Each month, in partnership with LaCinetek, Le Figaro offers a nugget of the seventh art. Taking advantage of the theme linked to the cinema of the occult, here is the opportunity to evoke the masterpiece of the poet director who remains incomparably modern today.
Still today, Orpheus remains a fascinating visual experience. Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) revisits the famous ancient myth in the most personal way possible, modernizing it and transposing it into his own era, the France of the 1950s.
The story developed by Cocteau resumes more or less his 1925 play. Taking advantage of the launching pad that was for him the great success of The beauty and the Beast, Cocteau tackles the cinematographic transposition of what he considers to be a “police adventure of the afterlife “. A successful poet despised by young people, Orphée (Jean Marais) meets The Princess (whom Cocteau calls La Mort d’Orphée).
Troubling and fascinating in the guise of Maria Casarès, this young woman bewitches him. While the daring and insolent poet Segesta triumphs, he is kidnapped by The Death of Orpheus. She soon forces the latter to transmit his poetic flashes through the radio in Jean Marais’ car. Cocteau thus envisages inspiration as an encrypted language, delivered to men as one could do on Radio London during the Second World War. In this, poetry is for him an art of resistance.
In Orpheus, two worlds try to “con-penetrate” as Cocteau says: the world of life and the world of death. The hero’s drama arises when Maria Casares kidnaps out of jealousy Orpheus’ faithful wife, Eurydice, and takes her to the underworld.
The character of Heurtebise, played by François Périer, a sort of protective messenger leads the desperate poet to “Cross the mirror of reality”. As he says in the movie, “It’s not about understanding, it’s about believing.”
At Cocteau, special effects are above all an opportunity to play with the illusions of cinematographic art. Like Chaplin, Méliès or Keaton, Cocteau has a lot of fun, with the innocence of the pioneers. Ingenuity is here a matter of cunning. And it shows in the film in a jubilant way. The idea of crossing “liquid” mirrors by putting on gloves (which are put on backwards) was born with the idea of plunging your hands into vats filled with mercury, all filmed with a camera turned on the side. .
Mirrors thus become doors. The character of Jean Marais is blocked for a long time by the mirror which does not “open”, contenting itself with reflecting its image back to him. For Cocteau, the poet is often a prisoner of his own reflection-image, in a loving attitude that recalls another myth of antiquity, that of Narcissus! In love with his own image, the narcissistic poet is so preoccupied with himself that he is made unavailable to creation.
When he manages to overcome his condition as a simple egotist human, he crosses the mirror, leaves the world of the living towards the “zone” in search of Eurydice. Orpheus imprints quite terrifying occult paths, made of landscapes of ruins, abandoned quarries, Greek theaters or medieval mansions, in short, places filled with memories, rich in artistic memory and carrying poetic waves.
Under the guidance of Jean Cocteau, the character of Orpheus (who usually symbolizes escape) becomes a sort of adventurer of dreams and the invisible. A hero who accepts the risk of the unknown. Orpheus walks the corridors of time and death in slow motion, arms in front of him, like a blind man. The film sets up a climate of unreal realism, straddling reality (the Saint-Germain-des-Prés of the post-war years) and the agonizing dreaminess of fantastic films.
Through Orpheus, Cocteau questions the value of surrealism and especially the role of the poet. He uses the cinema as a laboratory for new practices. He creates new clothes to his creation and his obsessions. Nine years later, he will return one last time to this ancient myth which obsesses him so much, by himself wearing the clothes of Orpheus in The Testament of Orpheus (-1959).