Deploying the Greek myth of Orpheus in a contemporary setting, mimicked nine years later by Marcel Camus in Black Orpheus, Jean Cocteau’s bewitching touch shines bright in Orphée. Restoring this eternal tale of love to the big screen, this new 2K restoration released by the BFI gives the film an elevated platform for reappraisal.
Cocteau’s lifelong muse Jean Marais is alluring as the titular character. Adapting the tale away from focusing on a lyre-playing singer to a famous Left Bank poet in post-war Paris imbues Cocteau’s parable with reality from the outset. Infusing two seemingly opposing worlds – magic and reality – together is a difficult task for any filmmaker, yet in the masterful hands of the Frenchman they seamlessly exist in a unified state.
Somewhat at a creative end, Orphée (Marais) is brash around his unhappy wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa) in constantly opposing anything she suggestions or comments. After witnessing two vicious motorcyclists, adorned in black leather, run over another young poet at a brasserie, he unknowingly ventures into the underworld with a servant of death. Adopting the form of a beautiful young woman (Maria Casares), the poet becomes obsessed with a mysterious princess who exhibits an air of authority in her lustrous black dresses. Injecting his life with some much-needed inspiration, Orphée falls in love with death, thus constantly seeking a way to return to the underworld.
Caught between two worlds, death’s spirits haunt the idyllic country setting. Tasked with overseeing the central couple to the narrative, Heurtebise (François Périer) comes to similarly fall in love, yet only with Eurydice. Spiritually channelling his director, Marais crafts a sincere performance as a multi-talented artist. Adopting a duality in his performance, comparable to another spellbinding turn in La Belle et la Bête, the compassion that permeates from one of the film’s most iconic images forms a great deal of pathos.
An underlying level of spiritual angst boils to the surface in Marais’ dedicated rendering of a man existing in a creative purgatory. The lavish design of the mise-en-scene indicates a well-off man who absorbs himself in his own private world. Such a world only seemingly involved interacting his wife or a drinker at a bar. A reclusive, these social interactions juxtapose the actor’s dashing physique. Again, the balance between two worlds enters the frame with this divide in the fantastique genre leading to a detrimental internal discourse amongst the character’s being.
Avoiding a discussion around Cocteau’s collaboration with DoP Nicholas Hayer’s flourishing camera tricks or magically editing would be to ignore a pivotal component of what makes the Frenchmen such a seminal director in film history. Illustrating the roots of the moving image, the wonder that results in witnessing character’s glide through glass speaks to firstly the dreamlike trance the feature place one in. Yet, distorting fantasy with reality in these cinematic practises foregrounds the beauty of practical effects.
Returning to the timeless parable once again in the biographical Testament of Orpheus, the Greek figure evidently lingering as a constant creative thought to Cocteau. Unlike being banished to the underworld for looking at his wife, the director lives eternally in the presence of cinephiles through his pioneering cinematic vision. Foregrounding his greatness, Orphée is a timely reminder of cinema’s origins as a visual medium. Sprinkled with a touch of magic, from beginning to end, the film is a mesmeric experience.