Notes on Jean Cocteau's Orphée
Disclaimer: I haven't yet seen Blood of Poet, or Testament of Orpheus.
Also, spoiler alert.
Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée is a prance, a caper, between tragedy and comedy, irony and schmaltz. These oppositions are not always intentional: it’s an imperfect, if artistic and entertaining, even endearing, film. But as others have noted, the narrative sometimes feels a bit crowded; the acting, occasionally stiff.
Cocteau gives us a classic retelling of the Greek myth with the freshness and irony of a French provincial setting. Orpheus (Jean Marais), a poet, enjoys fame, but struggles to balance his art and home life—he rebuffs his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), for example, when she tries to share the news that she’s pregnant. She, in turn, complains that her husband is too obsessed with drafting poems with help from a talking car:
Eurydice is killed, per the myth, and Orpheus descends to the underworld to retrieve her. All goes jelly-like as he walks through a full length mirror in the couple’s bedroom. He departs, flows, pushes, gloved fist first. He must cross the veneer to understand his obligations as a poet. Though the mirror contains only his inconsequential reflection, it has been impenetrable to him thus far. What helps him through are the gloves, left discarded on the bed by the enigmatic character most often referred to as ‘Orpheus’ Death’ (María Casares). We have just seen her moments before, busy, ramrod straight— literally packed into a corset, it appears. Thus far in the film she has been consistently bitchy, totally dominating, but her identity has been fluid, like the mirror she navigates so adroitly: before Orpheus entered the room, she was not ‘Orpheus’ Death,’ but ‘Eurydice’s Death.’
Cocteau is an artist so competent in his creation of the lovely that he must always push through to its converse. He seems to have been born knowing that he must temper playful flourishes with something dark, or else his work is merely sentimental. But whenever he does so, he can’t help but belove and be-lovely those darker realms. In his novel Les enfants terribles, for example, the central crisis in an early scene, in which the character Paul is near-fatally injured by his schoolmates, is muffled in a fairy-tale snowfall (the snow, in fact, is a weapon). In Orphée, another poet, Cègeste, is killed, but his broken body, hit by the underworld motorcycle gang, is portrayed symbolically, with a kind of stock gesture, in draped poise.
Baudelaire might understand the challenge . In a poem published 89 years before Orphée, “Hymne à la Beauté;” he speculates upon Beauty, a netherworld goddess who overpowers her enraptured devotees. Never sweet or kind, murder is one of her “dearest trinkets,” a horror with which she enchants. She wills her lovers to destruction and dissolution. Indeed, like Beauty’s mad adorer in the poem, Orpheus falls in love with his own death. As he skirts and slides along, clutching and handling the walls and edifices of the liquid underworld, he enacts Baudelaire’s description of utter self-abnegation (lines 19-20): “The panting lover bending over his love/seems like a dying man caressing his own tomb.”
Baudelaire’s figure succumbs to an indifferent and possibly evil force. The rewards are the spoils of beauty: entrance into a “world less hideous and time less oppressive.” Orpheus, too, flees from his stifling married life, beckoned by orders from Casares’ distracting mouth (as Baudelaire describes it, “Your kisses are a philter and your mouth an amphora/Which makes the hero cowardly…”). But Cocteau’s Orpheus escapes. Though he delights in the dark myth, zestfully portraying all kinds of devilish behavior, Cocteau indicates an instinct to return from debauchery. His narrative establishes Baudelaire’s temptation, but with the twist that his hero must be freed, not kept, in order to achieve integration, poetry, and peace. Does the beauty of the film suffer as a result, according to the laws of the Baudelairian universe? This is what the hapless lover in “Hymne à la Beauté” might mockingly predict.
It's true that the film sometimes startles us from its dream. Early scenes depicting a private investigator, for example, pursuing the disappeared Orpheus, feel nagged into being at the request of exterior logic. The mob that attacks Orpheus at the end of the film is briefly sketched, their leader Aglaonice established, but also forgotten, and their attack is brief, too—death by bit parts. When Cocteau too awkwardly suppresses the beautiful lushness of his talent—one might say when he doesn’t enter and exit the mirror as gracefully as the gloved Orpheus—the film can go almost slapstick, a little bit slapdash.
