The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has not been told once on film. The Oscar winning "Black Orpheus" proved that a modern interpretation could be fun and enjoyable as well as emotional; but before the Brazilian-set film could win acclaim, the tale had already been told by master French director Jean Cocteau.
Our film opens with the thought of legend. We are told that we are about to see the story of Orpheus, but not in its original sense. When and where does our story take place? It doesn't matter and though the streets and scenery look like 1940s France, the story itself is pretentiously called timeless. Taking the original story and modernizing it in a much greater sense than even its successor "Black Orpheus" did, "Orpheus" manages to work as both an allegory of the Greek myth and its own story.
Orpheus (Jean Marais, Cocteau's lover and muse) has the power of absolute charm. In the old tale, he was seen as a very energetic and almost too perfect character, but his perfection and charm are what caused his wife to suffer. Cocteau makes very certain that there is no such perfection to this Orpheus. Though he is at the peak of his success as a poet (not a writer), he is hated by his contemporaries and he fawns to the public. He is, in essence, very flawed.
The film begins as a fellow poet stumbles out of a car near a cafe, accompanied by a princess (María Casares), who is supposedly the reason for his success. Barely eighteen and full of himself, it doesn't take much to provoke a fight between the other writers present. He is hit by two motorcycles and quickly placed in the back of the princess' car. She demands that Orpheus come with her and he does, mainly because she is a bewitching figure.
Along the way, Orpheus asks questions and is shot down every time he tries to speak. The surreal permeates the screen and we get a sort of magical realism: the reason for which cannot be explained except by the mysticism of the original story. In many ways, this seems like the follow up piece to the Swedish silent film "The Phantom Carriage" for its state of the art special effects and the suffocating ambiance of it all.
Really, the work that it most closely parallels is Cocteau's own "Beauty and the Beast". What differs here is the main characters flaws, and boy, are there quite a few.
Orpheus is never once likable, and yet we have a movie based on him, surrounding him alone...if that doesn't speak volumes for how talented Cocteau is, then nothing will. Beyond its deserving of admiration for how well the characters are constructed, "Orpheus" is a glory to behold just for its technological aspect. It's preservation has been noteworthy and it still looks crisp and clean after over half a decade.
The camera sweeps, provided by Nicolas Hayer, are spectacular and the simple way the lens favors certain moments can take the breath away from you.
Now there are moments here that drag, but the rest of the movie is so wonderfully magical that it doesn't matter. The tragedy, the romance, and the thievery of life..."Orpheus" is so good that it's almost cosmic.
Posted by Micah Jones