Orphée (aka Orpheus) (1949)

(Image via Foreign Movies Forum)

(Image via Foreign Movies Forum)

Orphée, directed by Jean Cocteau, tells the story of a self-centered and commercially successful French poet of the same name (Jean Marais). When we meet him, he’s hanging out at a poet’s cafe in Paris, which is packed with artists.

He meets “the Princess” (Maria Casares), a woman who has started her own artistic movement of sorts by publishing a “nudism” journal — a journal in which every page is blank, rather than filled with poetry or stories. After a fight breaks out at the cafe and a man is hurt, the Princess asks Orphée to come with her, acting as a witness.

While Orphée is with the Princess, his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa) is at home, worrying about him more with each passing hour.

Rather than going to the police, the Princess takes Orphée (and the body of the now-dead man who was hurt at the cafe) to an old house. The Princess, as it turns out, is no regular woman: she is Death.

Orphée was not only directed by Cocteau, but also written by him, based on his own one-act play (which was, of course, inspired by the original Greek tale).

I’ve seen this film described as visual “poetry” and I couldn’t agree with that description more. While I’ve watched many beautifully crafted films, rarely have I seen one that flows so well. Its fascinating story is complemented by skillful cinematography, nicely-executed special effects, and performances that are pretty close to perfect.

And on top of that, the story and characters have so much depth. Orphée is not just a cocky artist; from the first time we meet him there are many layers to his personality (a hot temperament, an unhappiness, a judgmental nature…). He undergoes a great transformation throughout the course of the film, and Marais was the perfect choice for the role.

I also love Cocteau’s version of the underworld — with “the zone,” full of the deceased’s memories and old habits. The scene in which Heurtebise (François Périer – giving a captivating performance, possibly my favorite in the film) guides Orphée through “the zone” is stunning.

(Image via Toutlecine)

(Image via Toutlecine)

In addition to the unusual love triangle Orphée finds himself in, with Death and his wife, aspects of his career as an artist are also explored, including the replacement of the “old guard” with a new set of talents, who perhaps lack respect for their artistic elders.

Orphée does a fantastic job of modernizing a myth and using it to make commentaries on love, life, death, and art all while capturing a sense of magic and fantasy. Complex and engaging, this film is definitely worth seeking out. The score: 5/5!

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One thought on “Orphée (aka Orpheus) (1949)

  1. For having such a small filmography, Cocteau was a true artist. The Orphic trilogy is a great example of poetry on film, and Beauty and the Beast is up there with the best of fantasy — and all of his films were ahead of their time. Nice post!

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