"Look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you'll see death at work, like bees in a hive of glass." - Heurtebise
In our waking world mirrors merely cast a reflection, a true-to-life representation of reality, only marginally skewed by a reversal of position. In our waking world mirrors are fairly benign, but in dreams… they become something else entirely. Swirling portals into the unknown, mirrors become gateways into the abstract, into hazy sweet spots of imagination and wonder, into the darkest recesses of our hopes and desires, into parallel worlds and alternate possibilities, into the dry lands of death itself. Acclaimed artist and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau, knows a thing or two about mirrors. A common visual motif of cinematic magic and trickery in his works, the artist frequently uses the objects as a means to leave our world behind. This is perhaps no better evident than in his 1950 masterpiece, 'Orpheus.' A loose retelling of the classic myth, the film becomes a dreamy rumination on love, life, death, and the heavy consequences that result in their momentary mingling.
Inspired by the Greek myth, the story follows a poet, Orphée (Jean Marais), who becomes obsessed with a princess (María Casares) who is actually the physical personification of death itself. So enthralled by her mystique, he begins to neglect everything else, including his loving wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa). When death falls in love with the smitten poet, Eurydice becomes the victim of her jealousy. With the help of the princess's ghostly chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), Orphée must leave the land of the living behind and ultimately decide between his faithful wife and the powerful allure of death.
The narrative is full of rich thematic material that questions the nature of love and the pitfalls of obsession. Blending a variety of genres, the plot starts off firmly planted in reality but slowly descends into the supernatural, using the wonder and mystery of its images and story to enhance the metaphoric subtext of its themes. Orphée's fascination with death and her world forms a larger commentary on artists' own selfish absorption in their work, and the character's struggle between his newfound desires and his loyalty to his wife creates one of the central dramatic dilemmas of the picture. We never see the married pair's love in its prime, and indeed when we first meet the couple they are already well into the habitual domesticity of bourgeois life. While some of Orphée's behavior toward Eurydice does seem rather callous, there are still moments peppered throughout that show that he still cares for her, even if his passions are now ignited elsewhere. Their relationship with each other is a paramount aspect of the film, but it's their interactions with several visitors from beyond that end up fueling the narrative's conflict and fantasy.
Death and Heurtebise act as the mystical counterpoints to the poet and his wife, and their own struggles are just as important and beautifully realized. As death, María Casares presents a commanding presence of icy power, but there is a softer vulnerability just beneath the surface. In Cocteau's world, the land of the dead is indeed full of magic and mystery, but for all its ethereal majesty, it is also depicted as an endless bureaucracy of infinite tribunals and faceless orders. It is this world that the princess is a product of, and it is no surprise that her periodic trips to Earth end up fostering a desire for more. Eventually death is actually placed on trial, and her crime... is love. Though not of the living, her interactions in our world have left a deep impression, and through her character and Heurtebise, Cocteau examines what it means to be human. Heurtebise, in particular, becomes the heart of the film, even more so than Orphée. François Périer is masterful in the role, bringing a sad-eyed loneliness and longing to the deceased chauffeur. Like death, he too falls in love, and his sweet confession of unrealized passion is heartbreaking to watch. The character is the most well rounded and likeable figure in the story, and a particular shot of him slowly retreating backwards, eyes heavy with melancholy, is among the most powerful, understated, and beautifully effective images in the entire film.
Cocteau brings his usual bag of tricks to the proceedings and injects 'Orpheus' with a visual treasure trove of fantastical imagery. Trick photography and many in-camera practical effects are utilized throughout, giving the illusions an air of reality and truth. Though what you see onscreen may not be possible in our everyday life, it was all captured by the lens exactly as it appears, and as we all know, the camera does not lie. Reverse motion is employed frequently, making impossible movements a reality while adding an otherworldly quality to characters' motions. The mirror effects themselves provide the film with some of its most famous imagery, and through duplicated sets and swirling pools of mercury, Cocteau is able to give cinematic form to dreams. Costumes, props, and set design are also used to their fullest, as shifting dresses add emotional subtext, various rituals and tools become keys into the unknown, and real locations are transformed into unearthly ruins of the mind.
