Metamorphoses – in my judgment a much better source of mythology than Lucas – Orpheus was a Thracian poet and musician whose lyre playing soothed and charmed the animals and the trees. His wife, Eurydice, was wandering in the meadows with her naiads and was fatally bitten by a snake. Orpheus descended to the underworld to find the spirit of his newly dead wife, and pleaded with Hades and Persephone for her return. He so moved the figures of the underworld that Sisyphus sat idle on his rock and the vultures refrained from pecking at Tityus’s liver. Orpheus was granted his wish on the condition he not look back at Eurydice on the ascent from the underworld, but he looked back and she was taken from him again. Orpheus shrunk away from all women and turned to young boys, angering the Ciconian women who tore him limb from limb with farm implements, cut his head off, and cast it adrift along with his lyre on the Hebrus river. Orpheus’ ghost descended to the underworld where it was reunited with Eurydice.
In Cocteau’s film Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a poet whose work has brought him a great deal of fame and popularity (the idea of a poet being hounded by the press and autograph seekers may seem outlandish to some), but has fallen out of favor with Bohemia, which resents his popularity and commercial appeal. (“The public loves me!” he tells a publisher. “The public is alone,” is the reply.) At a Bo-Ho poets cafe, he sees the young promising poet Jacques Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe) run down by two men on motorcycles. At the request of the mysterious Princess (Maria Casares), supposedly Cegeste’s sponsor, Orpheus helps the Princess and her chauffeur Heurtubise (Francois Perier), accompanied by the neo-fascist looking motorcyclists, to a remote villa where he sees the Princess and Heutubise disappear into a mirror with Cegeste’s corpse.
Huertubise takes Orpheus home in the Princess’ Rolls Royce, and quickly befriends Eurydice (Marie Dea) who asks him to stay. Orpheus begins neglecting Eurydice in favor of the Princess’ Rolls, whose car radio plays a steady stream of odd phrases he sees as a completely new direction for his poetry. It turns out that the Princess is an agent from the underworld – “one of the many shapes of death” – assigned to kill Cegeste, but who has now fallen in love with Orpheus, and is having the dead Cegeste transmit his poetry from the Underworld to distract him from Eurydice. Eurydice is run down by the motorcyclists – the Princess’ minions – but Heurtubise shows Orpheus how the dead use mirrors to travel between worlds. (“When you spend your life looking in the mirror,” he tells Orpheus, “you see death at work.”)
In the Underworld, the Princess is put on trial by her superiors for going against their instructions and is forced to admit her love for Orpheus. Orpheus is given Eurydice back, but only if her agrees never to look at her. He glimpses her in the rear view mirror of the car, and she vanishes. Orpheus finds an angry mob outside his home demanding to know the whereabouts of Cegeste and is killed by a stray gunshot. Orpheus returns to the underworld, but this time to declare his love for the Princess and not to find Eurydice. Knowing she must do the right thing, the Princess reverses time and kills the part of Orpheus that loves her. He returns to his life as if nothing has ever happened, and the Princess and Heurtubise are left to the mercy of the judges.
Shot through with Cocteau’s sense of benign Surrealism (Orpheus’ disfavor with French Bohemia mirrors the Surrealist’s displeasure with Cocteau himself), and enhanced by some absolutely striking and simple special effects, the film has made a lasting impression on a whole generation of directors. Francis Coppola, for example, quotes Orpheus in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I’ve seen the film’s influence in countless other horror films.
Surprisingly, very few of the poets I’ve known have ever seen this film, and that is a shame. As an allegory for poetry, the film is fascinating. We never do hear any of the poetry that made Orpheus famous, but we do get the phrases of Cegeste – clipped little sentences like ” A single glass of water lights the world” – that Orpheus considers more exciting than all of his work. His final declaration of love for the Princess suggests that a poet must embrace his own death for his art, and that one’s mortality can function as a muse. But if all this scared you off, don’t worry. Purely as fantasy and an update of mythology, the film works beautifully. That Cocteau also uses it to explore the themes of poetry and creativity is merely icing on the cake.