Although it’s short, Orphée (1950) begins quite slowly, and feels interminable for its 96 minute runtime. A large part of the problem is that the film does away with critical parts of the Orpheus story, pointlessly inserting bewildering elements of its own invention. It’s still worth watching to see Cocteau’s unique vision, but I am going to rant about its departure from the Orpheus myth. Spoilers follow.
To begin with, Orpheus is inseparable from music. The words “orphic” and “orphean” have connotations of melodiousness and musical enchantment; they even mention this in the film, in discussing how important Orpheus is as a national hero: “Don’t forget we call a fanfare of trumpets ‘Orphean music'”. In the myth, Orpheus lulls Cerberus to sleep, then softens the hearts of Hades and Persephone, by the power of his music. In the film, the musician is inexplicably transmuted into a rather unpleasant poet, who is loved by the public but critically panned. Although much is made of his fame, little evidence is given of any particular poetic prowess, and indeed he ends up plagiarizing a dead man’s verses. Other than this, poetry never comes into the plot, Eurydice being released from the underworld on a technicality.
Moreover, the central moment in the myth, probably the only one that anyone normally remembers, is the one in which Orpheus, on the verge of rescuing Eurydice, unintentionally looks back and thereby sends his beloved back into Hades. The tragedy of this moment lies in the fact that he fails in a rather trivial task in the short term, and that this leads to grievous punishment in the long term: he looks over his shoulder, and his wife dies. In the film, the couple successfully leaves the underworld, but the stipulation perversely persists once Eurydice has been brought back to life. Not only will Eurydice die if Orpheus looks at her once they’re back, but he is annoyed enough by this situation that he relentlessly abuses her for it (as if it were her fault!).
To be clear, I don’t think that a film adaptation must be perfectly faithful to its source. I just can’t see the reason for choosing the Orpheus myth, which is powerful and only has a few key plot elements, only to replace these elements with ideas that don’t really work. For example, the idea of falling in love with a beautiful Death is quite a good one, but in this film it only serves to make Orpheus totally unsympathetic. Orpheus’ love for Eurydice is central to the myth. This is meant to be the quintessential catabasis: a man loves his wife enough that he will literally, of his own volition, go to hell and back for her. In the film, Eurydice is sidelined, Orpheus falls in love with the Princess/Death, is tempted enough by this female Death to go into the underworld, and then Death sacrifices herself to erase the major events of the film. What?
In addition to stripping the original story of its undying love element, this infatuation-with-Death plot makes both Orpheus and Eurydice pretty annoying. Orpheus is callous, impatient, and abusive, and Eurydice, while more sympathetic, becomes cloying and weak in her toleration of Orpheus’ brutal rebuffs. The Princess and Heurtebise are great, but they can’t save the film from how fundamentally petty the central characters are.
One of the better parts of the movie is visit to the underworld, presenting a unique view of the afterlife. While not as brilliant or original as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) a few years before—or for that matter After Life (1998) much later—the tribunal held to discuss the guilt of Death and Heurtebise is one of the more effective scenes in the film.
As many objections as I have to the execution of this film, I do quite like Cocteau and I think that he’s a talented director. His influence on film history is evident here. As Heurtebise leads Orpheus into the underworld, he tells him, “This is the Zone. It is made of men’s memories and the ruins of their habits.” Tarkovsky, another director with brilliantly original low-tech effects, must have admired this film. This space between life and death, portrayed as a bombed-out wasteland, is called The Zone in this film, and I’d be surprised if it weren’t an inspiration for Tarkovsky’s vision of The Zone in Stalker (1979). I also think the scene of Orpheus’ death, with the chaos, cars, and cacophonous music, foreshadows moments a decade later in the French New Wave.
Orphée is the second of Jean Cocteau’s films that I’ve seen, following La belle et la bête (1946) which I saw last year. I much preferred the latter. Cocteau’s unsettling special effects and cinematography, which work brilliantly in a fairy tale, are jarring and distracting when transplanted into 20th century France. Magic realism is difficult in film, and for all his strengths I don’t think Cocteau pulls it off here. A more successful adaptation of the Orpheus myth is Orfeu Negro (1959). It places the action to modern Rio de Janeiro during the carnival, but is more faithful to the myth and therefore retains its power.