Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus

Written by Joe D on November 23rd, 2009

Seeing a great film for the first time is an intoxicating, inspiring event. Especially if it’s one that you’ve known about for years, seen stills of incredible images reproduced in books, read about, etc. This is the case with me and Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece Orpheus. I happened to catch the second half of it on TCM the other night and was mesmerized from the first frame. I caught it right when Orpheus climbs back into his bedroom and is told by Death’s chaufer that his wife, Eurydice, is dead.

I’m only telling you this to make a point. Coming in on the film like this I was immediately struck by the distinctly American feeling of this scene. The bedroom had a floral wallpaper, it was small, with small beds, Orpheus climbing in through the window, it really reminded me of Leave it to Beaver!



Gee Orpheus, Wally, I mean Eurydice’s dead!

The way it looked, the Black and White photography. Except they were talking about Death and the path they must take to the next world to rescue, or resuscitate Eurydice. This to me is the great power of this film. Cocteau takes the mundane, the everyday objects and places that make up our lives and shows them to be miraculous, full of mystery, portals to other dimensions. Can a poet strive for a higher goal?


Jean Marais puts his hands into a pool of Mercurey, that’s why Cocteau made rubber gloves the magical key to pierce the Mirror, Mercurey is deadly poison!

Mirrors that lead to the Underworld. Death as a beautiful women in a black Rolls Royce, escorted by two leather clad motorcyclists. What an image!


Death’s Wheels!

Death, What A Way To Go!


Death’s dress subtly changes from Black to White in the same scene. The costumes are exceptionally cool!

The elevation of the mundane to the marvelous is also a big part of Silent Film. This is why the masters like Keaton etc, were revered by the Surrealists. They created poetry from salt shakers,boats built in basements, houses moved by car, run through by locomotives. It became a basic tenet of Surrealism, an ordinary object placed in an unexpected context. Consider the urinal signed R. Mutt submitted by Marcel Duchamp to the Armory show, (okay Dadaist but a direct precursor to Surrealist). In a memorable section Cocteau illustrates the Creative Process in a beautiful unique way. Orpheus is obsessed by the strange broadcasts that he can only receive on the car radio in Death’s limousine, he copies them down and publishes them as poetry.

Later we find out that Death has Cegeste, a young poet she had killed by her cyclists , writing the poetry and transmitting it to the car radio expressly for Orpheus to hear.


Dead Poet Society- Cegeste (Cocteau’s current lover) transmits to Orpheus(Cocteau’s former lover)

Okay to me the Creative Process works like this: all artists are standing on the shoulders of those who came before and have passed on to the next dimension. Where do ideas come from? I often have the distinct feeling that they are transmissions from deceased artists to receptive beings here on Earth. I think Cocteau felt the same way hence this amazing illustration of the principle. Also a car radio, another run of the mill object we all deal with everyday! Although Radio is inherently mysterious, these invisible waves that beam around the globe carrying thoughts, voice, music, stories. The effects Cocteau uses are all basic film effects, reverse motion, rear projection, but once again transformed through the prism of his intellect into pure poetry, something direly missing from films made today. The world Orpheus lives in is a special place, where a poet is as famous as a rock star or a movie star.


Cocteau didn’t like the artsy type extras he got from Central Casting so he invited real Bohemians to populate his Cafe Des Poets!


Teenaged girls mob Orpheus as Death gets into her other Cool Carfan-girls-copy.jpg

This predates Elvis and the Beatles. Luis Bunuel said he had dreamed of the Beatles many years before they existed, four young men with strange haircuts who caused riots whereever they went!

Since this film was made in 1949 Orpheus looks kind of like Elvis Presley. Pretty Cool to take a Greek Myth and update it with teenagers, motorcycles, radios, coffee houses, etc. probably another reason why the film doesn’t seem dated. Also I noticed a cameo by director Jean Pierre Melville playing the manager of a hotel. Melville directed the adaptation of Cocteau’s novel Les enfants terribles.


Jean Pierre Melville’s Cameo

Finally Death is called to the carpet by a tribunal of Old White Men! The Old White Guys even get to pass Judgement on Death!



Even Death gets Judged!

To say I love this film is an understatement, I bought the dvd and it’s sadly lacking in extras, hey Criterion I’ll gladly do a commentary on this Masterpiece!
To sum it up, Watch this film! I dare you not to be Inspired or Astonished!

2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Dec
    Jeff Duncanson

    Holy shit!!!! I never realized that JP Melville was in this.

    Great post, BTW

  2. Dec
    Joe D

    He doesn’t get a credit for his cameo. and Thanks for the kind words!

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