Orphée is the middle part of writer-director Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy.” Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, plays the titular role in Cocteau’s dark, hauntingly poetic variation on and updating of the ancient Greek myth of Apollo’s son Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld, Death’s brooding province, to bring out of it Eurydice, his wife. There is no more darkly magical realm in cinema than what appears as the Underworld in this film. Elements, including the use of reverse motion, suggest a backward drift in time—in this case, to recent French history: the Occupation; the lingering embittered sadness that attends the memory of a divided France where citizens collaborated with the German occupiers and many more nervously acquiesced.
Divisions and self-divisions abound. Idolized by the postwar French public, poet Orpheus is held in contempt by fellow poets like Cegeste—to our eye, a young version of Orpheus himself. The police bow to Orpheus’s eminence but rough up Cegeste, who as a result is killed by two speeding motorcyclists. Both Parisian poets end up in the car of the Princess (María Casares, in her iconic role as Death); has Orpheus symbolically killed Cegeste by breaking faith with the youthful idealism that Cegeste represents? Cegeste doesn’t look all that dead, while messages on the car radio—elusive thoughts from Cegeste’s mind—inspire Orpheus towards integration and a more perfect poetry. The Princess resurrects Cegeste but takes him through a mirror to her realm.
Other divisions: Death, because of her transactions a part of the living world, falls in love with Orpheus, who also loves her as much as he loves his wife. Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer, superb), even more delicately straddles both Life and Death, falling in love with Eurydice. A fateful trial will resolve matters in the Underworld.
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