Great French surrealist Jean Cocteau was seemingly a little obsessed with the tale of Orpheus. He made a loose trilogy of films inspired by the classical myth (in which the musician/poet journeys to the Underworld to rescue his wife and muse, Eurydice), staged a theatre production of the story in 1926 and, in one of the extras included here (La Villa Santo Sospir), shows off several remarkable paintings of the character.
Orphée (1950), the second of the so-called Orphic Trilogy, is the closest Cocteau comes to a direct adaptation of the original tale. It reinvents Orphée/Orpheus, played by dashing matinee idol Jean Marais, as a “very handsome and very famous” poet in post-WWII Paris. Although described as a “national treasure” and mobbed by young female fans, it seems he is no longer de rigueur with the in-crowd, and hellraising Young Turks like Jacques Cégeste (Édouard Dermit) threaten to steal his thunder.
But when the latter is run over and killed, it sets off a fantastical chain of events that sees Orphée travel to a mysterious realm, called “The Zone”, and fall in love with Death (Maria Casarès). Masquerading as the enigmatic Princess, she has plans to separate the poet from Eurydice (Marie Déa) and keep him for herself. Orphée also becomes obsessed with strange messages (“The bird sings with its fingers”) and numbers, transmitted by Cégeste from beyond the grave, and relayed via a car radio, like war-time communications to the French Resistance.
A 70-year-old black-and-white film, with imaginative but rudimentary special effects, that has had many of its best ideas and images appropriated over the decades in a host of media, shouldn’t feel as fresh as Orphée does. But the nimbleness of its storytelling and boldness of Cocteau’s vision – allied to the fact magical realism and fantasy are very in-vogue right now – means the film seems oddly contemporary. In fact, if you discovered Guillermo del Toro, the Wachowskis or David Lynch planned to remake or adapt it, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid because Orphée has clearly informed their own work.
Despite being made when George VI was still king, it’s Orphée’s visual style that truly captivates. The film has a dream-like quality that tips over into full-blown nightmare whenever the action shifts from the real world – usually through a mirror – into The Zone. It’s a realm of darkness and shadows (in reality, the ruins of a French military academy), in which Cocteau lets his desires to innovate and shock run wild, employing slow and reverse motion, rear projection, montage and all sorts of other effects to discombobulate the viewer.
The result is a surreal gothic romance full of melodrama, outrageous plot twists, and a surprising amount of comedy. A sequence near the end in which the titular character is forbidden to look at Eurydice is played as pure farce – “Hide under the table when Orphée comes in” – while Cégeste’s poetry is christened “Nudism” and “published” in a magazine full of blank pages. Less deliberately humorous, the “special gloves” required to travel from our world into The Zone look more suited to doing the washing up.
Casares – a Spanish-French actress known mainly for her stage work – quickly establishes herself as one of the silver screen’s most disconcerting and surprising personifications of Death. Elegantly attired, she glides around in a black, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, has leather-clad motorcycle henchmen and smokes like a chimney, bringing a feline iciness to the role that melts only a tiny bit when her feelings for Orphée bubble to the surface. Marais might be this film’s beating heart, but proceedings become exponentially more intriguing every time Casares sashays into shot.
Not only can Orphée be enjoyed as a straight-no-chaser slice of escapist fantasy, it also contains all manner of themes and ideas. France’s coming to terms with the terrible scars of the Second World War, a poet's battle to achieve immortality through his work, and the fact Cocteau (then in his early 60s) felt increasingly divorced from contemporary French culture, to name but three. The film is frequently self-referential – it is no coincidence Marais and Dermit, the director's former and current lovers, were cast as rival poets – but never feels self-indulgent.
Cocteau – a poet, playwright, novelist, artist, designer and filmmaker – was worried about being thought of as a “dabbler”. But Orphée is the work not of some dilettante chancer spreading himself too thin across a host of disciplines, but that of a true master.
As well as a high-definition version of the film, this BFI Blu-ray set comes with a feast of extras – some brand new, some recorded back in 2008 to coincide with the film’s digital restoration and re-release. Chief among them is Roland-François Lack’s excellent audio commentary, which teases out Orphée’s myriad themes, explores the nuts and bolts of how certain shots were achieved, and also includes some fascinating trivia.
In Cocteau And His Tricks, the film’s assistant director Claude Pinoteau discusses its innovative use of special effects, while The Queer Family Tree sees British filmmaker John Maybury (The Jacket) passionately assert Cocteau’s place in the pantheon of great gay filmmakers and artists. A lengthy interview with Pierre Berge and Dominique Many highlights the surrealist’s life and work, giving particular emphasis to his difficult formative years (his father committed suicide when Cocteau was nine), relationships and sexuality, and the depression from which he long suffered.
There’s also the aforementioned La Villa Santo Sospir, a 40-minute film shot by Cocteau, which sees him decorate a property on the Côte d’Azur with all manner of eye-catching artworks; and an interview with veteran actor/director Jean-Pierre Mocky, whose single line in Orphée led to a friendship with the filmmaker. Rounding off the set is an impressive stills gallery, trailers, and an essay-filled, illustrated booklet. It makes a perfect companion to the BFI’s La Belle Et Le Bete, Cocteau’s extraordinary interpretation of Beauty And The Beast, which was released on Blu-ray last year.