. Poseurs and dilettantes may love this, but there isn’t an ounce of true filmic ‘poetry’ in the whole exercise, unlike in Fellini or Bergman. Yes, love may conquer all, and in this case Death, but need it do so in such a dull, trite, and melodramatic manner? Yes, there’s the old Poetry and Death cliché, but that’s what it is – and this film pathetically celebrates it instead of undermining it. It is neither low art nor high art, but faux art. Had Orpheus had a dram of real humor it may have been a brilliant parody. In fact, it reminded me the most, in terms of effects and style, of the Laurel and Hardy operetta film Babes in Toyland.
The disk does not come with any any meaty extras, and is subtitled in English. The film quality is passable; it is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but Criterion has done better in the past. There is a bombastic pseudo-essay by Cocteau which is just an ego riff, and one can only imagine old Willy Shakespeare tskingthat the fraud ‘doth protesteth too much.’ Orpheus was scored by Georges Auric, and his music is neither notable nor memorable, albeit forgettable enough to not grate on the senses one-tenth as much as the dialogue or ‘special effects.’ (Some inexplicable jazz numbers, however, seem wholly out of place.) The camera work by Nicholas Hayer, likewise, is forgettable, and so are the sets. The whole thing reeks of a small budget where its participants said, ‘What the hell? Let’s see if our self-consciousness and pretentiousness can distract enough viewers so they don’t realize they’re bored.’
Jean Cocteau was a bad poet, a poseur of the worst sort. This is the second bad film of his I’ve seen – I’ve seen only two so far. He mines every cliché on poetry and art imaginable, besides tossing off such execrable lines as, ‘You’ll live to regret those words,’ ‘You burn like ice,’ ‘A poet is a writer who writes but isn’t a writer,’ and ‘Who can say what’s poetry or not?’ as if they were profound. Again, with just a little humor Orpheus might have been a great parody, but the only funny moment comes after the judges have sent Orpheus, Eurydice, and Heurtebise back to life, and Death says ‘If this were our former world, I’d say, ‘Let’s have a drink.’ That line is so ridiculous, inappropriate, and meant to be so ‘deep’ that it’s absolutely hysterical – in a Plan 9 from Outer Space sort of way. (That is where some comic success could have been mined, but the actors are always serious and melodramatic, rather than playing it as a spoof. The rest of the non-Underworld characters, however, seem like somnambulists.)
There’s no mystery in the fact that the Underworld is a stand-in for the unconscious, which is how Death communicates to the interested Orpheus most effectively, while the part about not looking at Eurydice represents the desire for artists to always forge ahead. But, so what? In Orpheus, nothing of any depth is done with those concepts.
Is there anything that Cocteau innovates in Orpheus? Does he even try to entertain? No, because the film is so self-indulgent and has such a precious sheen of artifice that one feels Cocteau is simply masturbating onscreen. Orpheus is sort of a look at what someone like Carl Theodor Dreyer might have done had he been less religiously oriented, and more centered on the clichés of art. In short, the worst of both worlds, to beg a cliché. Oh, how Cocteauvian of me!
© Dan Schneider
Orphée / Orpheus (1950). Director: Jean Cocteau. Screenplay: Jean Cocteau. Cast: Jean Marais, Maria Casarés, Marie Déa.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.