Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus,” newly restored by Criterion in a terrific two-disc DVD set, presents his deeply personal version of the mythological Greek poet whose songs could charm wild beasts.
In Cocteau’s masterful 1950 film, set in an otherworldly postwar France, Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a celebrity poet whose success is denigrated by a younger generation.
Eurydice (Marie Dea), his homespun wife, bores him. His descent into Hades is more about his fascination with the sultry Death Princess (Maria Casares) than with Eurydice.
Cocteau was a supreme fabulist, but he understood the need to anchor his magic in realism.
In the film, Orpheus receives word from the underworld through mysterious short-wave bulletins issued from a car radio. The angels of Death are leather-jacketed sentries on motorcycles. The Furies, who in the original telling of the legend tear Orpheus apart, are here represented by a frenzy of female autograph hounds.
The shadowy tribunal in Hades that interrogates both Death and Orpheus draws comparisons to the French Resistance and the Nazis. (The set he used to stage the extraordinary trance-like sequences in Hades was actually the bombed-out remnants of the St. Cyr military academy founded by Napoleon Bonaparte).
To heat up the action during crucial confrontations, Cocteau puts jazz drums on the soundtrack. He was a lifelong jazz lover and often compared his writing to musical improvisation.
Fundamental to Cocteau’s artistry is the merging of the everyday and the mysterious. This is true of all his films, especially his famous avant-garde debut “Blood of a Poet” (1930) and his last movie, “Testament of Orpheus” (1960), in which he himself plays the poet.
In “Orpheus,” the mundane adorations of Eurydice can’t compete with the Death Princess, who watches silently over the sleeping poet and sacrifices herself to give him a kind of immortality.
Mirrors are central to the imagery in “Orpheus,” the portals through which the dead and the undead pass between realms. Cocteau was a pioneer in the use of slow-motion, reverse-motion and all sorts of other techniques that in the hands of lesser directors might seem like routine magic acts. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wachowski brothers took a long look at “Orpheus” before they made “The Matrix.”)
The shattering and reforming of the mirrors in “Orpheus” have great symbolic power.
“We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors,” Cocteau says in one of several fascinating documentaries included in the DVD extras. “They bring us closer to death.”
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).
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