Notes on film: Orpheus

“Look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you’ll see death at work like bees in a hive of glass.”

Orpheus (Orphée) is one of the most celebrated and influential examples of avant-garde cinema, a film that defies the conventions of classical Hollywood films and became considered a work of art that transcends the traditional confines of the cinema. It is the most accomplished film by the French artist Jean Cocteau who was also prolific and admired for his work as a poet, novelist and illustrator. It was one of three films where Cocteau used the classical myth of Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld in order to express his own preoccupations with life, death, the importance of art, and the power of poetry. Orpheus is also admired for its low-key technical achievements where effects that were even considered to be simple by the standards of the time, were skilfully utilised to create a magical and dream like world that is both familiar and unfamiliar to the audience. Cocteau did not consider himself part of the Surrealist movement, as he did not share their political motivations, but his films do loosely fit within the Surrealist tradition of championing dream-logic over reality.

Classical Hollywood cinema is the term used to describe the style of filmmaking pioneered by the major studios in the USA from the late-1910s to the mid-1950s. This style of filmmaking, which has become dominant in Western countries, is characterised by conveying the illusion of realism and by having linear, logical and self-contained narrative development. Films, such as Orpheus, which went against these conventions, were considered avant-garde or art-house because they rejected traditional storytelling techniques and often broke down the illusion of realism. While it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that many European filmmakers would deliberately flout Hollywood conventions to establish their own national cinemas free from American influence, there had always been films that existed well outside of the mainstream and Orpheus is one such film. While art-house is used today to describe any film that is simply non-Hollywood, Orpheus is a genuine art film in that it is a true expression of artistic vision where the film is a canvas for the self expression of its creator – Jean Cocteau.

Film was just one art form that Cocteau worked in, as he was also involved in writing, poetry, painting, composition, ballet, theatre and illustration. He was celebrated in the Parisian intellectual scene and considered a renaissance man for his work across so many art forms. A dominant theme that emerged in Cocteau’s work was the power of poetry as the ultimate form of self-expression and self-realisation. For Cocteau the poet was a transcendent figure who could travel into the afterlife in order to discover the truth about the real world.

It seems natural that Cocteau was constantly drawn to the myth of Orpheus in the Underworld from classical mythology. In the myth Orpheus, a singer and lyricist of incredible beauty, becomes distraught when his wife Eurydice dies from snakebites. Orpheus’s songs of mourning are so powerful that even the gods are moved to tears, compelling them to urge Orpheus to travel to the Underworld and return with Eurydice. Orpheus makes the journey and is allowed to return to Earth with Eurydice on the condition that he walks in front of her and does not look back at her until they have both arrived. However, when close to the surface, Orpheus does tragically look back and loses Eurydice forever.

Orpheus was the second time that Cocteau explored the Orpheus myth in film. He had previously utilised the myth in 1930 for The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d’un poète) and would return to it in 1960 with The Testament of Orpheus (Le Testament d’Orphée). All are highly personal films with a dreamlike and lyrical atmosphere but it is Orpheus, the middle film, which is the most accomplished. The setting is contemporary for the time and the character of Orpheus is a popular and successful poet who is disliked by his peers. Before the recognisable aspect of the myth concerning Eurydice’s death occurs, Cocteau introduces the characters of Death and Heurtebise, a man who has recently committed suicide and is now Death’s chauffeur. Orpheus falls in love with Death and Eurydice falls in love with Heurtebise, dramatically complicating things when the film does arrive at the point where Orpheus enters the Underworld to find Eurydice. Orpheus could be seen as a revisionist retelling of the classical myth as it uses the archetypal characters and scenarios to explore themes such as artistic inspiration, sexual obsession and sacrifice.

Visually Orpheus is stunning, in particular the use of mirrors, which are a favourite motif of Cocteau’s. In Orpheus mirrors are used to travel between the Underworld and the world of the living and the metaphor of looking into a mirror to see your own death and therefore see the truth, is a powerful one. Through very simple techniques such as playing the film backwards and overlaying one film image onto another, in order to create the illusion of characters fading in and out of scenes, Orpheus possesses a magical and otherworldly quality. The journeys into the Underworld are particularly effective and are generally acclaimed for the resourceful way in which Cocteau constructs a world that is both recognisable and yet like something from a dream. Orpheus is a triumph of film as art, which successfully articulates the preoccupations of its creator, is intellectually stimulating and visually engaging. It is a true avant-garde film and an important precursor to the various art-house movements that would emerge later. 

Originally appeared in the film notes for the Region 4 DVD box set A Beginner’s Guide to Cinema 2, released by Madman Entertainment

© Thomas Caldwell, 2008