Criterion // 1950 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 12th, 2011
Cocteau at the height of his powers.
"Mirrors are gates through which death comes and goes."
Orpheus (Jean Marais, Beauty and the Beast) is an esteemed French poet. He is happily married to Eurydice (Marie Dea, The Devil's Envoys) and leads a relatively normal life. One day, Orpheus' drunken rival Jacques Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe, Les Enfants Terribles) arrives at the bar where Orpheus spends a good deal of time and starts making a scene. Suddenly, Cegeste is killed by two leather-clad men on motorcycles. His body is scooped up by a mysterious princess (Maria Casares, Children of Paradise) who demands that Orpheus accompany her. She takes our befuddled poet on a brief journey to a strange alternate dimension, and then sends him back home. Upon returning, Orpheus finds himself a considerably changed man. He is agitated, obsessed with sequences he hears on a car radio and surly towards his wife. After a series of dark developments, Orpheus finds himself forced to choose between his loving spouse and the mysterious princess.
You probably know the mythological story of Orpheus, or at least you heard it once and have forgotten it. We know that he was a talented singer/poet and that he possessed a tremendous amount of charm. When his wife Eurydice passed away, his charm was so considerable that he was able to convince the creatures of the underworld to return his wife to the land of the living. There was one condition placed upon her return: if Orpheus looked at her before they both arrived in the upper world, she would vanish forever. Tragically, things turned out rather badly for both the charmer and his spouse. There are numerous variations on this particular story, but that's the basic idea. Even so, Jean Cocteau's modern updating of Orpheus so dramatically alters the basic story that perhaps it's better referred to as story partially inspired by the myth of Orpheus rather than an actual retelling of it.
Orpheus is an immensely puzzling film, though the director certainly intended it to be that way. I could explain the entire plot to you in a manner that would more or less make sense, and yet there are so many moments in the movie that seem rather inexplicable (for instance, what's up with the violence demonstrated by the unusual League of Women near the film's conclusion?). Interviews with the director somehow manage to make the film even cloudier than it already is, as he casually tramples on the few things we're confident we know and offers vague alternate solutions. Most who see the film will make the assumption that The Princess is Death and that her associate Heurtebise is a guardian angel, as the latter certainly acts very much like a guardian angel and the former goes so far as to declare that she actually is Death. Even so, Cocteau insists that this is not the case: "There is no Death and no angel. There can be none. Heurtebise is a young Death serving in one of the numerous suborders of Death, and the princess is no more Death than an air hostess is an angel." You see how things might become rather puzzling after a while.
Setting offscreen matters aside and focusing on what's actually in the frame, we have a film loaded with memorable images, compelling ideas, considerable craftsmanship, and somewhat frustrating storytelling. Part of what makes Orpheus compelling and exasperating is the uncomfortable (but somehow appropriate) journey through a world of very specific rules and regulations via dream logic. We know there is a specific system in place, but we have no idea what that system is. The harder we contemplate the matter, the fuzzier things become. Cocteau inspires questions of how his surreal universe works, then ensures that our answers will be useless blends of partial knowledge and guesswork. How does our own real-life universe work? We know there is a precise scientific system in place, but our knowledge has so many gaps. For now, we are more or less stuck with elaborate variations on, "It just works."
Orpheus is a film of strong emotions and little sense, but this is not necessarily a liability. At one point, one characters tells another to simply accept an unusual turn of events, as the development would be difficult to understand even in a world of supernatural understanding. To fully appreciate the film, you must step back from it and let it wash over you rather than digging in and searching for clues. I confess to having some difficulty with this, as Orpheus spends much of its time presenting itself as a mystery to be solved rather than an enigma to be absorbed.
Still, there is plenty on the surface to appreciate: the subtle special effects Cocteau so seamlessly works into the film (he takes advantage of reverse photography quite frequently), the performance of Marais in the title role (striking and handsome, if not quite a charmer of mythic proportions), the intoxicating cinematography, the fetishistic imagery which teasingly foreshadows so many less successful cinematic fantasies, the spine-tingling music by Georges Auric and the notion that artists are drawn to death like flies to honey. In darkly compelling fashion, the director suggests that there are larger forces at work so powerful that they make our human concerns seem remarkably petty: after his experience in the underworld, Orpheus finds the news that his wife is dying little more than a frustrating interruption of his day.
Orpheus arrives on Blu-ray sporting a very attractive 1080p/Full Frame transfer. While this isn't quite as gorgeous as the best black-and-white work Criterion has done, it's only a notch or two below the cream of the crop. Detail is fantastic throughout, though a few scenes sport intentional softness (an effect used frequently to convey the transition from one world to another). The picture looks a touch wobbly at times and has a few moments of minor print damage, but nothing worth complaining about. Audio is quite impressive throughout, with the aforementioned Auric score making the biggest impression. Sound design is pretty subdued throughout much of the film, but the effects have been well-preserved. Dialogue is quite sturdy given the film's age.
The previous Criterion DVD release of The Orphic Trilogy had a handful of supplements, but this hi-def reissue of the film has preserved most of the old material and added quite a bit of new stuff. Here's what you get: an insightful commentary courtesy of film scholar James Williams, a 1984 documentary entitled "Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown Artist" (67 minutes), two archival interviews with Cocteau (about 57 minutes combined), an interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau (14 minutes), Cocteau's short film "La villa Santo-Sospir" (37 minutes), a brief look at the "Saint Cyr Academy Ruins" (2 minutes), some still photographs and a booklet featuring essays by Cocteau, Mark Polizzotti and James Williams. This is a fantastic package and Criterion deserves a lot of credit for supplying so much fresh material this time around.
It's not as richly satisfying as Cocteau's magnificent adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, but Orpheus is an endlessly ambitious film which should reward repeat viewings. Criterion's Blu-ray release is exceptional.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film