Orpheus is surely French artist Jean Cocteau’s most famous film; it is justly acclaimed, and it might even be his best (though I have enormous fondness for Testament of Orpheus, his last). I’ve seen it many times now, on the cinema screen and at home, though its sense of forbidding poetic mystery is still strong enough that the idea of putting my feelings into words delayed me writing up this review. Maybe, then, it’s best if I just leave it at some disjointed scraps of feeling and that Criterion cover art. Cocteau’s long-term partner and muse, Jean Marais, plays the poet (Orpheus of course) and though he is married to Eurydice, who figures in the story, it feels far more like a film about Orpheus and his relationship to Death, the ravishing and mysterious Princess who shows up at the film’s start flanked by another poet, and who is played by her usual intensity by María Casares. It’s a film of images, like the eerie motorcycle riders dressed fetishistically in black leather, or the ruined city of the underworld, of reverse photography (a real throughline in all Cocteau’s filmmaking) rendering the ordinary strange, and of mirrors as shimmering, watery portals to other realms. I’ll no doubt watch the film again, and, like the avant garde poetry which recurs on the soundtrack, only dimly perceive what’s going on, but it’s the feeling the film inspires which endures.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau; Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jean Marais, María Casares, François Périer; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 28 March 2004 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 December 2015).