Orpheus (Orphee)

Orpheus

I’m on the trail of the unknown.

Jean Cocteau didn’t delve into the medium of cinema too often, but when he did, it was with a purpose. If nothing else, Cocteau wanted to bring a poet’s mind to the art of film, transforming it into that ethereal space that defies description that the poet calls home. Having seen what he could do with the Beauty and the Beast fable, I was interested, to say the least, in what he could do with the timeless Greek myth of Orpheus. Granted, it’s a story that, thanks to the list, I’m already pretty familiar with, thanks to 1959’s Orfeu Negro, but to see Cocteau’s take on the story was still an enchanting one.

In case you don’t know your Greek tragedies or haven’t seen Orfeu Negro, the story of Orpheus deals with the titular man as he develops a relationship with Death itself, who later claims his love Eurydice, thus forcing Orpheus to enter the Underworld in order to reclaim her soul, lest he lose her forever. There’s a little more to Cocteau’s take on the tale than that; for one, he decides to frame the story in contemporary France, updating the material to a more modern setting. The film even takes the unusual step of regaling the audience with the legend of Orpheus right off the bat, telling the whole story, and then diving into Cocteau’s modern interpretation of it, which would seem to be selling the film short right at the beginning, if it weren’t for Cocteau’s poetic and dream-like storytelling and cinematography, which was just as much a highlight here as it had been in La Belle et la Bete. Cocteau frequently uses reverse footage to add a supernatural edge to the proceedings where he needs to, and frequent evocation of the symbolic image of mirrors is utilized as a literal gate to the Underworld, through which only poets have the ability to cross. The whole effect was quite enjoyable, and well made all around. It was also nice seeing Jean Marais in a more normal role; he certainly has the charisma for it. My favorite aspect, however, was the addition of the character of Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise, who, while also adding an additional angle to the film’s central love triangle, was generally a much more interesting character to watch.

I had very few expectations with this one; even the entry in the Book was one I’d often skim over or skip, not paying it too much attention. Well, this ended up being an excellent surprise, though not an altogether unexpected one, having seen La Belle et la Bete a mere month ago. Even over that one, though, I would put Cocteau’s version of the Orpheus myth; with Belle, he had the room and the breadth of being in a fantasy setting to do whatever he wanted with basically no restrictions. Here, there are many parameters, as it takes place in a modern setting, but Cocteau still manages to evoke the right sense of oneiric imagery and mood, even with the more limited setting of the film, which I found all the more impressive. I was pretty pleased I watched this, and I’m glad Cocteau was given an extra slot on the list for it. As long as you have a mind for the more fantastical and poetic aspects of his storytelling, I think you’ll like it too.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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