Jean Cocteau died on October 11, 1963, the same exact day that his longtime friend, the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, succumbed to liver cancer not all that far away. Some have even speculated that the news of Piaf’s death was what spurred the heart attack that claimed Cocteau, a beautiful, if melancholic coincidence, if we are to put our full faith into what’s ostensibly rumor, seeing as the famed poet, theater director, and filmmaker often remarked that he was more scared of the deaths of his loved ones than he was of his own inevitable demise.
These are the swirling, giddy facets of mythology, a subject that Cocteau was intoxicated with as much as he was a facilitator and victim of. His belief in the myth of the poet was akin to John Ford’s belief in the myth of the cowboy, which is to say that he was as much in love with them as he was aware of their shortcomings and their inescapable hypocrisies. Thus, his take on the legend of Orpheus, the second film in his Orphic trilogy, transposed to post-war France and redeployed as a fever dream, is less about grief and beauty than it’s about the struggles of artistic inspiration and the burdens of fame infused with half-hearted domesticity.
In Cocteau’s phantasmagorical vision, Orpheus (Jean Marois) is a heralded poet, not a musician, who has dipped in popularity slightly and thirsts for revitalizing inspiration. At a café, he runs into a young poet of newfound fame, Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe), who’s drunk and being followed by a nameless princess, played by Maria Casares, as formidable and haunting a presence here as she’s in Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, which Cocteau scripted. Suddenly the young poet is struck dead and Orpheus is commanded to accompany the princess as she rushes Cegeste away in her car.
What Orpheus expects to be a trip to the hospital becomes a jaunt into the Zone, a crumbling, wonky world of death and decay that offers radio transmissions of disjointed poetry. Cocteau, working with cinematographer Nicolas Hayer and editor Jacqueline Sadoul, keeps the visual effects sublimely simple, beginning with the inverted-black-and-white view through the windshield that has something of a radioactive tinge to it. When they arrive at the princess’s house, who has now plainly announced herself as Death, Cocteau deploys one of his famous mirror shots, in which we see Death, Cegeste, and Orpheus travel between the Zone and France. Arriving in the hills outside his town, Orpheus becomes a companion of Death’s driver, Heurtebise (Francois Perier), but also grows obsessed with the radio bursts, which draw him away from his adoring wife, Eurydice (Marie Dea), here cast as a devoted trifle to a man who has seen into the abyss and can’t pull himself away.
Here, we have one of the major breaks from myth that Cocteau employs, offering something that’s steeped in his personal struggles. It’s of no small irony that Marais, Cocteau’s longtime lover and companion, plays a role that offers a glimpse at the isolationism and coldness that an artist will often adopt in the name of their craft, speaking so harshly and dismissively to the loving Eurydice, who Cocteau obviously saw as an amalgam of his past and current loves. So, when Death takes Eurydice to the Zone, it’s striking to see the fury in Marais’s performance that arises when Heurtebise bothers to tell him that she’s being taken and then, later, the tremendous sorrow that settles upon his shoulders when he realizes what he’s allowed. The two subsequent trips into the Zone make for some of Cocteau’s boldest uses of visual trickery, the most impressive of which being Orpheus and Heurtebise struggling against an unfathomable wind as the crawl along a set of ruins and slide into another realm of oblivion.
Orpheus returns from the Zone with Eurydice, initially, on the sole condition that he not gaze upon her visage ever again and the original text ostensibly ends not long after that, as Orpheus lays his eyes upon her, causing her to evaporate and himself to be devoured by the demonic Furies. Considering his preoccupation with the theater, it’s fascinating to note how Cocteau pushes Eurydice’s inevitable fate and extends the proceedings through a series of events that border on slapstick. There are some splendid movements made as Heurtebise and Orpheus labor to ensure the latter never sets an eye on his beloved, further echoing the bonds of domesticity that can lead great artists to madness. Relief isn’t the word for what Orpheus does after he accidentally stares at his doomed wife through the rearview mirror, but it’s not indicative of genuine grief; the word I’m looking for is flustered.
Imploring Heurtebise one final time, Orpheus ventures one back into the Zone, in hopes of embracing Death and spending the rest of his days in the Zone; there’s some beguiling talk about how he’ll live with Death that’s oddly effective. Despite its obvious use as an allegory for inspiration and existentialism in the context of the film, the Zone at once means nothing and everything. It would make a fitting metaphor for Cocteau’s debilitating opium addiction, but it also exudes something of a post-war dread, culling forth a desperation that feels relatable to what members of the French resistance must have suffered through. It would, in fact, be impossible not to notice the resemblance of the Zone, filmed largely in the ruins of the Saint-Cyr military academy, to photos of bombed-out cities left in the wake of the national socialists.
Still, Cocteau is nothing if not elusive in his use of symbolism and allegories, and Orpheus, though not as personal as Testament of Orpheus, in which Cocteau takes on the title role, has something of the same timelessness that the legend itself has enjoyed. In the film’s final moments, Death sacrifices herself to put things right, but the decision never feels like a bid for a happy ending, as we watch both Death and Heurtebise march toward some unknowable punishment at the hands of their judges. The filmmaker’s imagistic inventiveness is visionary, but his exciting use of visuals never dilutes, overwrites, or distracts from the great personal emotional weight that Cocteau’s script and his performers imbue his inky aesthetic with. This uniquely impassioned style was evident throughout Cocteau’s career but was never as potent as in his Orphic trilogy and especially Orpheus, which toggles between dream and reality, the bright future and the corroded past, love and aspirations, hopeless fate and unwise decisions with such deft technical know-how and wrenching dramatic power, even Charlie Chaplin was left to posit to its creator: “How’d you do that?”