Orpheus (1950)

Magical yet haunting, Cocteau’s reimagining of the Orpheus myth in France during the Beatnik 1950s is a cinephile’s treat.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,116

Dir. Jean Cocteau
1950 | France | Drama/Fantasy/Romance | 95 mins | 1.33:1 | French
PG (passed clean)

Cast: Jean Marais, Francois Perier, María Casares, Marie Dea
Plot: A famous poet in postwar Paris, scorned by the Left Bank youth, is in love with both his wife Eurydice and a mysterious princess.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for Best Film from Any Source (BAFTA)
Source: SND Groupe M6

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mortality, Love, Myth

Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

I’ve to admit that although I got into world cinema back in 2007, it is only until now that I have seen my first Jean Cocteau movie.  Well, better late than never. 

I love Orpheus and it’s a great motivation for me to explore more of his works, including Beauty and the Beast (1946), which I’ve been wanting to see for a long time. 

The myth of Orpheus is quite well-known, even to someone like myself who professes no clue whatsoever about Greek mythology. 

My first acquaintance with the story came most pronouncedly in Marcel Camus’ extraordinary Black Orpheus (1959); Cocteau’s version is just as good, a reimagining of the story in 1950s France, particularly with the Beatnik subculture creeping into the zeitgeist. 

With eye-opening practical effects employed, including the recurring use of the mirror as a visual motif that allows the characters, dead or alive, to move between the realms of the living and dead, Orpheus is not just an age-old story well-told but told in a visually-stimulating way. 

“What do you mean by ‘poet’?”
“To write, without being a writer.”

I recently just rewatched 1999’s The Matrix, and that scene with Keanu Reeves touching the fluid-like mirror now feels like a nod to Cocteau, intentional or otherwise.

Jean Marais is fantastic as the titular character, but Maria Casares is even more unforgettable as Death who wants Orpheus for herself, while Francois Perier plays Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise, who becomes smitten with Orpheus’ wife, Eurydice. 

It’s a complicated four-way relationship scenario, not to mention that any wrong move made by any party would mean a fate worse than death. 

Magical yet haunting, Orpheus is surprisingly accessible for an arthouse-type film.  The scenes of the Underworld are a cinephile’s treat and I believe they feature some of Cocteau’s most imaginative work.

Grade: A-

Promo Clip:


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