Jean Cocteau | Orpheus

“Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes; look long enough in a mirror and you will see Death at work.”

Orpheus a 1950 French film directed by Jean Cocteau and starring Jean Marais. It is the central part of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, which consists of The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1950), and Testament of Orpheus (1960).

Over the course of thirty years, the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau created a singular artistic project he called the Orphic trilogy. This trilogy is marked by an Orphic pattern of a poet’s journey into an underworld to confront death. Cocteau’s invention is to have Orpheus be in love with death, for death to be an attractive and irresistible force to the poet. Simultaneously, Cocteau avails himself of the Narcissus myth, the man in love with his own reflection. Orpheus and Narcissus converge in these films as a synthesis of Cocteau’s personal obsessions, identified in his own life. Cocteau’s usage of Narcissus results in a queer aesthetic which courses through the trilogy.  Source

The plot

In Orpheus, Orphée (Jean Marais) is a celebrated poet. He witnesses a noted younger poet being killed by a couple of bikers after a brawl: this is Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) who is spirited away by the elegant Princess Death (Maria Casares) in her chauffeured car, and she insists Orphée accompany her. After an interlude in the underworld, Orphée returns but then has to make a journey back when his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa) is killed and he is allowed to revisit the netherworld to recover her – on condition, of course, that he never looks back at her – in the company of the Princess’s driver Heurtebise (François Périer). Heurtebise is in love with Eurydice, but Death herself in is love with Orphée, and the feeling is not merely reciprocated, but may be his real motive in undertaking this existentially perilous journey to defeat mortality. It is a kind of sexual conquest, but Death must make a tragic or heroic act of self-denial to protect Orphée’s immortality as a poet. Source

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.” 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.” 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. Source

a war film without war

Guided by the Princess’s chauffeur, Heurtebise, 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.Source

An inveterate popularizer, Cocteau strove to dramatize a situation that would illustrate Camus’s definition (expounded in The Myth of Sisyphus, a book the philosopher wrote during the Nazi occupation) of the Absurd: a condition arising from the confrontation between rational thought and the “unreasonable silence of the world.” But he had difficulty incorporating existentialism into his Orphic mythology. Orphée doesn’t articulate a philosophy; it’s more bricolage than synthesis, a beguiling bag of tricks. The viewer should bear in mind the Princess’s admonition of Orpheus: “You try too hard to understand and that is a mistake.”Source

Orpheus compositional methods are modernist: His poems are dictated by the radio. According to Cocteau, this element of the plot was inspired by British broadcasts to France during the war. In that sense, they might be understood as unconscious transmissions from the filmmaker’s psyche, the wartime past infiltrating the present. That Orphée is suffused with Cocteau’s anxiety over his role in the occupation and his status in the eyes of his contemporaries surely accounts for the almost compulsive brio of the filmmaking. Orpheus defines a poet as one who writes without being a writer. Orphée is a war film without war. Source


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.” 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.Source


Orpheus became famous for its use of two leather-clad motorcyclists as the errand boys of death; their costumes, especially the high boots and leather corsets, edged into fetishism, and the Princess, arrogantly asking death’s tribunal if she may smoke, is from the same image pool. Orpheus was played by the handsome Jean Marais (in real life, Cocteau’s lover). Moviegoers in 1949 could find parallels between his career and the poet he was playing; both were famous at an early age, both were associated with important work (Marais as the Beast in Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece Beauty and the Beast), and both were keenly aware of a new generation snapping at their heels. Source

Throughout his career Cocteau had repeatedly looked to the Orpheus myth for inspiration; it was his own eternal return. Orphée is so self-reflexive that it might be considered a psychodrama. Cocteau did not merely cast his former flame Marais in the title role; he heightened the tension by featuring his then-current companion, Édouard Dermit, as Orpheus’s rival, the young poet Cégeste, who, with his pompadour and turned-up collar, seems an avatar of James Dean. Source

Cocteau himself would have been called a dilettante if he had not been so accomplished at the many arts he moved between. The joke was that if he had stayed with one thing–poems, painting, films, whatever–he would have been hailed as a master, but the public distrusted his versatility. He directed his first film, Blood of a Poet, in 1930. It was produced by the Viscount de Noailles, who financed Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or in the same year; when their film was condemned by the Vatican, the viscount shelved it and timidly delayed the release of Blood of a Poet for two years. (It went on to become a famous surrealist work that played daily for 15 years in one New York theater). Cocteau claimed to think little of his first film. He didn’t direct another until Beauty and the Beast in 1946. Then there was the 1948 masterpiece The Storm Within. Source Unquestionably Cocteau’s strongest film (and arguably his most resonant work in any medium), Orphée has lost none of its capacity to enthrall the viewer with its ingenious, economical effects. Welles’s influence is everywhere apparent, and indeed, in its confidence, energy, and inventiveness, Orphée is among the greatest cinematic works made in the decade following Citizen Kane. A movie in which an enchanted mirror serves as the portal between the realms of the living and the dead, Orphée is itself an unnerving enchanted mirror, refracting historical trauma through the filmmaker’s own psyche—a portal between mundane reality and the haunted inner worlds of those who have lived through mass atrocities. Source

Orphée was released in September 1950, winning the International Critics’ Award at that year’s Venice Film Festival. The movie was received indifferently by most French critics and with genial incomprehension by most Americans. The New York Times joked that it was “more Morpheus than Orpheus.” It was, however, greatly appreciated by Jean-Luc Godard, who saw it as a proto–New Wave documentary with “Orpheus listening to Radio London, drinking a beer on the terrace of the Café de Flore, and following to the Monge Métro the love of his life.”Source


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