Jean Cocteau’s seductive, moody, sometimes ludic take on the Orpheus legend appeals to the eye. Cocteau tends to create dramatic chiaroscuro in lush black and white–a film stock choice determined as much by budget constraints and generic convention as by aesthetic predilection. In Orpheus, conspicuous cinematic techniques–wipes, reverse projection, unusually placed high angle shots–augment the visual symphony, as does the repeated framing of contemporary characters among statues of mythological figures. The Princess (described by Cocteau not as as death, not as a symbol of death, but as the death of Orpheus) dons black clothing–but for a moment when her dress inexplicably, breathtakingly, turns white, then black again, in mid conversation.
Orpheus engages the senses of touch and hearing as well: the snap of magical rubber gloves before they glide through a limpid mirror (in fact a tub of mercury); the chill wind and frigid walls of the the zone, a no-man’s-land between life and death, created in the ruins of bombed out Saint-Cyr military academy. The sequence that leads to the audibly shattered mirror above, offers a cacpahony of competing music, mysterious radio broadcasts, and dialogue.
Cocteau’s film opens with a voice-over resume of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, culminating in advice to the viewer: “Where does our story take place? And when? A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place. As you please.”
In light of these words, the first shot of proto-hipsters in contemporary eyewear playing guitars and listening to boogie-woogie beats at the “Café des poètes” comes as a surprise. Instead of setting the film in a completely unidentified, timeless space as he did in the adapted fairy tale Beauty and the Beast (1946) Cocteau infuses Orpheus’s recognizable, contemporary post-World War II France (in notes he specified an ideal provincial town), with anachronistic names, peculiar objects, and otherworldly events. Technology and machines (cars, motorcycles, telephones) provide conduits between everyday and eerie environments. The poet Orpheus hangs on each syllable of cryptic short-wave radio broadcasts delivered as repeated numbers and sentence fragraments. The messages recall the occupation era’s English broadcast codes radioed by the Resistance, not so long before Orpheus was made. A while ago, watching a number-sequence episode of Lost, I couldn’t help thinking of Orpheus’s relentless, almost desperate attention to those repeated, crackly, inscrutable transmissions.
The film enhances awareness of sight, touch, sound–but not smell. There, on the Princess’s dressing table appear bottles of perfume. Death’s Girl Friday (Cocteau called her a fonctionnaire– a word rich in cultural associations that the translation “civil servant” only partially conveys) never handles those perfume bottles, never releases their fragrance. The impact of the looking-glass explosion causes liquid to splash within the bottles, yet not a drop escapes. As in more conventional films, the presence of the perfume bottle serves as a visual signifier of luxury, taste, and in this case, would-be femininity or sexual desire. She may slip in and out of cars and smoke cigarettes like a film-noir femme fatale, but the Princess neither eats nor drinks nor senses human time. How could she be conventionally perfumed? Her dressing table, with its sparkling array of finery, as ironically superfluous as her strappy wedged shoes and cinch-waisted gowns, underscores the impossibility of her love for Orpheus. In a sense –and in the earthier senses–this cosmic bureaucrat cannot exist.
Screen shots from my purchased copy of the film.
[EDIT: Photo placement keeps magically shifting.]