When I was struck with a fever six months ago, I lay in bed, succumbing to the illness’s debilitating powers. I could only remain cognizant of my surroundings for brief periods of time, yet it seemed when I was awake and semilucid, boredom would quickly settle in. Unable to muster the energy to do anything worthwhile or productive, I sat in my bed, fiddled with my smartphone, and opened the Hulu app. Aimlessly browsing the selection of Criterion films, I chose Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus based on the description alone:
A famous poet, scorned by the Left Bank youth, loves both his wife Eurydice and the mysterious Princess. Seeking inspiration, the poet follows the Princess from the world of the living to the land of the deceased.
The description matched my feverish state of mind. I needed an escape from my boredom, and a fantastical tale about love and death set in the “land of the deceased” peaked my interest. It was not long before the jarring imagery and unconventional storytelling synced up with my semihallucinatory sickness. My desk undulated like an animated sine wave. My head was throbbing with a singular, nearly deafening pulse, which created an unbearable ache, and I felt as if some Cronenbergian nightmare might undo and transmogrify my corporeal presence. Thankfully, my damaged psyche was temporarily relieved by Cocteau’s fervid cinematic poetry.
Adapted from the Greek myth of Orpheus and reinterpreted to suit the malaise and bohemian culture of post-war France, the eponymous Orpheus tells the story of a famous poet who is feeling cynical and jaded by his celebrity and shares no more enthusiasm for his own works. He has yet to discover a new creative muse, but the opportunity arrives when he’s sitting at a café popular with Left Bank* artists and writers, when a younger, upcoming poet makes an embarrassing scene. The young poet, Jacques, fulfills the stereotype of a self-destructive artist—he feels as if being difficult allots you a cachet of hipness. After igniting a brawl in the café and struggling with police, he falsely asserts his delusional notion that “difficult” equates with creative—and troubled—“genius.”
I would love the idea that my skittish mind came to the conclusion that Cocteau, vicariously through the main character of Orpheus, is lamenting and stripping away the glorification of the creative process as its own never-ending reward. My mind was too rattled back then, but analyzing the film now, I sense Cocteau is opening a window about artistic types looking for their next source of inspiration, no matter how deleterious to their psyche or health—recreational drug use, risky behavior, and destructive and poisonous relationships come to mind. Orpheus, witnessing the demise of the young and destructive poet Jacques, takes the moment to introspect and becomes even more weary of the fact that his poetry and subsequent fame have ultimately been an unrewarding experience. Yet a mystifying female figure on the margins in this maelstrom of fists and kicks will rekindle Orpheus’s creative libido. This female figure and the (under)world that she engages in will, however, produce injurious problems in Orpheus’s domestic affairs, while also causing him direct physical harm.
With my conscious on autopilot throughout the film, I sank into a dream state because the movie is very much a vivid hallucination. It’s not only the images that carry the film, but also how the images are presented. As the story subsequently moves into the “land of the deceased,” the images become fantastical. Mirrors act as portals to the underworld, but Cocteau’s ability to film the mirrors not as solid objects but as metallic jelly (!) makes you wonder how that special effect was accomplished. The ingenious use of the film stock’s negatives contort and contrast by reversing the whites and blacks on the screen, convincing the viewer that not only is night occurring, but our characters have also entered into a special zone, where the leaders of the underworld and their unique laws have sway. The journey directly to the underworld is fraught with hesitant expectations, and that journey is beautifully captured as one of the underworld’s citizens guides Orpheus into the realm of the dead. This sequence inventively uses rearview projection and reverse shots to capture the eeriness and let the viewer know that the laws of physics have been changed dramatically.
I congratulate Cocteau for being a visionary, for allowing elements of the avant-garde community of which he was a part into the film, and also for structuring those elements into a cohesive narrative with imagery. I remember occultist and experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger speaking highly of Cocteau’s fecund imagination, and acclaimed graphic novelist Alan Moore praised Cocteau’s use of physical special effects that do more to trigger the imagination of viewers than the latest CGI spectacle. Orpheus the film perfectly matched my mood at the time, and even after my flu, I came to deeply appreciate the perfect marriage of practical special effects and the film’s wonderfully modern take of the classic Greek myth.
*An area in Paris known for being the intellectual/creative powerhouse of the city