Orphée (France, 1950)

La grande mort

One of the key tenets of surrealism was to annoy the bourgeoisie who have to find profound meaning in their art. To provoke annoyance the surrealists relied upon dreams as the ‘legislators of truth’. Although Cocteau was part of the surrealist movement he was often supposed to be a dilettante; however, as  he said: “I have been accused of jumping from branch to branch. Well I have – but always in the same tree”. Hence although there are surrealist elements in Orphée its narrative has a logic that isn’t found in the classic surrealist films of the 1920s. In Orphée there’s no doubt that death lies beyond the mirror but it also seems to be a dream world that Cocteau brilliantly articulates through a variety of techniques.

One such is using back projection which includes a character engaged in conversation with another who is in the foreground. There’s also superb moment where Orpheus and Heurtebise, whilst in the realm of death, struggle along a wall to reach a corner where they appear to fly down the other side. The ‘underworld’ is accessed through mirrors and the transitions through them are done superbly using judicious angles and editing; there’s none of the plasticity of CGI.

Despite this brilliance I’ve never liked the film as Orpheus himself is a misogynist. However, I noticed this time (my third viewing) that he describes himself, toward the end, as ‘insufferably smug’, and early in the film he says that ‘we shouldn’t think to hard as it would become confusing’ (I paraphrase). In other words, it is typical surrealism playing with expectations that art should be meaningful and indicating that the ‘film’ knows Orpheus is pretty dislikable. On the other hand, unliked most surrealist films, it’s relatively easy to understand Orphée: it’s a commentary on the ‘agonies’ of the creative artist both socially (at the start Orpheus is ostracised by his peers because he is successful) and intellectually (the difficulty of creation).

María Casares’ ‘angel of death’ is particularly striking and in one moment of visual brilliance, when she is accused of loving Orphee, her dress suddenly turns from black to white. And it is such cinematic moments that stick in the mind from Orphée, not Jean Marais’ ‘insufferable’ Orpheus.

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