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If ever a film could me called `magical', `hypnotic' and `compelling', then surely that film is ORPHEUS; magical because it is such an incredible feat of the imagination; hypnotic because it is a relentless assault upon all the senses, the intellect and the emotions, and compelling because it is a profound attempt to at least illustrate, (it is not so arrogant as to presume to solve!), the mystery of life, our awareness of death and human consciousness endlessly seeking some sort of certainty to comfort ourselves with. Layered with various ambiguous possibilities, and full of symbols which will resonate in a variety of ways according to each individual viewer, each viewing of the film draws you deeper into its mystery again and again, and each time teaches you more and more. Perhaps it could only have been made when it was, (in the aftermath of WW2), and where it was, (in a country that had decided to do a deal with Death and then lived to regret it). Perhaps because Jean Cocteau was so talented in so many fields, people seldom seem to note what an utterly brilliant film director he was, and his work in this respect with ORPHEUS, stands comparison with anybody's. The film is also so complete, and unravels so perfectly and in such a masterly way; not one superfluous scene; superb acting all round, atmospheric photography, and a superbly utilised and sublime score by Georges Auric. I simply cannot imagine a film like this being made now, (perhaps LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD was the last gasp of this type of didactic artistic consciousness), and this depresses me greatly, because it shows that `progress' is not an automatic, upwardly rising arc, but a curve that can go backwards as well as forwards. Anyone who has even the slightest affection for cinema should watch this film, and marvel, surrender, and learn from it. Without doubt in my book, one of the ten greatest movies ever made. So much so that I almost feel privileged to have been born into the time frame that could access it.
There's nothing better than a dark involved movie about death to bring you
out of your blues. Having been laid off today from a high-tech, high-paying
job, I find that this is a far better escape from my blues than getting
skunk-drunk. Now I'll be able to afford the time to see such movies...this
was at the Brattle Theater, an arts movie house in Cambridge that regularly
shows movies written when brains were necessary to write a script that would
be made into a movie.
Of course, I saw it way back when but the mark of a good movie is that you
see a different movie every time you see it, because YOU change and your
interpretation therefore changes. The surreal scenes in the Underground
evoke many other images, and, because of their wierdness, cannot be
forgotten. It raises questions about the 'finality' of death, and the
relative unimportance of so much in life (including jobs/employment). The
love of the two protagonists for one another is especially intriguing, since
Cocteau at first gives you the impression that Orpheus is a narcissistic
writer only in love with himself.
The fierce command for Orpheus NOT to look at Eurydice reminds you of Lot's wife, as she turned into the pillar of salt. Of course, I still wonder why that part was in here.....maybe just to make us wonder about disobedience.
The mob throwing rocks at the house was indicative of mob mentality everywhere and anytime.
The motorcyclists, angels of death, remind you of "The Wild One" as they perform their ghastly tasks in the small French town. As the other dead people make their sacrifices for one another, with no mention of religion, you almost have a re-awakened faith in the power of love. Which is what religion is all about anyhow,-- not in the ghost stories we are told to help make the fear of death/nothingness more pallatable.
Cocteau was a genius, and his movies are unique. Invest in them while you can, and re-visit them from time to time when you need a reminder of how precious love and life are.
This film is an updating of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The
film updates the action to post-war France, with Orpheus (played by
Jean Marais) a famous but dis-satisfied poet.
The film focuses on the themes of love and death. Most notably Orpheus falling in love with a glamorous incarnation of Death (Maria Casares).
Writer-director Jean Cocteau turns the everyday world into a magical realm. Mirrors turn to pools which are portals to other worlds, car radios pick up coded messages from Death's World. In less talented hands than Cocteau's, the delicate fantasy could have easily become ridiculous but he handles it with brilliance and the film works perfectly.
Here Cocteau creates a truly poetic film. The story is magical and entertaining and the film is filled with wonderously surreal images (particularly striking is the frequent use of filming an action performed backwards, and then reversing it which creates a very strange impression).
Although this is definitely Jean Cocteau up to his old cinematic
tricks, Orphee is beyond criticism as it's Art that has stood the test
of time. And updated Classical Art at that. Keep your guard up and you
won't get it. But drop your guard and it's still an astonishing film,
an allegorical atmospheric magical poetic potboiler, and a film I've
seen over 10 times over the decades without failing to admire its
self-possession and panache.
Orphee is a self-obsessed cult poet, who gets immersed in writing down and publishing the cryptic word gems the Princess of Death's talking car tells him. "The bird sings with its fingers" is especially ridiculously impressive, but of course, all of this was a reference to Resistance methods during the War of disguising their intentions from the Nazis. Allegorical to ... what? During this period his wife Eurydice is murdered by the Princess, who fancies Orphee while Heurtebise her Underworld chauffeur fancies Eurydice. Hem. This is not only a four dimensional, but a multi-dimensional tour de force, travelling back and forth through the worlds of life and death. The intellectual complexities involved can be enormous, you can lose the plot by thinking too deeply about one line of dialogue, or why "Orpheus's Death" is coming through the mirror at night to look at Eurydice. On the other hand, you might view it all as totally ridiculous and pretentious and laugh out loud at some of the scenes - but that only makes you a realist and not a poet. Auric's dreamy music helps a lot, although Passport to Pimlico keeps coming to mind!
