Orphée review – Cocteau’s classic never looks back | Film

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Jean Cocteau’s Orphée from 1950 is now re-released nationally, as part of the BFI Southbank season: Fantastique: The Dream Worlds of French Cinema. It has the mystery and elasticity of a dream, and all the farcical comic horror of chancing across the intricate contents of the Blessed Virgin’s lingerie collection. Cocteau’s reworking of the Orpheus myth includes new layers of strangeness and rapture. The setting would appear to be the present: that is, postwar France. Orphée (Jean Marais) is a celebrated poet – sufficiently celebrated, in fact, to be at one stage surrounded by excitable young autograph hunters who might otherwise be entranced by the burgeoning pop culture. (We hear a genteel bit of rock’n’roll at the Café Des Poetes, with its beatnik clientele.) Orphée witnesses a noted younger poet being killed by a couple of bikers after a brawl: this is Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) who is spirited away by the elegant Princess Death (Maria Casares) in her chauffeured car, and she insists Orphée accompany her.

After an interlude in the underworld, Orphée returns but then has to make a journey back when his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa) is killed and he is allowed to revisit the netherworld to recover her – on condition, of course, that he never looks back at her – in the company of the Princess’s driver Heurtebise (François Périer). Heurtebise is in love with Eurydice, but Death herself in is love with Orphée, and the feeling is not merely reciprocated, but may be his real motive in undertaking this existentially perilous journey to defeat mortality. It is a kind of sexual conquest, but Death must make a tragic or heroic act of self-denial to protect Orphée’s immortality as a poet.

There is something weirdly brilliant in the low-tech special effects: the back-projections, the film run in reverse, the mirror-surfaces that become rippling vertical pools: “Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes; look long enough in a mirror and you will see Death at work.” This film wonders what might happen if Orpheus did in fact manage to get his loved one home, but that the not-looking rule was still in force. The outcome is pure drawing room comedy and absurdity, yet there is a flash of pure terror when he finally sees her face in the car’s wing-mirror. And the poems of Cégeste, transmitted to this world, like the coded messages of the French resistance, have something deeply disquieting. It is a film to compare with Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and Welles’s version of The Trial.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Orphée review – Cocteau’s classic never looks back | Film

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