“A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place.”
When I was an undergrad in college I had to take a class on Greek mythology. I had to take it as part of a requirement for my Art History degree. I had no issue with taking the class because most of the famous works in the history of art are mythological in subject. I enjoyed the class the stories were very interesting and entertaining. One myth I always remembered was about Orpheus the bard who played the lire. I remember it for two reasons: this was the year that the band She & Him came out with their album Volume 2 and their song “Don’t Look Back” has a line that went “Orpheus melted the heart of Persephone but I never had yours… Don’t Look Back all you’ll ever get is the dust from the steps before, I don’t have to see ya everyday but I just want to know you’re there” and I felt bad for poor Orpheus he went back to get his wife from the underworld he loved her so much and all he wanted to know was if his wife was still there. The gods and goddesses in Greek mythology were very unforgiving!
My liking and remembrance of the myth of Orpheus came in handy. I recently watched Orphée, Jean Cocteau’s modern telling of the mythological story. Cocteau was a surrealist artist. It is fitting that he would take a mythological story and combined it with his dreamlike artistic visuals.
Orphée is a poet. He is at a café for poets but no one wants to speak to him because he has become too popular. There is a new young poet named Cégeste. He arrives at the café drunk in the car of someone simply called The Princess. Cégeste starts a fight that quickly turns into a brawl. The police are summoned and Cégeste, still drunk, struggles and breaks free from the two police officers taking him away. Cégeste is them mowed down by two speeding motorcyclists. The Princess insists that she in charge of Cégeste and to put him in her car. She has Oprhée come with her. Oprhée tries to ask her questions but she silences him so she can hear the radio.
The Princess takes both poets back to her home in the middle of the countryside. The two motorcyclists show up and take the body to a room upstairs. They lay the body on the floor. The Princess has Orphée come to her room. He is confused he has no idea what is happening. He again tries to ask questions but she silences him again in favor of the radio. The Princess leaves the room and goes to the room where the young poet lies lifeless. She commands Cégeste to rise and to promise that he will now be her servant. She then takes the poet through the mirror in the room. Orphée sees Princess and poet go through the mirror and is stunned. He collapses in front of the mirror. When he wakes up he is outside lying in the dirt next to a puddle of water. He makes his way to the road and finds the Princess’s driver Heurtebise and the car.
Eurydice, Oprhée’s wife, is home worried sick about her husband. She has called her friend Aglaonice and the chief inspector. Orphée returns home. He has Heurtebise hide the car in the garage. Orphée walks into the house and is not happy to see Aglaonice and the chief inspector there. He yells and storms around the house. Orphée claims he is tired and goes up to their room. Instead of sleeping he climbs out the window and goes to the car to listen to the messages on the radio the Princess had been listening to. Heurtebise comes into the house. He tells Eurydice what happened to her husband. As Eurydice is making coffee Heurtebise lets slip that he does not like the smell of gas every since he committed suicide. He quickly corrects himself and says that he had tried to kill himself.
That night, and for several nights after that, the Princess comes to Orphée’s home while he sleeps. Orphée becomes obsessed with listening to the messages in the car he barely pays attention to his wife.
Friends of Cégeste, including Aglaonice, are worried that Orphée and the Princess have done something to him. They claim they have a feeling that Orphée has something to do with the poet’s disappearance.
Eurydice has had enough of Orphée constantly going in the car. She wants to leave and does not want to wait for a car she decides to take her bike. Before she can get too far Heurtebise hears the motorcyclists coming. He takes Eurydice’s body upstairs and lays her on the bed. The Princess and Cégeste come through the mirror. Heurtebise runs to Orphée to come quickly so he can save his wife. Orphée yells at the driver that his wife is only faking whatever is happening to her he refuses to listen to Heurtebise. He questions the Princess and her orders to take Eurydice. The Princess becomes angry and Cégeste send a message over the radio without any permission. The Princess awakens Eurydice from death and brings her through the mirror.
Orphée comes to the room. Heurtebise tells him who Death is and how she can travel through mirrors. He also reveals that Eurydice is not dead they can still bring her back to life. Heurtebise takes Orphée through the mirror where the dead linger and time stands still. Heurtebise moves but his feet do not move him. Orphée moves as though he is walking through thick material. They come to the house the Princess brought them to the day Cégeste died. She is brought before judges because she did not have permission to transmit the messages or to take Eurydice. Cégeste is questioned and so are Heurtebise and Orphée. The Princess is asked if she loves Orphée and if she ever watched him sleep. She answers yes to both questions. They ask Heurtebise if he loves Eurydice and he answers yes.
The Princess and Orphée are alone. They confess they love each other. She cannot be with him because she has to follow orders. The judges come back with their verdict that Orphée is allowed to but he cannot speak of what he has seen. They also allow Eurydice to go but on the condition that Orphée never look at her. Heurtebise offers to go back with the couple as their monitor.
It is torture for the couple not to be able to face each other. Eurydice cannot stand to see her husband suffer. During the night she tries to go downstairs while he is sleeping and wake him up and have him look at her but the light goes out before he can see her. The next day she sits in the car with him in the sight of the rearview mirror. Orphée looks back and sees her and she disappears. As soon as Eurydice disappears Orphée and Heurtebise hear a commotion outside his house. It is Aglaonice and the others looking for answers as to where Cegeste is. Orphée had a gun on him. One of the men tries to grab the gun out of Orphée’s hand but the gun goes off and gets Oprhée in the stomach. Heurtebise takes Orphée to the Princess’s house. On the way Orphée dies.
The Princess is anxious to be with Orphée. It is a feeling she has never experienced before. She and Orphée are happy to see each other and to be together. The Princess tells him that in order for them to be together she has to send him back to the past. She has Heurtebise take him. They travel back to the time they came through the mirror together to the night when Eurydice died. When they return Eurydice is alive and Orphee is happy with her.
The Princess and Heurtebise are arrested in the space between the mirrors.
Orphée was a very good film. Jean Cocteau’s direction and imagery are brilliant. You can feel every emotion and even your senses are taken over. The story and the direction play on the philosophy of death but it is how you, the viewer, feel and view death. There are many ways to see this film direction and story wise it all depends on the viewer. I liked the symbolism of mirrors as death and the space between life and death. Cocteau explored the idea of another world between mirrors in his first film The Blood of the Poet. As I was watching Orphée I almost felt privileged to be seeing it. Orphée is a masterpiece of film, poetry, and surrealism.