Myth of the Immortal Singer
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice, whether told by Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil or Ovid does not age. It is not because of the story- teller but the story, and what it represents. Myths that associated with gods residing on the snowy tops of Mt. Olympus we may in these times dispense with. Yet remains within the pale shadowy regions of our psyche another kind of gods that slip mysteries through symbols and in suprareal clarity, which we call dreams. A sense of awe it elicits from us so much so we treat dreams as nightmares or as fulfilling deepest wishes vicariously. We haven’t yet plumbed the depths of ‘the mystery of being’. Thankfully myths are part of our learning process and if we could crack the code- this mystery, we all would be poets and life would be poetry in motion. Oh no! We are dealing with our imperfect state and as long as we remain thus the story of Orpheus and Eurydice would hold relevance to us. If we teleport ourselves to another intergalactic station we can relate to it as Orpheus descending to the other world. That is in future. So we shall as Jack Webb says, ‘stick to facts,’
In ancient times what Ovid and Virgil strove at we may deal the mysteries after our fashion. Thus Cocteau placing the story of Orpheus in his time is apt. ‘ A legend is entitled to be set anywhere… interpret it as you will.’ The poet admonishes before the film gets underway.
Cocteau interprets it by using many elements from the culture of his time and these visual clues give the immortal myth its time and place. For example, the messengers of the Princess of Death are grim, leather-clad motorcyclists. Buildings in France, which remained in ruins after World War II, represent the underworld and Orpheus’s trial in the underworld is presented in the manner of an inquest held by officials of the German occupation attempting to discover members of the French resistance. At the very end of the film, the Princess and Heurtebise are prisoners, brought forward to face the tribunal, ominously elevated on a pedestal above them.
At the Café des Poètes, two cliques are engaged in a brawl. It follows immediately after the Princess (Casares) and the young poet Cègeste (Edouard Dermithe) arrive. The princess has unlimited means to further the career of her protégé, but he is killed by the outriders of the Princess. Apparently an accident. The Princess orders Orpheus (Marais) along as a witness. Cègeste’s body is taken to the villa in the outskirts than to the hospital.
The sleek Rolls serves as a metaphor for the insulated world of a poet. As Orpheus says elsewhere, ‘Poet sings of death and dreams of death’,’… and life is a long death’. His experience with the Princess and the dead poet leaves him irritable and his preoccupation with the car radio transmitting coded messages elicits following comment ‘You can’t spend your life in a talking car’. Eurydice would like him to be concerned about the baby she is carrying. The poet engrossed in decoding messages tells the chauffeur, ‘I am on the threshold of a discovery of a world and she is on to bills and baby’s clothes.’
Orpheus finds the company of the chauffeur Heurtebise (Périer) more congenial. He has the wonderful ability despite his position of taking orders from the Princess and her handlers, to come and go as he pleases. Is it because the poet committed to art found such freedom an ideal state or is it physical attraction? He is as mysterious as Death since he can pass through mirrors as Death. ‘Mirrors are the doors through which death comes and goes’.
Heurtebise is evidently attracted to Eurydice a fact he admits before his peers. He warns her in her condition not to take the bicycle and she refuses to listen. The death of Eurydice brings to surface the motive of Death. She visited often to watch Orpheus asleep and her fascination is an aspect that brings Orpheus to assess his fascination with death. A poet’s imagination is not purely an abstraction or a pose but holds a tangible basis. Thus Orpheus songs or dreams of Death have the Princess as the starting point. (‘Death has a face’ and in this case the Princess.) It becomes now clear why Cègeste who was his rival had to die.
Cocteau shows Death (the Princess) is as much a transgressor as the Poet (Orpheus) who in pursuit of his art has transgressed in his relationship with Eurydice.
Cocteau explored the myth of Orpheus on no fewer than three occasions: Le Sang d’Un Poete (Blood of a Poet, 1930), Orphee (Orpheus, 1949) and Le Testament d’Orphee (1960).
Cocteau said of Mirrors: “We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death.” If one could step through the reality to the other side it would be repeating Orpheus’ descent into the Hades and back.
(ack: wikipedia,Criterion collection , Cocteau: The Art of Cinema (1992). Reprinted by permission of Marion Boyars Publishers, New York, London.)
Orpheus coming out of the crowd tells:’Is my case hopeless?’
Owner of the Café des Poètes to Orpheus: Astonish us!
Orpheus checks the review and finds every page blank. ‘Is less absurd than it were written every page full of absurdities.’
The Princess to Orpheus:’Don’t stand there like a lamp post.’
The Princess:’ Are you sleepwalking? Follow me!’
Orpheus:’Yes I am asleep. The dreamer must accept his dreams.‘
Orpheus:’Who can say what is poetry and what is not?’
Orpheus: ‘Aglonice (a member of the League of Women- Bachantes)cannot tell you anything new.’
message:’ a single glass of water lights the world.’
* Director: Jean Cocteau
* Produced By: Discina International Films
* Run Time: 95 minutes
* Jean Marais – Orphée
* François Périer – Heurtebise
* María Casares – The Princess – Death
* Marie Déa – Eurydice
* Henri Crémieux – L’éditeur
* Juliette Gréco – Aglaonice
* Roger Blin – The Poet
* Edouard Dermithe – Jacques Cégeste
* René Worms – Judge
* Nicholas D’Agosto- The Guy