“It is much less a film than it is myself,” Jean Cocteau wrote to a friend at the time he was making Orpheus (1950), “a kind of projection of the things that are important to me.” As with many of Cocteau’s programmatic statements, this one is both obvious—what filmmaker couldn’t say the same?—and deceptively slippery. In his various artistic pursuits, Cocteau made no secret, nor spared the use, of things that were important to him, to the point where his personal obsessions (the snowball fight, the handsome bully, the talking statue) have taken on a whiff of the ridiculous. In this regard, Orpheus stands as one of the great exceptions in Cocteau’s oeuvre, a summa in which he managed to take time-trodden elements, from the legend on which it is based to the auteur-director’s well-rehearsed private mythologies (the poet, the mirror), and recombine them into something both unabashedly idiosyncratic and widely accessible. It is fitting that a work so preoccupied with mirrors and reflections should send back the image not only of its maker but, more than any of Cocteau’s other films, of its viewer as well.
The Orpheus myth, as every schoolchild knows, speaks of a troubadour so gifted that he could charm men and beasts with his song. When Death steals his wife, Eurydice, Orpheus ventures into Hades to win her back. There, his artistry sways the netherworld denizens into releasing her, on one condition: Orpheus must not gaze on his beloved until they are back in the land of the living, on pain of losing her forever. Unable to resist, the poet looks behind him, Eurydice vanishes into the shadows, and the grief-stricken Orpheus is torn limb from limb by the Furies.
As with several other modern adaptations, most famously Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), Cocteau transplants the ancient poet into a contemporary setting without so much as a by-your-leave. Where he departs from tradition is in shifting the emotional center of the myth. In his telling, Eurydice is not so much the love of the poet’s life and loins as (in her own estimation) a “very ordinary” domestic companion, fraternally cared for, sometimes barely tolerated. Played by Marie Déa, who had starred as the pure-hearted Anne in Marcel Carné’s 1942 classic Les visiteurs du soir (another role in which guilelessness must contend with the supernatural), she is the cliché of the celebrity’s wife, a figurine in a toy marriage.
The crux of the drama for Cocteau lies in the relationship between Orpheus and Death itself. Cocteau’s ars poetica revolves around a dialectic of rot and renewal in which the poet must depart the mortal coil and pass into the “beyond” of true inspiration, then return to spread the word. As an artist who experimented with numerous forms and styles (novels, poems, plays, memoirs, drawings, paintings, films), Cocteau had undergone more than his share of these deaths and rebirths in an endless quest for creative transfiguration. In his career as a film director—notable mainly for the Orphic Trilogy of The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (his most acclaimed cinematic work, which took the International Film Critics Award at the 1950 Venice Film Festival), and its sequel, Testament of Orpheus (1959)—he often brought the theme front and center; the whole of The Blood of a Poet was in fact built around it. But whereas in the earlier work this theme was “played with one finger,” as Cocteau wrote, in Orpheus, he “orchestrated” it. And not only orchestrated but gave it a distinctly erotic edge.
In Orpheus, Death is figured as an imperious woman (the princess), played by the Spanish-born Maria Casarès. It is hard to imagine more apt casting: fiercely emotive, intelligent, and politically committed, Casarès enjoyed a mystique stemming from her theatrical work during the war, as well as from her offstage involvement in the Resistance and her storied affair with Albert Camus. By 1949, when Orpheus was filmed, she had under her belt lead roles in Carné’s Children of Paradise and Robert Bresson’s Les dames du bois de Boulogne (both 1945). Her ability to project an alluring mix of severity and passion, to “burn like ice,” as Orpheus emotes, is central to her command of the scene, and to our grasp of the poet’s fatal attraction. As for Orpheus himself, Cocteau cast his onetime protégé and, it was widely known, ex-lover in the title role, having already directed him in Beauty and the Beast (1946), L’aigle à deux têtes, and Les parents terribles (both 1948) and scripted his lines in L’éternel retour (Jean Delannoy, 1943). Charismatic, classically handsome, frequently high-strung, Jean Marais was already something of a matinee idol—more on the strength, one suspects, of his Nordic good looks than his acting chops. Nonetheless, his heightened, melodramatic style (his scenes with Eurydice are as drama-queeny as the highlighted pompadour he sports throughout) somehow fits with the image of the poet that Cocteau is out to present: self-absorbed, oblivious to others, attuned to a reality that hovers above the daily mire of “baby clothes and bills.”
The casting of the leads was more apposite than most viewers realized: Ten years younger than Déa, who was thirty-seven at the time, Casarès was well on her way to becoming, as one newspaper put it, “the most outstanding French tragic actress of her generation.” The fact that she was both an emotional rival on-screen and a professional one offscreen adds an extra shading of pathos to Eurydice’s confused anguish. Marais, meanwhile, had recently been replaced in Cocteau’s not so private life by Edouard Dermithe, who appears in the role of Jacques Cégeste (himself inspired by the poet Raymond Radiguet, whose premature death a quarter century earlier still haunted Cocteau). The upstaging of the waning idol Orpheus by the hot young Cégeste (“He’s eighteen years old and adored by all”) mirrors this extracurricular standing—most economically conveyed by the contemptuous snort the drunken Cégeste gives Orpheus shortly before Death’s flunkies whisk him away.