One of the most striking and memorable sequences, involves Orphée and Heurtebise's initial voyage into death's realm, a war torn expanse of man's lost memories and potential, christened "The Zone." The scene is among the most awe-inspiring instances of fantasy ever put to screen and features a brilliant use of in-camera ingenuity. In the background of the frame, Orphée struggles to make his way through a wasteland of rubble and promise, all added to the sequence through rear projection. In the foreground, Heurtebise appears to effortlessly glide through the same environment as an eerie wind flows by, though in actuality the actor is standing motionless on a separate set positioned in front of a screen. By literally splitting the characters into two distinct fields of existence, Cocteau is able to experiment with different effects within one shot, while still ultimately fusing them together into the same screen space. It's a masterful and absolutely enchanting sequence, that while impressive from a technical perspective, ends up igniting the imagination like only the best images can.
Love is for the living, it would seem, and 'Orpheus' shows us why. A mesmerizing examination of sacrifice and passion, Cocteau's masterpiece is a visual delight. The film's images transcend mere celluloid and become snapshots of pure imagination. Life and death are not meant to mingle and through one couple's brief dalliance with the supernatural we end up with a bittersweet tragedy of loss and rebirth. This is a timeless work of poetic art that represents cinema at its finest.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Orpheus' in their standard clear case with spine number 68. Originally available on DVD as part of a boxset with other thematically related Cocteau works, 'The Blood of a Poet,' and 'Testament of Orpheus,' Criterion has disappointingly decided to only bring this chapter to Blu-ray. The BD-50 region A disc comes packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by author Mark Polizzotti, an essay by film scholar James S. Williams on La villa Santo-Sospir, and an excerpt about the film written by Cocteau himself.
The movie is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The video is very nice giving the film's many beautiful images and sequences a respectful and pleasing appearance.
The source is relatively clean but there are some very minor signs of damage, including an odd speck here and there or a faint vertical line. A light layer of grain is also visible throughout giving the picture a nice, natural, film-like look. The movie does have a comparatively soft appearance, seemingly inherent to the source and dreamy photographic intentions, but the image still shows off some strong levels of fine detail in many sequences. The opening of the film actually appears the sharpest, but there are still other instances of solid depth and clarity. Black levels do fluctuate a little, appearing a hair elevated in isolated shots, but for the most part offer a deep appearance. Contrast is fairly consistent, and presents a natural looking image.
While the detail levels aren't exactly impressive, the movie's video transfer accurately and respectfully presents the intentions of the filmmaker well. All of Cocteau's marvelous, fantastical imagery and cinematic tricks are on display in full force, and the various trips into "The Zone" look simply wonderful.
The movie is presented with a French LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. Like the visuals, Cocteau has created wonderful, dreamy sound design elements. While technically proficient, the mix can't help but show its age.
Dialogue is solid, coming through clean and easy to understand, but there is a thin quality to the speech that is common for many mono films of this time period. Any true sense of directionality or separation is of course absent, but the single channel of audio does present some strong sound design choices. Various effects help to bolster the magical imagery with equally supernatural sounds, including frequent tuning fork reverberations that mark the many trips through mirrors. Dynamic range is fairly flat and bass is essentially absent, but that is to be expected for a mix from this era. Balance between the elements is done well.
The audio mix is a bit thin and lacking in fidelity, but that is an unavoidable reality of its age. Thankfully, there are no major signs of hiss, crackle, or other technical anomalies, and this is a nice, respectful, but not impressive presentation of the material.
Criterion has put together a very nice assortment of supplements, including a feature-length documentary, some vintage interviews, and a commentary. All of the special features are presented in upscaled 1080i with French Dolby Digital mono audio and optional English subtitles, unless noted otherwise.
'Orpheus' is a beautiful reflection on love and death as filtered through the limitless prism of fantasy. Cocteau employs all of his trademark visual tricks to create long lasting images that are bolstered by memorable characters and deep themes. The video quality is very nice and while it shows its age, the audio is respectable. Supplements are plentiful and interesting, offering great insights into the director. This is a great disc for a fantastic piece of classic cinema that comes highly recommended.