Mostly, though, the film thrives. The unique gesture of freeing Orpheus invigorates Cocteau’s story with a kind of madcap novelty. But is this gesture another retreat from deeply felt tragedy, caused by Cocteau’s aesthetic affections? Perhaps, but it works. If we look again at what happens, Cocteau swaps Orpheus’ traditional death, in which he’s torn apart by Maenads, for the death of the mesmerizing beauty of his death. The voiceover at that moment comments: “The Death of a Poet must sacrifice itself to make him immortal.” This notion, a pivot upon which Baudelaire’s seduction is shifted, creates an opportunity.
The second, lucky departure of Orpheus from the underworld enables Cocteau to show us the mirror image of his obsessive love from the up-side world, where ethics still matter. And we find some irony there, watching Orpheus with Eurydice cuddle in their rather kitschy home, hovered over by floral wallpaper and caricature portraits. Cocteau seems to use, or rather tease, seduction’s devouring pull, but doesn’t let himself get used: neither by Beauty, nor by Rules. Importantly, he will not follow the dictates of Baudelaire’s haunting poem. This lightens his work. This is his opening to comedy.
One of my favorite such ironies comes, surprisingly, at the downfall of ‘Orpheus’ Death.’ After Orpheus is killed by the mob of hipster-bacchantes, and tumbled back down to the underworld to what appears to be his doom, María Casares, in her last moments as his death, reaches the crisis.
Her beautiful, sparkling tears come at the moment of the decision. In the liquid, dark underworld, wet light over her eyes figures (or, really, disfigures, because of the distortion of the drops) what appears to be a soulful change. We see something of that bedroom mirror in the tears. Indeed, our own epiphanies come from behind screens as thin as tears, as thin as the workaday sounds and colors our perceptive eyes and ears transmit to us. Our insights are intermittent, like the scraps of verse announced by the talking car. Her choice? She relents, and a tribunal permits the poet and his wife to escape.
Mesmerized by the splendid cinematography, we might miss the irony. ‘Orpheus’ Death’ realizes she loves Orpheus so very much that she’s willing to…not murder him. If she now seems more human than ever, this is a mad human. Or a mirror human. If to love is to merely not kill, then any impatient sigh is a knife thrust. Moreover, have we known some mortals who try to pass off such meager effects as ‘love?’ She is the ‘lover’ who, clasped together with the poet minutes prior, had demanded, “will you obey me completely;” the lover who, earlier that same day, efficiently murdered his wife. It’s enough to make one weep.
But her tears are beautiful—we’re seduced. They signal something like soul, but they’re also magical, like the gloves the poet wore, helping us get through a difficult surface. With help from tears we might better roll our own eyes and burst out laughing, but the scene is too lovely, and Casares’ acting is anything but stiff, so we don’t. We follow her, raptly attentive, as she’s taken to her fate. If the entire film is a kind of mirror, it’s not so much a reflection of human frailty, but an entry/exit into the choice Baudelaire poses—or an answer to a kind of two-sided puzzle. The character ‘Orpheus’ Death’ consumes, burns our attention like Baudelaire’s beautiful goddess, but Cocteau kills ‘it’—or at least neutralizes the death wish, and thus the power—and affirms the chance to live on, to make more art: to make beauty.
“The humor, when it comes, is dry,” Roger Ebert writes of Orphée. When the humor comes, Cocteau is especially free. Far from patching up of narrative threads or grasping at pieces of lost logic, in the best moments he flows through, paradoxically combining subconscious inspiration with a knowing wink. Of the film’s many virtues, and according to his talents, he offers a unique gift, namely a lovely, aesthetic sense of irony, one exquisitely understated—like the jewel of a giggle, in the midst of a weep.
Translated lines from Baudelaire's poem can be found in The Poem Itself: 150 European Poems Translated and Analysed, edited by Stanley Burnshaw. Pelican Books, London, 1964.