• Orpheus

    By Jean Cocteau

    When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming. Only the people and places of the dream matter. I have difficulty making contact with others, as one does when half-asleep. If a person is asleep and someone else comes into the sleeper’s room, this other person does not exist. He or she exists only if introduced into the events of the dream. Sunday is not a real day of rest for me, I try to go back to sleep as quickly as possible.

    Realism in unreality is a constant pitfall. People can always tell me that this is possible, or that is impossible; but do we understand anything about the workings of fate? This is the mysterious mechanism that I have tried to make tangible. Why is Orphée’s Death dressed in this way, or that? Why does she travel in a Rolls, and why does Heurtebise appear and disappear at will in some circumstances, but submit to human laws in others? This is the eternal why that obsesses thinkers, from Pascal to the least of poets.

    I wanted to touch lightly on the most serious problems, without idle theorizing. So the film is a thriller which draws on myth from one side and the supernatural from the other.

    I have always liked the no man’s land of twilight where mysteries thrive. I have thought, too, that cinematography is superbly adapted to it, provided it takes the least possible advantage of what people call the supernatural. 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.

    Nobody can believe in a famous poet whose name has been invented by a writer. I had to find a mythical bard, the bard of bards, the Bard of Thrace. And his story is so enchanting that it would be crazy to look for another. It provides the background on which I embroider. I do nothing more than to follow the cadence of all fables which are modified in the long run according to who tells the story. Racine and Moliére did better. They copied antiquity. I always advise people to copy a model. It is by the impossibility of doing the same thing twice and by the new blood that is infused into the old frame that the poet is judged.

    Orphée’s Death and Heurtebise reproach Orphée for asking questions. Wanting to understand is a peculiar obsession of mankind.

    There is nothing more vulgar than works that set out to prove something. Orphée, naturally, avoids even the appearance of trying to prove anything.

    “What were you trying to say?” This is a fashionable question. I was trying to say what I said.

    All arts can and must wait. They may even wait to live until after the artist is dead. Only the ridiculous costs of cinematography force it to instant success, so it is satisfied with being mere entertainment.

    With Orphée, I decided to take the risk of making a film as if cinematography could permit itself the luxury of waiting—as if it was the art which it ought to be.

    Beauty hates ideas. It is sufficient to itself.

    Our age is becoming dried out with ideas. It is the child of the Encyclopaedists. But having an idea is not enough: the idea must have us, haunt us, obsess us, become unbearable to us.

    Le Sang d’un poète was based on the poet’s need to go through a series of deaths and to be reborn in a shape closer to his real being. There, the theme was played with one finger, and inevitably so, because I had to invent a craft that I did not know. In Orphée, I have orchestrated the theme, and this is why the two films are related, twenty years apart.

    I have often been asked about the figure of the glass-vendor: he was the only one able to illustrate the saying that there is nothing so hard to break as the habit of one’s job; since, although he died very young, he still persists in crying his wares in a region where windowpanes are meaningless.

    Once the machinery had been set in motion, everyone had to go with it, so that in the scene when he returns to the house, Marais succeeded in being comical without going beyond the limits of taste and with no break between lyricism and operetta.

    The same is true of François Périer, whose mockery never becomes unkind or makes him seem to be taking advantage of his supernatural powers. Nothing was more demanding than the role of Orphée, grappling with the injustices of the youth of literature. He does not seem to me to have secrets which he divines and which deceive him. He proves his greatness only through that of the actor. Here again, Marais illuminates the film for me with his soul.

    Among the misconceptions which have been written about Orphée, I still see Heurtebise described as an angel and the Princess as Death.

    In the film, there is no Death and no angel. There can be none. Heurtebise is a young Death serving in one of the numerous sub-orders of Death, and the Princess is no more Death than an air hostess is an angel.

    I never touch on dogmas. The region that I depict is a border on life, a no man’s land where one hovers between life and death.

    When Marais is praised for his acting in Orphée, he replies: “The film plays my parts for me.”

    The three basic themes of Orphée are:

    1. The successive deaths through which a poet must pass before he becomes, in that admirable line from Mallarmé, tel qu’en lui-même enfin l’éternité le change—changed into himself at last by eternity.

    2. The theme of immortality: the person who represents Orphée’s Death sacrifices herself and abolishes herself to make the poet immortal.

    3. Mirrors: we watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death.

    The other themes are a mixture of Orphic and modern myth: for example, cars that talk (the radio receivers in cars).

    Orphée is a realistic film; or, to be more precise, observing Goethe’s distinction between reality and truth, a film in which I express a truth peculiar to myself. If that truth is not the spectator’s, and if his personality conflicts with mine and rejects it, he accuses me of lying. I am even astonished that so many people can still be penetrated by another’s ideas, in a country noted for its individualism.

    While Orphée does encounter some lifeless audiences, it also encounters others that are open to my dream and agree to be put to sleep and to dream it with me (accepting the logic by which dreams operate, which is implacable, although it is not governed by our logic).

    I am only talking about the mechanics, since Orphée is not at all a dream in itself: through a wealth of detail similar to that which we find in dreams, it summarizes my way of living and my conception of life.

    Excerpted from The Art of Cinema (1992). Reprinted by permission of Marion Boyars Publishers, New York, London.

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