Cocteau conceived of his films as poetry on celluloid, putting such traditional cinematic tools as plot and mise-en-scène in the service of a dense, absorbing overall atmosphere. In a classic poetic move, Orpheus achieves this effect partly by combining unsettling avant-garde tropes with accessible imagery. Such motifs as the poetry-spouting car radio, the princess’s motorcycle henchmen, and the shabby grandeur of the Zone (the no-man’s-land between life and death, shot in the ruins of the bombed-out Saint-Cyr military academy) at once derive from our everyday world and stand outside of it. And there are other touches throughout, disorienting but immediately graspable: the negative landscape outside the car window; Casarès’s black gown suddenly blazing white in her moments of fury; the fluid juxtaposition of disparate Parisian sites when Orpheus chases the princess all over town (literally). “The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic. Radios in cars, coded messages, shortwave signals, and power cuts are all familiar to everybody and allow me to keep my feet on the ground,” Cocteau wrote in 1950. He also noted that Cégeste’s cryptic radio messages were based on coded broadcasts from England during the occupation (and admitted poaching the phrase “The bird sings with its fingers” from the poet Apollinaire—a touch of plagiarism that neatly mirrors the accusation leveled against Orpheus by Cégeste’s friends). Moreover, anyone who’d been subjected to a French Communist Party inquest—notably, the postwar purges of “collaborationist” intellectuals, which Cocteau himself had narrowly avoided—could easily identify the obtuse judges and makeshift courtroom of the underworld tribunal, while Heurtebise’s self-defense (“I was her aide”) smacks, four short years after the fact, uncomfortably of Nuremberg. Pauline Kael once noted how Cocteau in this film “uses emblems and images” of recent European history “and merges them with other, more primitive images of fear.”
Like poetry as well, the film expresses a number of personal conceits—the most resonant of these being the artist’s despair over public incomprehension, evident in the contentious dynamic between Orpheus and the younger generation. A facile inventor with a keen desire for acceptance, Cocteau was the darling of the cautiously adventurous beau monde but the bane of the harder-core experimentalists—the surrealists chief among them—who reviled him as an artistic fashion plate, a Jean-of-no-trades who aped whatever was trendy and had long since become yesterday’s news. It doesn’t take much imagination to substitute Cocteau’s own conversations for the dialogue between Orpheus and a café doyen at the start of the film, or to hear echoes of his private fears when Orpheus complains that his “life had begun to pass its peak . . . stinking of success and of death.” Nor is it surprising that Cocteau would identify with both Orpheus, the master enchanter, and that other great symbol of death and resurrection Jesus Christ, one more oracle crucified by a vengeful, fickle audience. (Cocteau’s first adaptation of Orpheus, a theater piece from 1926, had in fact begun as a play about Joseph and Mary, until he decided that “the inexplicable birth of poems would replace that of the Divine Child.”) It may be pure coincidence that Christ, Cocteau, and Cégeste all share a monogram, but it’s an intriguing coincidence nonetheless.
As Cocteau wittingly or instinctively knew, there is a voluptuousness to martyrdom. The figure of Jesus nailed to the cross, the image of Orpheus being savaged by a horde of frenzied women, are not only powerful and enduring emotional symbols but also potent sexual motifs. Admittedly, in the film, Orpheus’s death is much less spectacular than in the original story, more a street brawl gone wrong than an epic orgy of violence, but the encounters between the poet and his Death (his mirror, his twin) are unmistakably erotic.
Erotic and, at the same time, sweetly romantic, for at its heart Orpheus is a classic story of doomed passion. When, in the end, the princess pays the price for returning Orpheus to the world of the living, the film reconnects with outsize tales of love and self-sacrifice, from Tristan and Isolde to Romeo and Juliet to The Matrix—not to mention the Western world’s ur-myth, the story of Christ’s self-abnegation so that humanity might be granted eternal life. “The Death of a poet must sacrifice itself to make him immortal,” Cocteau intones in voice-over. Here, Death, in a final bid to save her beloved, willingly embraces the ultimate punishment, erasure even from the afterlife. The poet, meanwhile, awakes from the nightmare of his underworld quest into a fantasy of domestic bliss. This denouement is the least convincing and most blatantly artificial part of the film, for we know that Orpheus, for all his billings and cooings to Eurydice, is still in love with the princess. Though the memory of this love may have been wiped clean, in the recesses of his creative unconscious, he will continue, as he says, to speak of Death, sing of her.
Perhaps one has to be in love to truly make sense of this film; perhaps one has to be in that wondrous and all-too-fleeting suspension of emotional remove, when nothing is too corny and “no excess is absurd.” When I first saw Orpheus as a teenager, in the wake of a dramatic separation, I immediately understood it as a film about unrequited longing, about love lost and henceforth unattainable. The sorrow of that parting abated long ago, but the sense of yearning remains in all its universality, ever and unexpectedly renewable. It is this aspect, which transcends gender and time, artistic fashion and self-conscious artifice, that preserves the freshness of Orpheus and its emotional impact. Without entirely knowing why, the poet will continue to sing of Death, to seek her out, until the day he goes to his own eternity—and even then he will not find her.
Mark Polizzotti’s books include Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton and a monograph on Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados. He is director of publications at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.