Thanks to a local revival house, I’m jumping ahead a bit – to something really funky.
Surrealist Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in post-war Paris; Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous yet bored poet, admired by squads of teenage fangirls and hated by lesser poets and early Beat auteurs, while Eurydice (Marie Dea) is his adoring wife, just newly pregnant and eager to give Orpheus the news at the start of the film. Cocteau adds a few twists, though – starting with “the Princess” (Maria Casares), an mysterious and elegant woman Orpheus spots at a cafe in the film’s first scene. She’s ostensibly the sugar mama to a lesser poet, Cegaste (Edouard Dermit), who starts a big brawl at the cafe and then is struck by a car as he’s trying to flee the scene. “The Princess” orders Cegaste carried to her car so she can bring him to the hospital – but before she leaves, she orders Orpheus to join her and help.
Orpheus is puzzled, but complies – and then is more puzzled when they pass the hospital, even more puzzled when he sees that Cegaste is already dead and the Princess is still going on. But that’s nothing compared to his confusion when the Princess meets up with the driver of the car that killed Cegaste. Or the cryptic messages the radio keeps broadcasting as they drive. Or when they end up at a ruined mansion and the Princess orders Orpheus to go sit in a side room and not ask any questions. Or when he sneaks out of the room anyway – just in time to see the Princess seemingly bring Cegaste back to life, only to declare herself the spirit of Death and then lead Cegaste out of the room by walking through a mirror, leaving Orpheus to find his way home alone.
As it turns out, the Princess isn’t the single Spirit of Death; she’s more like one of Death’s emissaries, and Orpheus is technically her next assignment after Cegaste. But she’s started to fall for him, and is reluctant to end his life, spending the next several nights sneaking out into his room through his mirror and longingly watching him sleep. Orpheus is equally obsessed with Princess Death; he finds the same radio station broadcasting the same cryptic messages and obsessively writes them all down, turning them into poems. When he thinks he sees her in a crowd, he chases her through the streets. And when Eurydice dies herself, it’s a little unclear whether Orpheus goes after her because he’s hoping to get her back, or because he hopes that Princess Death is back there too.
Cocteau uses a lot of the same dream-like, weird imagery as he did in Beauty and The Beast; most through the use of deceptively simple camera tricks. There are multiple shots where it’s obvious that Cocteau shot the scene in reverse – gloves flying onto someone’s hands, Princess Death re-animating Cegaste – but the fact that you know how it was done doesn’t change the fact that it still looks really unnatural. And for this film, the unnaturalness was the point. Another scene where Princess Death’s henchman Heurtebise (François Périer) is leading Orpheus through the underworld is done in a weird sort of split-screen, with Orpheus walking after Heurtebise, who glides ahead of him in an early take on the Spike Lee dolly shot.
Heurtebise has is own subplot throughout as well; he’d been left behind after Cegaste’s death to keep an eye on Orpheus and help out when Princess Death came for him, but he ends up taking a shine to Eurydice himself, pining for her just as Princess Death is pining for Orpheus.
In Eurydice’s case, though, she only has eyes for Orpheus; meanwhile Orpheus is obsessed with Death. And that seems to be Cocteau’s ultimate theme – how artists can overcome Death through their work, and how sometimes confronting their own mortality gets them closer to the very vulnerability that will ensure their artistic success. Orpheus visits the underworld more than just once in this telling, and is released back to Earth both times, with Death ultimately declaring him “Immortal” through his work. But Orpheus is still human, and even though the end sees him happily reunited with Eurydice, he’ll still die someday; as the film’s most haunting line states, “Look at yourself in mirrors throughout your life and you’ll see death doing its work.”