I know very little of the world of 1949 metropolitan France. So I have no idea how close to the real thing is the world of Jean Cocteu's Orphée. But it doesn't matter. If this was a realistic setting or a place of fancy makes little difference to this take on a mythic tale. It still works well as a functional fantasy place for today's audience.
This world of Orphée is a world where the poet is king. Orpheus is our hero and he is a poet laureate loved by the masses like a pop idol. And like any hot music star, he is despised by the lower pseudo-literati. The jealous poet café-set don't hide their disdain for Orpheus or his writings which the public consume so eagerly. The main reason they hate him is because he is popular. Artists must suffer not succeed. In this film, the role of the artist is the role of tragic hero.
In the original myth Orpheus was the son of Apollo and Calliope, a hip-happening dude who grooved the ancient world with his lyre. He was such a hot musician even the trees and rivers swerved in his direction to listen. He was the mega-rock star of Grecian lands. He was married to Eurydice, but when fleeing the advances of Aristaeus - another son of Apollo, beekeeper and inventor of bookkeeping - she got snake-bit and died. Down to Hades she went and Orpheus, lyre in hand, went to follow. After pleading his case to Pluto and the missus Persephone (now there's a messy marriage) they allowed Orpheus to take Eurydice back home provided he never sets eyes upon her. Don't ask me why. Anyway, you can guess the outcome. Just be thankful it doesn't involve sex with some weird animal, as that seems the usual Greek god thang.
The gist of the original tale is pretty much told before the film begins. But what Cocteau wants you to be interested in is how he makes it different. This is the land of French poets rather than the land of Greek gods. And in this place Death is a major player. Cocteau's hero seems quite intrigued by the lure of Death. And Cocteau makes Death mysterious, sensual, even sexual. Long before Neil Gaiman's comic book version Cocteau created a sexy almost Goth style death in the guise of Maria Casares. Who, in the marvelous gowns (that can shift from black to white) creates one of the more elegant figures ever in cinema. She is striking, alluring and edged with a sinister shadow. I have little doubt Sonia Braga's Spider Woman was inspired by Casares mesmerizing, classy, amourous Death.
But that's enough about death. What this film is really about is poets. The French tragic kind who think they have to be all French and tragic to be poets. Orpheus more than most. And he does come across as an arrogant prat who doesn't know good things when he sees them. Typical of his kind, instead of being a reasonable human being he wants to grasp the unattainable and put it into a few wanky lines of poetry. Perhaps that's why Death becomes so enamored of him. She watches him sleep every night and becomes jealous of the sweet, blond and house-wifey Eurydice.
You know that eventually Orpheus has to travel to the underworld. Now remember, Orpheus' real world is Poet World; where poets are like supermen and everything is concerned with poetry. Even the dialogue flows like poetry. Who needs sporting heroes when you have heartthrob lamenting poets?
Orpheus is portrayed by the fine actor Jean Marais - the same guy from La belle et la bête - who was voted the world's most beautiful man. So if that's the real world, what must Hades be like? Well the realm of the underworld, the land of death, the place every lamenting poet dreams of is a land of poetry itself. Poetry expressed as only film and Jean Cocteau can.
The underworld is a place of camera tricks, a land of reverse shots, false perspectives, negative film, mirror tricks, rear projection, double exposures, slow motion. It is a land within the camera. It is the poet's eye. Sure, film effects wise, it's all obvious, but it doesn't take away from the power of the images. And we're talking today, not 1949 when such trickery was still quite fresh and exciting.
Still, it isn't too stale for today. That's because these dated in-camera tricks are still rich with meaning. These simple illusions and representive images. They are metaphor, simile and allegory. It doesn't matter how the trickery is done; it is the meaning that matters, the act of communication. Hence, they still work. And they remain fascinating, if quaint, due to their contexts. They become and remain poetry. If you were to criticise the "crude" techniques used then you might as well attack a poem or a novel for being merely ink on paper. Audience and filmmaker must share in the creative process. And Cocteau, with his film Orphée, demands it.
All endings are important to a film, but some endings are more important than others. And how Orphée ends means a great deal. Not surprisingly, it differs from the legend and Cocteau makes no apologies for that. It's why he happily tells you the legend at the beginning. He knows the knowledge will enhance the story, not hinder it. And the ending, elegent as it was, has a simple message. A message that film critics should learn the same way Cocteau wanted the critics to learn back in 1949.
And what he wants all life's critics to learn. Wisdom is discovering what to take seriously and what not. And if you choose to take Orphée seriously or not, Cocteau still wants you to enjoy yourself. And if you do enjoy it then that only reinforces the truth that Orphée is one of the most interesting, important and influential modern fantasies made.
A final note: If you have seen the superb Angels in America you will recall the long finale set in heaven. The locations were all carefully picked as corresponding to the locations of the finale of Orphée. Plus earlier on in Angels there is a scene directly taken from La belle et la bête (and, yes, it's a safe guess I'll write about this film in the near future). Knowing this gives an underlying meaning to Angels in America and in retrospect even enhances contemporary meaning to Cocteau.