Orpheus

The idea behind today's movie sounded a little meh when I first heard about it. A retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus - how good could that be? It sounded sort of unexciting to me. It was really hard for me to track down a copy of this movie, as well, which I think made me harbor some ill-will towards the film. The film was directed by Jean Cocteau in 1949, and I think Criterion is releasing a new Blu-ray of this film in a few months. I wish I had been able to watch that version, but alas, my timing just didn't work out.

Despite my initial feelings about the movie, I ended up loving it. It's a strange film, for sure. It's odd to hear names like Orpheus and Eurydice spoken in normal society, and Cocteau changes the plot quite a bit, as well. It's a really fantastical film, full of neat little effects and great acting. I liked his retelling of the story. It was really interesting and unique, and a shockingly engrossing watch. I loved Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, because he created such a cool fantasy world. He does it again here, as well, and it's seriously great.


The film is a 1940's retelling of the traditional story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus is a famous poet, and hangs out a lot at  the aptly named Cafe des Poetes. One day, the Princess, aka Death, stages a brawl at the Cafe and a rival poet, Cegeste, is killed. The Princess and her driver, Heurtebise, ask Orpheus to come along as a witness, and they collect the body of Cegeste and drive off, into what basically is the Underworld. When Orpheus returns to the normal world with Heurtebise, he is obsessed with the Princess and with the strange radio transmissions that come out of the Princess's car. A bizarre love triangle forms - Orpheus is in love with the Princess and his wife, the Princess is in love with him, and Heurtebise is in love with Eurydice. Like in the Greek myth, Eurydice dies and is taken to the Underworld, and Orpheus goes after her. In the Greek myth, Orpheus is forbidden to look at his wife until they are both safely back on Earth. In Cocteau's story, Orpheus is forbidden to look at her always, lest she will die again.

I thought the love triangle in the film made a strange amount of sense. It seemed beautiful and poetic, really. Who else but a poet would be in love with Death? Who else would kiss her and yearn for her? And honestly, would Death ever fall in love with anyone other than a poet? I also liked the little twist on how the couple returns from death. How could they never look at each other, ever? They both hate it, and it seems more like a curse than a gift. When Orpheus eventually does look at her, it is through a rear view mirror in a car, and no one seems too upset. "It had to happen," he keeps saying. They seemed to understand that her return was not permanent, and they both hated their new lives so much that she was pretty much willing to go back.

Cocteau is a really great director. He doesn't use big effects or tricks to create any of his scenes, but instead uses simple camera tricks. It somehow makes it more believable, and slightly more magical. I don't know why this is, really. There are magic gloves in the movie that can give the wearer the ability to cross into the Underworld through mirrors. When Orpheus takes them and goes to put them on, they seem to jump onto his hands. Watching it, I knew that the scene was just the actor taking the gloves off, but played in reverse. I knew this, but yet, it still seemed eerie and fascinating. Anthony and I backed up the DVD to watch the scene again, because the simple little shot was so effective. I think it is so rare that we see simple tricks like this that they feel really new when we do seem them. The tricks are basic, but so effective in setting up the wonderful world that Cocteau gives us. Because they are not special effects, they do not age, and still work well today.

When I watch silent movies I often feel like I'm watching a dream, and I felt very much like that watching Orpheus today. It wasn't our world, and it wasn't even the world that we normally see in movies. The little tricks that Cocteau does just adds to this feeling, for me. The effects were basically real, just creative uses of film, and because of that, they feel real when you watch them.  I totally bought all the of the characters. It seemed weird at first, but once I got into the story, it didn't seem odd anymore. There were parts that I at first hesitated about - "Wait, that's Death?"  - but it always seemed like after a few seconds I was like, "Yep, that's her alright. Cool!" I just love this movie because it felt like a long, beautiful dream, or like looking into a different world.

"Seeing "Orpheus" today is like glimpsing a cinematic realm that has passed completely from the scene," Ebert writes in his essay, "Films are rarely made for purely artistic reasons, experiments are discouraged, and stars as big as Marais are not cast in eccentric remakes of Greek myths" (Great Movies II, 316). Maybe that's why the movie feels so interesting and unique. There really are not films made like this anymore, and it felt special to see such an odd little movie. It's not normal, but that's what makes it so amazing!

I've always been interested in the Greek myth of Oprheus, and I really enjoyed Cocteau's version. I'd tell you to go out and rent this, but as I found it, it's very hard to find this film! Hopefully once the Criterion comes out, it will be more widely available and you guys can check this movie out! I think fans of Cocteau will really love this, but I think that it's a great movie for anyone, especially if you like a little fantasy in your movies.

Have any of you seen Orpheus? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Links:
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Orpheus
Eurydice by H.D. (the film reminded me of this poem, mostly just the subject matter)

The Inner Workings of this Crazy Project

Thank you!