Jean Cocteau’s 1950 French film Orpheus transcends biological death to ponder on artistic death

Orpheus is a reworking of the Greek myth about a musician but has been remodeled around the life of a poet.

Baradwaj Rangan May 09, 2020 12:01:43 IST
Jean Cocteau’s 1950 French film Orpheus transcends biological death to ponder on artistic death

Death is still in the air, and in this column. Last time, I spoke about Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, where the recently deceased are asked to choose one memory from their lifetime. This is the memory they will spend the rest of eternity with. Every other memory will be erased before they leave for the afterlife.

This time, let’s look at Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), which is a reworking of the Greek myth about a musician who made such beautiful music with his golden lyre that the proverbial rock would melt into a puddle of tears.

When his wife Eurydice died, he sang such sad songs that the gods wept and advised him to go to the Underworld and ask the ruler, Hades, to send her back with him. Orpheus did so. Softened by his music, Hades agreed -- but with a condition. Eurydice would follow Orpheus on his way back, but he should not look back at her until they stepped into the world of the living. Orpheus agreed. But just before exiting the Underworld, his anxiety made him turn to confirm that Eurydice was indeed behind him. And she disappeared. Forever.

Cocteau places this story in the present day. Or does he? The director’s voiceover, at the opening, wonders: “Where does our story take place… and when? A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place. Interpret it as you wish…” Orpheus is now a famous poet. He’s practically a rock star, hounded by young women for an autograph. As for Hades, Cocteau reimagines the masculine Underworld figure as a beautiful woman, clad mostly in black. She’s addressed as Death, and she’s dressed like a society lady going to the poshest of balls.

Jean Cocteaus 1950 French film Orpheus transcends biological death to ponder on artistic death

A still from Orpheus

The reason is one of the film’s funniest moments. Death employs the newly deceased as her servants. When one of them, named Cegeste, gapes, she says: “Perhaps you expected to see me with a scythe and a shroud? My boy, if I appeared to the living the way they portray me, they would recognise me, and that wouldn’t make our work very easy.” The day Cegeste died is the day Orpheus meets Death. Cegeste is run over by a motorcycle outside The Poets’ Cafe, where Orpheus was chatting with a friend. As Death prepares to whisk the body away in her Rolls Royce, she commands Orpheus to accompany her. And his obsession begins.

Death takes many forms in Orpheus. Consider the fact that Cegeste was a poet, too. When he died, the poems in his hand scattered on the street, and one of those pages contained a phrase Orpheus uses much later. People gather at the police station to lodge a complaint. “The young man disappears under tragic circumstances, and his poem comes back to us through Orpheus, who was in the car and who claims he doesn’t know what became of Cegeste.” Are they accusing the more famous poet of stealing from an up-and-comer? A plagiarism charge is as good as death. It can kill a career.

Another facet of Death is present in Orpheus’ marriage. Eurydice is now a homemaker. She is transformed from the Great Love of the myth to a Victim, at the receiving end of a Great Artist’s mercurial mood swings. “Orpheus was horrible,” she tells a friend after a particularly hurtful bout of bad behaviour. The reply: “No, he’s a genius, and every genius has his moods.” At another point, when she tries to tell Orpheus she’s pregnant, he cuts her off. He’s obsessed with something else. A car radio is erupting with cryptic messages like “Silence goes faster backwards” and “A single glass of water lights up the world” and “The bird sings with its fingers.” Meaningless phrases? Or… poetry?

To Orpheus, it’s the latter. He says, “My life had begun to pass its peak. It was rotting, stinking of success and of death.” There, that word again. But is he talking about biological death or artistic death, which is worse for a creator? He continues, “The least of these phrases is much more than any of my poems… I’m on the trail of the unknown.” The opening voiceover did say “Interpret it as you wish…” So here’s one interpretation: Orpheus is an Artist in pursuit of Great Art, to the exclusion of the people who love him. Orpheus does seem distraught when Eurydice dies. He declares, “I would follow her to hell!” But when asked if he wants to find Eurydice or Death, he hesitates for a microsecond and says, “Both.”

Jean Cocteaus 1950 French film Orpheus transcends biological death to ponder on artistic death

A still from Orpheus

Slowly, it becomes clear that Cocteau isn’t interested in replicating the original myth. He’s said so himself. He wanted to talk about an artist — or maybe an Artist, like himself — and he felt that inventing a person for the sake of a movie would mean less than invoking one of the most legendary of artists: Orpheus. Like the myth, Orpheus deals with the dynamic between Orpheus and Death, but the “deal” isn’t getting back the wife (who dies here, too) but the attainment of artistic immortality. The translator Mark Polizzotti, in his superb Criterion Collection essay, writes that Cocteau’s film revolves around rot and renewal. The poet must depart this mortal world and pass into the “beyond” of true inspiration, and then return to spread the word.

Hence the “affair” between Orpheus and Death. Orpheus loves Death. Death loves him back. She comes every night and watches him sleep. How does she enter his room? Through the mirror covering his cupboard. Orpheus contains one of the most beautiful and chilling lines about death. One of the recently deceased tells our hero, “Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes and goes. Look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you’ll see Death at work, like bees in a hive of glass.” So true, isn’t it? Every day, we wake up a day older, and when we look into the mirror, we see “Death at work”.

But if you are worthy, if you are an Artist, then you might end up with the fate that Cocteau describes in voiceover, much later in the movie: “The Death of a poet must sacrifice itself to make him immortal.” Death loves Orpheus so much that she conspires to send him back to the living world, by going back in time. And that’s what we do each time we pick up a book or watch a movie or listen to music. We go back in time and arrest the artist’s mortality. Like Death in this movie, we bring him back to life.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

All images from Twitter.

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