Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of the myth of Orpheus, Orphée, provides a rare successful combination of an ancient story and imaginative cinematic technique. It is not so much an updating of the story as its fresh re-imagining in a modern, quotidian reality. It is as if the story had never been told before and had sprung entirely from its creator’s imagination, while still possessing the resonance of the original myth.
In Cocteau’s version, Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a lauded poet at odds with a younger generation and those promoting it. Among them is a young poet, Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe), who is killed in a traffic accident witnessed by Orpheus and the “Princess” (María Cesares), a chic, refined figure of Death. The Princess’s exotic appeal overwhelms Orpheus, and his pretty, pert, but ordinary wife Eurydice (Marie Déa) is powerless to prevent him from falling in love with all the things she is not.
As in the original myth, Eurydice suffers an untimely death, and Orpheus has to descend into the Underworld to rescue her. Cocteau’s wittiest touch is how he deals with the prohibition against Orpheus looking at Eurydice. In Cocteau’s version, the pair successfully return to earth, but once there, Eurydice is kept out of Orpheus’s line of vision only with the help of the Princess’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer). Their elaborate precautions come to naught thanks to the rear view mirror in the Princess’s limousine.
It is such imaginative recasting of the ancient in contemporary terms that makes Orphée entrancing. The film’s story should be a foregone conclusion, but Cocteau manages to make us wonder what will happen next through his lively variations on the legend. (Knowing the myth of Orpheus will not prepare you for the ending.) Nor are Cocteau’s inventions restricted to the story. His depiction of the descent into Hades, for example, combines complex photographic techniques, contemporary ruins and simple, almost empty décor, creating a hauntingly evocative oneiric half-world. Hades itself appears as little more than a large, abandoned house, all the more frightening for its simplicity and decay. Even the film’s most famous visual effect, when characters pass through a mirror to journey to Hades, is both under-stated and convincing because it has been grounded in the events.
The word “poetic” is often used in film criticism to cover a critic’s incomprehension and unwillingness to appear stupid. It is something like a code word for “difficult” or “arty.” Perhaps because Orphée was directed by a real poet, no such hedging is necessary. Cocteau knows that poetry is a matter not of complexity or obscurity, but of absolute clarity achieved through compressed, economical expression. At the same time he recognizes that it is not easy to bend the Realistic surfaces and melodramatic situations of traditional narrative expectation to poetic aims. That Cocteau succeeds is admirable. That he can make the results so pleasurable to viewers like myself otherwise indifferent to poetry is extraordinary.