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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Jean Cocteau’s take on a famous myth offers a truly strange vision of life and death
Screenshot: Orpheus

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Pixar’s Soul was supposed to hit theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back on other cinematic depictions of the afterlife.

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Orpheus (1950)

In its original form, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice makes Romeo and Juliet look like Ozzie and Harriet. So powerful was Orpheus’ love for his wife, according to the story, that when she died, he descended into the underworld to retrieve her. Fortunately, he was the Don McLean of ancient Greece, successfully killing (so to speak) Hades and Persephone softly with his song; they agreed to let Eurydice return to the land of the living, but on the condition that Orpheus not look back at her until both of them had crossed the afterlife’s state border. More skilled at crooning than at following arbitrary commands, Orpheus turned around the instant he set foot back on Earth, whereupon Eurydice, walking just a few feet behind him, instantly vanished—this time for good. It’s a tale potent enough to be recycled indefinitely, fueling everything from Marcel Camus’ Cannes winner Black Orpheus to, most recently, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which reconfigures the myth for two women.

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There’s no stranger or more haunting reinterpretation, however, than Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, which transforms what had always been a tragic love story into a harrowing death wish. Released in 1950, the film is part two of a decade-spanning Orphic trilogy, preceded by 1930’s The Blood Of A Poet and followed by 1960’s Testament Of Orpheus. It plays superlatively on its own, however (the three are connected only thematically, for the most part), and is so utterly bizarre as to negate all foreknowledge, in any case. Here, Orpheus (Jean Marais, also the star of Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast) is a famous poet who witnesses the apparently accidental death of a young rival (Édouard Dermit) and gets corralled by a mysterious woman (María Casares), who claims she needs him as a witness to what happened. This woman turns out to be Death—or his Death, at least; the film’s afterlife bureaucracy is left deliberately hazy—and she arranges to kill Eurydice (Marie Déa), prompting Orpheus’ fabled journey to the underworld. In this version, however, Orpheus admits that he’s motivated not by saving his wife but by his lust for Death.

At once deeply personal (the younger poet, whose nonsensical phrases Orpheus becomes obsessed with, reportedly reflects an aging Cocteau’s anxiety about losing his edge) and nakedly political (one key scene was shot in the rubble of a military academy bombed during the war), Orpheus is open to endless analysis. At the same time, it’s the kind of movie that works best if you simply accept its weirdness at face value. (“You try too hard to understand what’s going on, young man,” Death remarks at one point.) Cocteau had a unique gift for dreamlike imagery, recognizing that certain effects can be transporting even if they’re transparent. When Orpheus and his guide, an undead chauffeur named Heurtebise (François Périer), travel through a region of the underworld called the Zone, for example, it’s quite obvious that Heurtebise is standing motionless in front of rear-projected footage of Orpheus. But knowing how it was achieved doesn’t make the effect look any less eerie. Even something as simple as Orpheus donning a pair of gloves (which will allow him to pass through a mirror) carries an uncanny charge via the simple method of shooting Marais removing the gloves and then showing that in reverse. The film’s oneiric quality is unsurpassed, even as the actors play everything in the most matter-of-fact way possible. It’s an unsettling vision of life after death in which both life and death seem at once magical and mundane, summed up by an offhand comment from Heurtebise: “Look in a mirror all your life and you’ll see death at work.”

Availability: Orpheus is currently streaming on HBO Max, Kanopy (in some locations), and the Criterion Channel.

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