Orphée (dir. Jean Cocteau, 1950)

As you know, art films are not really my thing, and although I love France and French culture, I'm not always that wild about French films either (except war films). But I read Caroline Lawrence's post on Orphée a while back and it sounded interesting, and I love the myth (though Orpheus is an idiot) so I was intrigued. And I'm delighted to say, I loved it. This is a gorgeous film; fascinating, eerie, sad, beautiful.

Ironically, one of the reasons I love the film is that it patches up a lot of holes in the basic outline of the myth - exactly the opposite of my problem with the Fellini variety of art film, in which the total absence of coherent plot really bothers me. I've loved the spooky nature of the myth of Orpheus ever since I saw a televised dramatisation of it when I was very young, but the biggest problem with it is that Orpheus has to pick up the idiot ball in such a ridiculous way for the tragic double death to occur - he can't keep faith for the few extra minutes required to follow a fairly simple instruction. This is not the case here - among the numerous bits of logic that hold the surreal story together, Orpheus is told, not just that he can't look at Eurydice until they have both returned to Earth, but that he can't look at her ever again, which is obviously much harder. In the end, he catches sight of her in his rear-view mirror, entirely by accident. The film also provides motivation for other tricky elements of the story - for why Orpheus is able to go down to the underworld without having died (and without capturing Cerberus! Ancient heroes may treat the underworld like a must-see tourist destination, but visits there by the living are supposed to be exceptional), and for why Eurydice is allowed to return but only under strict conditions.

A voice-over tells the story of Orpheus over the opening credits, and immediately alerts viewers to the changes that have been made to the majority of ancient versions of the myth. Here, we are told that Orpheus lost his wife while he wasn't paying attention to her - not usually part of ancient versions, in which she's bitten by a snake, which no one can really do anything about. His death, torn apart by maenads, is directly linked to his failure to save Eurydice, which it isn't always in ancient literature, and of course there's the stipulation that he can't look at her ever, not just on the journey back to the upper world.

The reason for these fairly subtle alterations to the specifics of the plot is a massive alteration to the characterisation of Orpheus and his relationship with Eurydice. In ancient literature, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tragic love story about a love so strong that the bereaved husband was able to persuade Hades and Persephone themselves to be merciful, but which is thwarted by Orpheus' weakness and lack of faith at the end. In some versions, like Ovid's Metamorphoses, reference is made to Orpheus and Eurydice being reunited in death after he is murdered by the maenads. Here, however, we only actually see Orpheus and Eurydice in love and happy together at the substantially altered ending. Orpheus is driven, not by his love for his wife, but by his overwhelming obsession with Death (or, more specifically, his own Death), in the form of a sophisticated woman who reminds me very much of Lilith from Cheers/Frasier (I love that image by the way). Between the use of coded messages on a radio that look and sound exactly like every image of the French Resistance you've ever seen, sinister motor-bikers as henchmen, and the filming of the underworld sequences in buildings damaged or destroyed during the war, it's not difficult to see why Cocteau wants to explore the idea of man in love with Death, who actively seeks Death out.

The most interesting thing of all, though, is the way Cocteau turns the main overall theme of the myth, of love that almost conquers death, inside out. This is a film about the power of deep romantic love. But in ancient literature, this story is about a selfish kind of love. Orpheus wants his wife back, a wife who, in most versions, has died on their wedding day - i.e. before they were able to enjoy their wedding night. Yes, he loves her, but his primary interest is in getting her back for himself, and it is because he is so desperate to possess her - to have her, not just to know she is alive and well - that he fails at the final hurdle and looks back. In this story, however, the love that conquers all is completely selfless. Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (my favourite character, and by far the most sympathetic) pay an unspecified (and all the more horrible for it) price when they sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the people they love. Neither can ever possess the object of their affection, and their actions drive Orphée and Eurydice back together at their own expense. This is why, unlike Orpheus, they are successful - because their love is a true, selfless love. It's selfless love that has the power to turn back death, not the desperate need to possess that drives Orpheus.

The scholarly commentary on this film insists that this is 'not a fantasy'. Ah, I love the smell of anti-fantasy snobbery in the morning. The commentator goes on at length about how the film is a metaphor for reality. So... like all really good fantasy then? I suspect this is the secret to the fact that I actually enjoy this film - however the director and fans may categorise it, this is essentially a very good, deeply layered metaphorical romantic fantasy, i.e., pretty much my favourite genre. I'm especially impressed at the way the film manages to give the story of Orpheus a happy ending, while maintaining the essential character of the myth, which makes it especially satisfying to watch.


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