Movie Review 'Orpheus' Jean Cocteau
This 1950 update of the Orphic myth by Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast) depicts a famous poet (Jean Marais) scorned by the Left Bank youth, and his love for both his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa) and a mysterious princess (Maria Casarès). Seeking inspiration, the poet follows the princess from the world of the living to the land of the dead through Cocteau’s famous mirrored portal. Orpheus represents the legendary Cocteau at the height of his abilities for peerless visual poetry and dreamlike storytelling.
"Orpheus" is a Greek myth about a musician who descends into the underworld to reclaim his dead wife, and so enchants the gods with the music of his lyre that they permit her to return to the land of the living--on the condition that he never look at her. Jean Cocteau set his 1949 film of the story in modern-day Paris, and added twists that would have startled the Greeks, especially a romantic triangle with Death as the third partner. "Orpheus" shows Cocteau's taste for magic and enchantment; he uses simple but dramatic special effects and trick shots to show his characters passing into the world of death by stepping through mirrors, and when he wants a character to spring back to life, he simply runs the film backward. He weaves his effects so lightly into the story that after a time they aren't tricks at all, but simply the conditions of his mythical world.
Eurydice is permitted to return to the land of the living with Orpheus, but under a particular condition: that Orpheus not look at her until they reach the surface of the Earth, otherwise she will die again, and permanently. The singer and his bride, still limping from her wound, retreat from the underworld. Just before the surface, Orpheus, seized by love, turns and regards his beloved, his outstretched arms searching for her embrace. Eurydice then dies a second death. Virgil has her castigate her grieving husband, demanding, “What was it, what madness, Orpheus, was it, that has destroyed us, you and me?” (179); in Ovid, she merely pronounces the word “farewell” (267) then disappears. Orpheus aims to cross the river Styx a second time to fetch her again but is prevented from doing so: he has lost Eurydice forever. In Ovid’s telling, he sits by the river for seven days, bemoaning Hades’ empty promise.
Obviously, 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.
Steegmuller, Francis. Cocteau. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. Ed. Nonpareil Books, 1986. Print.
Sweet, David LeHardy. “The Lens of Lucien Clergue and the Cinema of Jean Cocteau.” Publ. in Jean Cocteau and the Testament of Orpheus by Lucien Clergue. New York: Viking Studio, 2001. 21-34. Print.
Virgil. The Georgics. Trans. David Ferry. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2005.Print.
Williams, James S. Jean Cocteau. Critical Lives. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.Print.
–. Jean Cocteau. French Film Directors. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester Univ. Press, 2006. Print.