Cocteau revisited Orphee later on near the end of his life, but The Testament of Orphee unfortunately really was pretentious even if startlingly different for 1960 - to quote: "his life had decayed, rotten with success". But this is the Real Secret of Secrets - Orphee is an utterly unique treasure, conceived and executed by an irreplaceable talent - and his second best effort too, after Belle et la Bete! Worth the weight of its nitrate stock in gold.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Self-obsessed and self-regarding Orphee, a poet, lives in splendid
isolation with his beautiful wife Eurydice in post-war, bomb-damaged
France. It is the early 50's and times are changing; Orphee is facing
competition from a new wave of Poets and is scorned by the new
generation. He goes into town with the intention of facing them down
but to his rage, he is studiously ignored.
Their leader, the young Jacques Cegeste, is caught up in a bar-room brawl which spills out into the street and he is killed by a motorcyclist. Orphee, an innocent bystander, is taken away in a black limousine with the lifeless body of Cegeste by a beautiful and mysterious Princess to a deserted house. Here, time runs backwards and the way into the underworld lies through mirrors ("I give you the secret of secrets! Mirrors are the doorway through which death comes").
Orpheus falls in love with the Princess and so falls in love with his own death. Meanwhile, Orphee's absence is noted by the Police, who are advised by Cegeste's followers that he is responsible for the young poet's death.
Ultimately Orphee has to choose between between Death - the Princess - and Eurydice, after she is returned to the Underworld. He is wracked with indecision: the Princess eventually makes the decision for him.
This strange and beautiful film may seem familiar even if you are watching it for the first time as it has been referenced in many other films, as well as in pop videos: and yes, it was the image of Orphee (Jean Marais, Cocteau's lifelong lover) on the cover of The Smiths' This Charming Man.
There are many unforgettable images; Orphee, receiving fragments of poetry via his car radio ("The Bird counts with his fingers! Three times!"); the magical gloves; the glass seller in the Underworld; and ultimately, the final "Adieu!" between the Princess and her driver, the magnificent Herteubise.
Cocteau described his film as being of the myth of immortality: in the end, Death dies. It is certainly the closest the cinema has come to poetry, and is an essential addition to any collection.
"Orpheus" is still one of the most magical fantasy films, despite the
technical advances made in special effects. The journeys through mirrors
(achieved by using doubles, vats of mercury, troughs of water, and
unsilvered glass) have a dreamlike quality and the zone beyond them has the
haunted nightmare feeling of a 1940s neoromantic painting. A versatile
poet, playwright, essayist, artist, and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau made this
film when he was 60. He identified with the egotistical, death-loving
Orpheus, and the hostility that characters in the movie have towards
reflect the homosexual, dilettante, politically uncommitted Cocteau's own
resentment of the attacks levelled against him by the Surrealists and
communists in the 1920s, and after the war by younger critics. The
in the underworld is a combination of wartime resistance meetings and
postwar courts set up to judge collaborators. The cryptic snatches of
on the car radio were inspired by the coded messages sent by the BBC to the
French Resistance. The casting of Jean Marais as the fading poet and
Edouard Dermithe as the rising one reflects the position the two actors had
in Cocteau's life. The film is at one timeless and a reflection of Paris
the postwar years.
"Orpheus" has its weaknesses, but it has worn well. While it may seem less obscure today, it has lost little of its poetic charm. Some of its particular grace comes from the performances by the handsome Marais, the striking Maria Casares, and Francois Perier.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I first saw this as a student at Yale and was mesmerized throughout the
whole film. Yes, Jean Marais wasn't, perhaps, the greatest actor and if
he wasn't Cocteau's lover he'd probably not have been in the film; on
the other hand, his looks are an asset to the part. But Maria Casares
as the Princess of Death steals every scene she's in.
Many, I suspect, have not understood the place at the end of the film where the Princess directs Huertebise to smother Orphée. But I don't think its meaning is that obscure: since he is already in the underworld, smothering him reverses the process; at that point in the film both Orphée and Huertebise walk backwards and Orphée finds himself back in his home with Eurydice. The symbolism of the mirrors also signals reversal, in this case, of images.
For me, the most striking image in the film is Heurtebise, moving but motionless, leading Orphée to the underworld looking like a dead man (which he really is.) against whom a strong wind is blowing. Again there are, in this scene, images of glass and mirrors no doubt borrowed from the Surrealists.
