Jean Cocteau once said that he preferred mythology to history. “History is made of truths that end up becoming lies” he added, while “mythology is made of lies that later become truths”. His obsession with myth shows up in his entire oeuvre, from his controversial plays, to his simple, almost cubist art, and of course, it’s especially prominent in his films. Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy which he made over the span of three decades, has become the standard by which most avant-garde cinema is measured. In these three films Cocteau used the celluloid as a canvas in which he pushed the boundaries of the medium with an existentialist twist.
In the stunning The Blood of a Poet, released in 1930, the prominent artist recurred to groundbreaking special effects in order to convey the machinations that move the mind of a poet. His oneiric imagery—drawn from Greek art and Freudian ideas—successfully represented what surrealism had become all about. Cocteau after all, was friends with some of the most notorious surrealists and even if he never applied the label on his own work, he often discussed his belief in “phoenexology”: a philosophical current created by Salvador Dalí which established that life was all about constant rebirth.
When, 20 years later, he decided to direct a followup to The Blood of a Poet, he relied on Dalí’s idea to create a film that discusses life and death in physical, artistic and philosophical terms. Based on the well known Greek myth about the hero who must travel to the underworld to rescue his lover, Orpheus grabs the main aspects of the story and transposes them to modern, but consciously undefinable, times.
Set in Paris, the film begins on the Café des Poètes, where a young poet named Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) suddenly dies, as if struck by some otherworldly command. Sitting nearby is Orpheus (Jean Marais), a fellow poet who had been declared a national hero and was considered Cégeste’s greatest rival. Orpheus is called upon by a strange woman (María Casares) to serve as witness in the case. As he leaves with her and they enter a mysterious region, we realize that this woman is no other than Death herself.
Upon entering her castle (a property inspired bu Cocteau’s own Villa Santo-Sospir according to a short documentary included in this edition) Orpheus is seduced by the strange elements that surround this woman. He becomes obsessed with her and upon his return to “life” he finds that he can’t do anything but try to reach her again. Little does Orpheus know that death has become infatuated with him and has set her eye on taking his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa) away from him.With this, Cocteau has enough to stage his own reinterpretation of the myth and seems to have a ball devising ways in which to update the Greek elements into postwar France.
When Orpheus has to rescue his wife from the depths of hell we see, not the flames and magma pits we might expect, instead we are given a landscape of desolation provided by ruins of buildings shattered during WWII attacks. This, paired with Cocteau’s innovative use of effects creates an eerie sense of reality that leads us to think that hell might be a place on Earth. Orpheus’ guide, similarly, is not some half animal-half human creature, but death’s chauffeur Heurtebise (Francois Périer) who guides the hero through a maze of mirrors and strange labyrinths. A sequence where the two men crawl against a strong wind is one of the most iconic moments in world cinema.
To discuss Orpheus just in terms of story would be a great disservice to the meticulousness with which Cocteau crafted each sequence. The film’s symbolism might give Jungian theorists a field day (radio waves coming from the underworld, mirrors breaking etc.) but the film explores so many aspects of how creation can be molded, that ultimately what resonates the most is its relentless love of art.
“The ‘myth-key’ opens for the poets the most locked of souls” says Cocteau and in this case, it can be applied to how the movie works as a study of an artist’s creative process. Even if you’re not too familiar with Cocteau’s personal history or work, the film can’t help but feel deeply personal. Its bohemian settings feel so honest that you can sense the director’s admiration for the vibrancy of youth (another documentary in the DVD has Cocteau praising jazz and the youth culture) while Marais’ characterization of Orpheus as a selfish creator whose art comes before everything else, feels like a justification of Cocteau’s own eccentric personality.
It’s interesting to wonder, How did Marais feel about playing Cocteau’s alter ego, given that he was the director’s lover and muse until his death? Was Cocteau’s intention to exorcise whatever demons might have existed in their relationship?
Trying to decipher the man behind the art might be easier thanks to this remarkable DVD edition, which includes hours of bonus material and a fantastic essay by author Mark Polizzotti. At the center of the features we find the famous documentary Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown which chronicles the artist’s life using images and compositions that make it feel more like a piece of video art than a regular biography. In the documentary, Cocteau discusses his relationship with Raymond Radiguet, his deep passion for the ballet and assorted philosophical musings. Rounding up the material are a forty minute profile, a whimsical short about Cocteau’s use of visual effects (directed by Marc Caro) and a refreshing interview where Cocteau—continuously ahead of time—declares that some of the best film scores would be made with jazz.
Even if there’s not much material concerned with the actual behind-the-scenes happenings of Orpheus, its autobiographical strokes make the actual material much more precious than discussions about how this and that was done. Criterion has delivered one of their richest editions ever and the feature attraction has never looked better (gone are the slight scratches of the previous release). All the bonus material reminds us that even if the film remains somewhat of an undecipherable beast, we have been provided with elements to serve us as key to unlock this iconic myth.