France 1950; dir: Jean Cocteau
starring: Jean Marais, María Casares, Maria Déa, François Périer
screened 3/1/08, Criterion DVD
“The death of a poet requires a sacrifice to make him immortal.”
Unrelated to Orpheus, but a milestone nonetheless, this is the 500th post on this blog. Woohoo! Okay, back to the business at hand.
Previous Viewing Experience: Have never seen it before.
Knowledge Before Viewing: I know absolutely nothing about the story; but it forms a sort of trilogy with two other Cocteau films, Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus. I have actually seen Blood of a Poet, but a LONG time ago, and I mostly didn’t get it because it’s on the surrealist side. But I’m looking forward to Orpheus (despite the appearance of having put it off for, like two months), at least in part because Cocteau’s La belle et la bête is one of my all-time favorite films.
Brief Synopsis: Orpheus, a poet in post-war France, finds himself caught up with Death in the visage of a beautiful woman and her minions. When Death takes his wife Euridyce, Orpheus follows them into the underworld–but is it really Euridyce he desires, or is it Death herself?
Initial Viewing Response: Jean Cocteau was as much a poet as a filmmaker, and his films are poetic to their very core. The acting, writing, narration, music, visuals, and effects all come together to create a heightened mood — not realistic in any normal use of the word, but hyperreal. Or you could say surreal, I suppose, though Orpheus is much more closely aligned with the fairy-tale mood of La belle et la bête than the surrealism of Blood of a Poet. Although I should probably rewatch Blood of a Poet because I could be misremembering it horribly (in fact, I tend to get it mixed up in my head with Buñuel’s Un chien andalou, which may be a disservice to both of the films).
In any case, as you may have guessed, the story transplants and modifies the Greek Orpheus myth, in which the poet/musician spent so much time with his music that he ignored his wife, Euridyce. When she died, he went into the underworld to get her, and Hades allowed Euridyce to return to life with Orpheus on the condition that Orpheus could not look at her until they reached the world of the living. Impatient, Orpheus turned to look at her as they came near the exit of the underworld, and she was reclaimed by Hades. In Cocteau’s version (which may be another version of the myth, I’m not sure), the stipulation said that he could never look at her again, ever. And in any case, by that time, Orpheus was too infatuated with Death to be much interested in Eurydice at all. Another layer is added by the character of Herteubise, Death’s chauffeur and messenger, who falls in love with Eurydice while Orpheus is obsession over Death.
I won’t say I completely understand the film (did Death change her mind somewhere in the middle about what she wanted, or was the entire thing an elaborate plot on her part to balance Orpheus’s poetic obsessions with his domestic life?), but it was mesmerizing and beautiful to watch. And if you don’t know by now, I might as well say: I appreciate films more for the experience I have while watching them and the images they engrave on my consciousness than for pretty much anything else, and usually, the more ambiguous the point of the film, the more beautiful I find it. Cocteau’s special effects are simple and obvious, but they’re some how much more effective (and affective) than more elaborate, realistic effects would have been. Orpheus’s difficulty walking in the no-man’s land between the two worlds, the double-exposures revealing Death’s entry into this world and the glimpses of the other through mirrors, the filmed-backwards shots of Orpheus putting on the underworld gloves which suggest that time may not be working as we expect–all are clearly heightened, obvious effects, but they fit in perfectly with the poetic tone of the film.
There are a lot of things to think about; many quotes and ideas could be followed down philosophical rabbit trails, from the quote I used about about the immortality of a poet depending on a sacrifice (isn’t it in some ways true that poets must die before they can live forever–very few great artists are recognized as such during their life), to the connection of mirrors with death (Herteubise suggests that every time we look in a mirror, we see death). The problem with thinking TOO much about the film is that I’m not sure it makes logical sense, at least not in our normal definition of left-brained, linear logic. The motivations of Death and Orpheus aren’t aways clear (much less so than the more realist Herteubise and Euridyce, which is actually probably intentional now that I think of it), nor is the process for moving between the two worlds. Yet it somehow manages to make mystical sense, if you don’t try to impose propositional logic onto it.
Reflective Response: I think I’m going to ditch the reflective responses. A few days isn’t enough time to process these films, so the experiment in comparing immediate to reflective responses was flawed in theory.