Orpheus (1949)

ORPHEUS (1949)
(a.k.a. ORPHEE)
Article #1578 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-10-2005
Posting Date: 12-7-2005
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Featuring Jean Marais, Francois Perier, Maria Casares

A poet has a strange encounter with a woman in black known as the Princess, and then begins to hear bizarre poetry on the radio of the princess’ automobile.

There’s a moment in this movie where the poet puts on a pair of clear gloves that will help him to pass through a mirror. Instead of showing footage of the poet donning the gloves in a straightforward fashion, Jean Cocteau used footage of the poet taking off the gloves and ran it backwards. On the basis of purely practical story-telling, this use of footage is eccentric and useless, but in terms of adding that special touch of surreal lyricism and giving the sense of truly other-worldly action, it’s a brilliant moment. That is certainly one of Cocteau’s charms; he uses special effects not to give a sense of reality to fantastic events, but to give that sense of exotic unreality that underlies much of his work. The fact that some of his special effects techniques are obvious (he loves to run footage backwards and does it quite a bit during this movie) does not in any sense reduce its cinematic power.

This may be his best-known work after his masterpiece, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. It’s not the equal of that one, largely because the story itself (an update of the Orpheus story) is more obscure and difficult than the one of the earlier movie. It is also very difficult at time to fathom the motives of the main character; in particular, I’m never sure how Orpheus really feels about either the Princess or Eurydice. But the imagery has a definite staying power, and there’s something rather compelling about the vision of the world of Death and the dead as it is portrayed here. At any rate, the visions of Orpheus travelling on the other side of the mirror with the chauffeur have stayed in my memory from my first viewing of the movie years ago. It makes me rather sad that Cocteau only directed 10 movies in his life, but other than an obscure silent film and the short BLOOD OF A POET, he really didn’t start directing until he was well into his fifties. Cocteau was one of the filmmakers being emulated by Herk Harvey when that man directed CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

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