Movie Reviews by Almiro Jorge and Dr Kuma
Starring: Jean Marais, François Perier, Maria Casares, Marie Dea, Henri Cremieux
Director: Jean Cocteau
Review by Almiro Jorge
In Greek mythology, Orpheus, is a musician that descends into the underworld in search of his departed wife. This is very much the story of ORPHeE, with a difference.
Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a prominent poet that gets into the wrong car at the wrong time. Death has come to claim another victim, which has been knocked down by motorcyclists. A mysterious princess asks Orpheus to join her in the car to act as a witness, as she takes the body to the hospital. Unknowingly, he hurries into the car and before he knows it he is caught in the middle of a very confusing situation. The princess revives the young man and he calls her his own “death”.
Orpheus wakes up in the middle of nowhere and locates the princess’ chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Perier) who takes him home. Orpheus becomes obsessed with cryptic poetry from the car radio – messages that are being transmitted from the other world – and because of his fixation with the mysterious verse that he hears on the radio, his wife Eurydice (Marie Dea) begins to lose patience and finds comfort with Heurtebise, who in turn falls in love with her.
It is revealed that the princess is “Death” and in her jealousy, kills Eurydice so that she can have Orpheus for herself. Heurtebise is adamant that Orpheus can still save Eurydice and leads him into the underworld. Orpheus is split in his desire for Eurydice and Death as he goes to the world beyond.
The title role is magnificently played by Marais as he gives depth to the character of the poet who is caught up in the love triangle. Director Jean Cocteau skilfully uses simple filming techniques to create striking special effects. Instead of Orpheus physically putting on his gloves, Cocteau uses reverse motion photography to make the gloves envelop his hands. In an instance where Heurtebise glides in the underworld, the director uses back projection to add a walking Orpheus to the frame. Mirrors are ingeniously used as the doors to the underworld.
This is a truly poetic film and created in Cocteau’s unique style. Let your imagination flow.
Review by Dr Kuma
After re-imagining the fairy-tale Beauty and The Beast in LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE, Cocteau retells the Greek myth of Orpheus using the same grace and camera trickery that made the former movie so original.
These two movies use imagery to illustrate the tales that could have been taken directly from the pages of books that bore them, as each frame is so well executed.
The story behind this classic revolves around Orphee (played by Cocteau’s lover and star of both films Jean Marais) a poet who becomes obsessed with Death (also known as the Princess). They fall in love. Orphee’s wife, Eurydice, is killed by the Princess’ henchmen (and chauffeur, who secretly wants Eurydice for his own, in the same way death wants Orphee) and he helps Orphee go after her into the underworld to save her.
This sounds surreal and it is, but what makes it so interesting is the fact that this film seems to pre-date landmark films such as LA DOLCE VITA in its depiction of bohemian youth. Deaths messengers are leather clad bikers for example, well before Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE and in one scene, the teens and beatnicks seem to be dancing to what sounds like rock n roll, which really didn’t get a foot in the door for another half a dozen years when Elvis hit the scene in ’56. These are just two of the things to look out for as the visual treats also seem to be way ahead of their time as far as one can tell. The use of rubber gloves (always shown looking like they are attacking the hands of those who wear them as the film is run backwards so they slap themselves on) so that Orphee can enter the other world through mirrors which turn to water when the gloves touch them is a David Lynch wet dream. Hell itself represents many things, but the most obvious here is that it represents a bombed out Paris, left to rot after the war, with the ghosts who haunt its ruined streets still performing the jobs they did when they were alive (again a great use of back projection and camera angels retain its nightmare quality).
Although ORPHEE just falls short of LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE in sheer beauty it is still one of the most important French films ever made and viewed today is more likely to impress with its foresight than disappoint with the passing of time.
Dr Kuma’s verdict: Orphee looked into the mirror and found he hadn’t aged a bit since 1949 and found he still had the power to attract and mesmerize people.