Analysis of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus
Inspired by the surrealist tradition, Jean Cocteau’s reimagining of the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a dream-like journey through life, death, and the grey area in between. Orpheus explores this journey through the series of events that follow the titular character’s encounter with the Princess, a Death-like creature. In the beginning of the film, Orpheus is a famous poet, beloved by the public and hated by the others on the poetry scene. His traditional family life has stifled his creative career, and he is actually aware of the contempt the other poets have for him. As Orpheus falls in love with the Princess, his life begins to spiral: he is accused of murdering a rival poet, the Princess unjustly claims Eurydice.
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.
Cocteau’s insistence that Le Sang d’un poète belongs to his Orphic trilogy is, in some ways, the main reason that an Orphic pattern can be determined in these épisodes. It is really only the second épisode which seems purely Orphic (Steegmuller, Francis, 1986). The third and fourth épisodes betray the same obsession with death and show the poet’s final demise, just as Orpheus was murdered by the Bacchantes. However, while certain images and themes tie Le Sang d’un poète to Orphée and Le Testament d’Orphée, I posit it that it is the least self-evidently ‘Orphic’ of the three films. The myth of Orpheus must in a sense be ‘applied’ to the film, rather than deduced from it. Furthermore, if anything, Le Sang d’un poète reveals more clearly Cocteau’s engagement with the Narcissus myth and its connotations of homosexuality. These important attributes are able to permeate the rest of the trilogy, complicating the Orphic narrative and lending not a little soupçon of queerness to the ostensibly ‘straight’ tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Narcissistic narrative is marked, as we have proposed, by a love of self and a love of sameness, by the homosexual element, and (similar to the Orphic narrative) a relationship with death. Narcissus desires that which will destroy him, so love or passion relates uneasily to death; and, as we have seen, for Cocteau at that time, it seemed that death was the only biological end for the homosexual male. The Narcissistic motifs in Le Sang d’un poète and their ties to Cocteau’s personal life (specifically, his sexual orientation) work within the Orphic pattern to color Cocteau’s quest for poetic immortality – for a life after death (Sweet, David LeHardy, 2001). The film begins both explicitly Narcissistic and queer. The first shot is of Cocteau himself, as we have seen, a literal mirror image of him, announcing the intensely personal nature of the project, which more than borders on the narcissistic: the film is ostensibly about the blood of a poet, and Cocteau is a poet – it must be about his blood, his very life. (Indeed, the film could be titled Le Sang de Jean Cocteau.)
All things considered, maybe the arrival of a child might bring a new-found spark in their marriage, but it just comes to show how a lot of married couples probably would be happier with other people. One of the great pleasures of Orpheus is to watch the simplicity of the special effects used in the film. People disappear and reappear, rubber gloves fly onto hands because of reverse photography and glass shatters and magically jumps back together. Orpheus is a beautiful enchanting fantasy filled with several wonderous moments. Jean Cocteau once stated in an interview, "Orpheus is not at all a dream in itself: through a detail similar to that which we find in dreams, it summarizes my way of living and my conception of life."
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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.