Jean Cocteau was a man obsessed with myths, fairy tales, and dreams. From his early theatre adaptations of Antigone and Oedipus, through to his peerless interpretation of La Belle et la Bête, his work returned again and again to the realms of the fantastical; the fabulous; the fabled. He also had a penchant for situating these classical myths in a modern context, as he does here in Orphée –based loosely on his own 1925 play.
In classical mythology, after Eurydice died from a snakebite, Orpheus travelled to the underworld to retrieve his wife, on the condition that he not turn back and look at her till they were both safely returned to our world – he failed and she was lost forever.
In Cocteau’s Orphée, the setting is updated from ancient Greece to 1950s Paris, with the bards of old replaced with beatnik poets. Jean Marais – Cocteau’s partner both on and off screen – takes on the title role, with the characters mythical status here transformed into that of modern celebrity. As Cocteau tells us himself in the opening narration: “It is the privilege of legend to be timeless. As you like it.”
And indeed, Cocteau has it the way he likes it, stretching the narrative or adding characters as it suits him. Here, Orpheus is a renowned poet who witnesses the death of a young man outside a café. A mysterious woman requisitions the body and Orpheus as a witness to the incident, sending him on the first of several trips to the land of the dead.
Orphée moves from dreamlike meditations on art, death and love to moments of physical comedy, with Cocteau’s manipulation of the classical story, as we know it, reaping tremendous rewards. Here, Orpheus’ legendary predicament plays more like Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit than Greek tragedy, as the couple make it back from the underworld to discover a domestic life in which one of them will kill the other if they ever look at them.
As with La Belle et la Bête, what’s most striking upon first seeing the film are Cocteau’s cinematic tricks and techniques used to infer a world beyond our own – an area he excels in beyond all others. Rear projection, slow motion, reversing the film, placing the camera on the ceiling and shooting the floor like it was a wall – these might sound rather old and simple but nevertheless there is an incomparable beauty to these moments. The journey to the underworld through a mirror, achieved by plunging hands into a pool of mercury, is a perfect example.
With Orphée being screened from a stunning new 4K restoration provided by the BFI, this is the best chance in quite some time to catch one of cinemas most magical works of art.
Hop House 13 is proud to present Discover Tuesdays.