I saw the movie, or most of it, around the age of eight or nine. It made a
deep impression on me, and I have wanted to watch it again. Now that I have
been able to find out the name and the director, I soon
The special effects in the film, as I recall them, must have been fabulous for the time, and were quite dazzling even by the standards of the eighties. The movie is surreal, and though it sounds trite, this is perhaps the best description. It left one with a delicious feeling, and even after almost twenty years I feel quite thrilled when I think about it. I found the notion of being in love with death, who is portrayed by María Casarès, and whom I found incredibly attractive, was overwhelmingly wonderful. That was my interpretation at that time. I am curious to see what I would think of it now.
Certainly a terrific film for a child. I think I would still find it wonderful.
This is my favorite Cocteau film and the most accessible of the Orpheus
trilogy, which includes Blood of the Poet (1930) and The Testament of
Orpheus (1960). It tells the story of a poet's love for both his wife and
"The Princess", a shadowy figure who conducts humans to the underworld upon
their death. Orpheus is obsessed with the figure of Death and, ignoring
his pregnant wife, follows her into the underworld. The Princess, in turn,
falls in love with Orpheus, conducts Orpheus's wife into the underworld, and
is eventually punished for "breaking the rules". The underworld is
portrayed as a bureaucracy where drab clerks hold hearings in small drab
rooms and bring down the wrath of the "rules" on anyone who does not play
out their specified role.
Maria Casares is superb as the Princess but François Périer is my favorite character, Heurtebise, the Princesses assistant who also "breaks the rules" by falling in love with Orpheus' wife. Jean Marais is also excellent as the poet Orpheus. Cocteau comments on the role of the poet in society through the role of Orpheus. The young avant garde crowd has turned against Orpheus and now worships the vacant Cegeste. Orpheus asks his publisher what he must do to regain their admiration and is told to "astonish us". When the police inspector is about to arrest Orpheus and then, upon recognizing him, lets him off and asks for his autograph, you know we're not in Kansas (or anywhere in the US).
Several of the characters (The Princess, Heurtebise and Cegeste), played by the same actors, repeat their roles 10 years later in The Testament of Orpheus, passing judgement on Cocteau himself. Their scenes are the best part of that film.
This is a very beautiful film that I've grown to like more and more upon repeat viewings. 9 out of 10.
It was fantastic that I got to see this film, yet odd that it had to be from
the video selection of my English faculty library. So, headphones it was, on
a typically cold English February day, in a place of learning.
I quickly took to this spirited, ambitious film; a heady concoction that blends fantasy and reality beautifully. This is truly one of the aesthetically wondrous films one could ever wish to see... it has a visual poetry that beguiles the eye, as well as the verbal poetry of a fine script. This is a Cocteau film in which he goes a bit deeper into his characters; while the acting is 'stagy' (in quite an appealing manner) the use of location firmly grounds the piece in an initial contemporary, provincial French town. Cocteau's camera takes in all that is necessary and no more, in conveying his lucid dream visions. That the realism so convinces, in its way of establishing a sleepy, unremarkable French town, really helps the fantasy to come across within a richly plausible context.
Many touches seem audacious and visionary - the very fact of translating this ancient myth to contemporary France, the brilliant device of having Orpheus enraptured by at times otherworldly, at times mundane messages conveyed through a crackling car radio... the imagery of a mirror turning watery as it is passed through; this is sublime, artful stuff, of a heavily metaphysical, cerebral yet enjoyable nature. Maria Casares is absolutely splendid as the "Princess", an aspect of Death; beautifully sleek and stern, with a suppressed tenderness brought out later in the film. Casares brilliantly conveys the sense of a timeless creature of the ages, despite her being only in her 27th year when it was made. Jean Marais is wonderfully theatrical in his acting; a good portrayal of the flawed artist - in this case 'poet', chasing after inspiration rather than worldly happiness. The overlaps with Cocteau himself, autobiographically, add a little extraneous interest... certain scenes seem to refer to Cocteau's position in France, and interestingly also the occupation, with the leather clad motor-cyclists and absurdist underground tribunals...
I should mention the character Heurtebise, treated deftly by Cocteau; who seems to find most to relate to in his male leads, Orpheus and Heurtebise. While the very feminine Death is portrayed exceptionally, Maria Dea's Eurydice is I feel, seen as quite insignificant, though Dea does her best. It's a shame Juliette Greco gets such short shrift in her role as Aglaonice; much is hinted at early on, regarding her antagonistic character, that is not followed up. Francois Perier is wonderful as Heurtebise; along with Casares the most memorable performance here. Perier really makes you believe in and sympathize with this character, as well as having a matter-of-fact eccentricity comparable to Marius Goring's Conductor in "A Matter of Life of Death".
Auric and Hayer do a superb job fine-tuning and moulding Cocteau's tantalizing vision of art, death and love. The film is technically brilliant, the trick shots superbly pulled off and the atmosphere always compelling, involving the viewer, despite the latent abstract quality of the film.
This really is a film to lose yourself in; a lyrical feat of visual poetry with the majestic sense of dream. It is film fantasy as it all too seldom has been; sublimely imaginative and fluidly inventive.
Rating:- **** 1/2/*****
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