Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 11 December 2016 07:22
(A review of
“A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place.”
So says Jean Cocteau in a written prologue for his most direct wrestling with the Orpheus myth. Here, he makes not only edits and additions, but entirely new wrinkles and full scale revisions to the myth, these add layers of strangeness, poignancy, and the hint of autobiography. It towers over other fantasy films for the ways it grounds these elements in a solid structure. Cocteau managed to make something that was not only a personally revealing art film, but also a raucous piece of pop entertainment.
Orpheus reconfigures its narrative from a story about a musician seducing the gods with his art into the story of a poet chasing his inspiration in the face of popularity, a eternally petulant teenager that becomes enamored with the idea of death’s obsession with him as much as he is with his art, his image, and his dwindling inspiration. Cocteau was clearly working through, and poking fun, at some of his own failings and egocentric personality defects here. Orpheus could easily stand in for the artist, a man driven to near insanity to chase his creative expression at the clear detriment of those closest to him, with Eurydice here cast as an amalgam of every long-suffering wife of a great man.
This mid-point of the Orphic trilogy follows our modern-age poet (well, modern-age for 1949 France) as he meets the sleek personification of death, follows her into her realm, comes back to ours, and begins chasing rabbit holes looking for her and her strange realm once more. The bones of the Greek myth are all there, but they play now in starkly different beats and to different ends. Cocteau was quite possibly cinema’s greatest interpreter and exploiter of mythologies, using them to explore our collective psyches and as excuses for knockout visual trickery.
The love story between Orpheus and Eurydice is there, but it’s expanded to an continually shifting geometric pattern, something far beyond a love triangle. There’s Orpheus and death, Eurydice and Heurtebise, death’s chauffer, and the conflict between Orpheus and Cegeste, a youthful poet that is an object of jealousy for Orpheus whose premature death is the catalyst for all of these events. Orpheus descends into the abyss, returns, and spends a great deal of time trying to return. His eventual return is both for Eurydice and for death, for a chance to gain some of the divine inspiration he witnessed, and the slow dawning horror of what he has allowed to transpire.
But it wouldn’t be a Cocteau film without a healthy dose of visual wonderment. Cocteau keeps the reality of the corporeal realm solidly melodramatic, with any supernatural occurrences clearly called out for their aberrations in the docility of domesticity. It is when we escape into the Zone that things go completely bonkers. The Zone is filmed in the bombed out ruins of France, a smart enough visual cue, and Cocteau has made no effort to clean up any of the ruins so the interiors of the buildings are eternally dilapidating and a stench of rot and decay. In one scene, Orpheus and Heurtebise crawl along the sides of a building only for Orpheus to be whisked along the side into the oblivion that waits.
Unlike Beauty and the Beast, which parading a continually series of visual tricks, smokes, ornate costuming, and stealth carnality, Orpheus is obsessed with a pervading of impending tragedy. The Zone could easily be read as an existential wonderland, a place where an artist could find eternal inspiration and eternal damnation in equal doses, or as one long elaborate metaphor for Cocteau’s opium addiction, or maybe it’s just his film’s variation of the underworld. Orpheus invites any of these readings, and each of them has a valid argument depending on deep you want to excavate the material and its echoes to Cocteau’s own life.
This pervading sense of tragedy extends beyond Orpheus and Eurydice, who end up getting their happily ever after here, but to death and Heurtebise, who sacrifice themselves to set things right. Despite giving our two main lovers as happy ending, this doesn’t translate to the rest of Orpheus. This ends the film with something that feels closer a flustered mixture of emotions. It’s elusive and exciting precisely because it refuses to wrap things up with a proudly declarative ending, much like Beauty and the Beast’s puzzling journey to a castle in the clouds.
Cocteau’s personality and obsession are woven into the fabric of Orpheus and his ensembles of actors play their parts beautifully to expand upon this journey into self-destruction. Jean Marais’ Orpheus is the poet-as-rock star, the idol of a gaggle of giddy teenage girls, and a man stuck in permanent teenage emotionality. He seems capable of only one feeling at the time, and it is at its largest volume of feeling at that given time. For instance, as Eurydice dies, Orpheus is perturbed that he’s being interrupted from his important work, then he’s disgusted with what he has allowed to play out, then possessed with the idea of return to the Zone to right things. Marais’ Orpheus is how deftly played and wonderfully played as his Beast.
Marie Dea plays Eurydice as the exemplary supportive, long-suffering wife, as if she knows she’s always be the second choice to his art and career. She puts up with Orpheus’ mercurial moods, his descents into callous and cold behavior, and forces him to glance upon as an act of self-sacrifice and love. While Maria Casares portrays death as an ice queen slowly thawing, she is a dominating and haunting presence. Some find her performance wooden or lacking in some way, but I find her a coiled figure that wanders around the outskirts of the frame even when she is not present, always ready to descend on our characters and turn them into her playthings on a whim. She has a fun chemistry with Francois Perier as Heurtebise. She titters on the brink of appearing as fetishistic figurehead while he plays the emotionless straight man to her diva tantrums.
Orpheus entwines between melodramatic love and inky desiccation, between reality and a heightened fever-dream, between autobiography and classical mythology. Only an artist as expansive and poetic as Cocteau could look at the myth and see it as a defining archetype to build a career. This is equally as potent as his prior Beauty and the Beast, and no less of a great, towering achievement.