Escapist Friday: Orpheus (1950)

27 05 2011

“Orpheus”, or “Orphee” in the original French, is the influential Jean Cocteau’s surreal take on the Greek legend. This is the middle part of his Orphic trilogy, one spanning 30 years between first and last film, but this film deals with the most famous part of the myth. It goes: Orpheus, the famous musician and poet, has a wife, Eurydice, who passes away from a snake bite. To get her back he travels to the underworld and convinces Hades and Persephone to let her come back to the living world with him. Of course there is one stipulation, he cannot look upon her until they both reach the mortal world, so he walks ahead of her and once he reaches the upper world he turns to embrace her yet she is still on the other side making her disappear forever. Jean Cocteau follows the myth fairly closely yet sets it in then-modern Paris and makes few other changes such as inserting a different love story and starting the movie out more like a mystery.

When a director attempts to do a movie about a classical myth they usually have one of two option: set it entirely in the classical context, or modernize it with metaphorical supernatural elements. Jean Cocteau decides to take it right down the middle; he sets it in modern Paris yet keeps the names (Orpheus, Eurydice, etc) and all the supernatural aspects. Despite this, he actually changes all but the skeleton of the original tale. The biggest of which is that Orpheus ends up falling in love with Death which conflicts with his happily married life to Eurydice. The strongest part of “Orpheus” has to be the surreal nature of it all. By setting it in the modern world and keeping the supernatural aspects the viewer is treated to a true fantasy film which we do not expect. The film also uses many interesting tricks in editing and cinematography to help produce a surreal atmosphere which makes “Orpheus” work very well as an adventure film. As Orpheus is working out what is happening the viewer is also taken to along for the ride as the movie produces scenes which I don’t think we could really expect.

The weakest part of “Orpheus” I believe aren’t the changes, but the development of those changes. We see Orpheus as a loving husband; he has never cheated on his wife despite being so famous, and has a couple parts of dialogue where those feelings really come through. Cocteau does a very good job showing the allure of Death allowing the viewer to understand why Orpheus is attracted to her but we never see the internal struggle that Orpheus must go through during this time. The character Heurtebise also falls in love with Eurydice but nothing really comes of it. “Orpheus” has many powerful themes of love and loss but few of them are fully realized by the characters, we are told more of their feelings than we actually see on screen which a problem when much of the movie revolves around love.

Although “Orpheus” feels underdeveloped, it is still quite a treat to watch. When the supernatural sections arrive it feels like a series of surrealist paintings come to life. I wasn’t blown away by “Orpheus” and it might have been better if Cocteau just sticked to the original myth, but it is hard to deny that the parts that work do so wonderfully.

Score: 85/100

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