Jean Cocteau and “Orpheus”: The Poet as Filmmaker

by Steve Vineberg
Featured Art: Valley with Fir (Shade on the Mountain) by Henri-Edmond Cross

Jean Cocteau recognized no boundaries between forms of art. He was a poet, a novelist, a playwright, and a visual artist, and each of these media also functioned as a bridge that led him into filmmaking—not just conceptually, since movies are a hybrid of all of these other forms, but often literally. He filmed two of his plays, Les parents terribles and The Eagle Has Two Heads, and wrote the screenplay for Jean-Pierre Melville’s adaptation of his novel Les enfants terribles, and his great 1950 movie Orpheus reimagines his 1926 play of the same name. The Greek myth of Orpheus, the singer and lyre player whose voice is so sweet that he charms Hades into allowing him to reclaim his dead wife, Eurydice—only to lose her again when he’s unable to stick to the god’s single condition, that Orpheus never look at her face—obsessed Cocteau. He returned to it again in his last feature, The Testament of Orpheus, a gabby mélange of recycled ideas from the earlier picture as well as from his first, the 1930 short The Blood of a Poet. In Testament, Cocteau himself, at the end of his life, interacts with the actors from Orpheus, revisiting the characters they first brought to life a decade earlier. The title character in Orpheus, set in modern France, is a poet, a celebrity whose fan base, young women who recognize him in the street and mob him for autographs, anticipates that of rock-and-rollers of just a few years later. Only in France could a poet-dramatist envision a poet hero who leads the life of a rock star.

Orpheus (played by the improbably handsome Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover and the male star of his marvelous 1946 Beauty and the Beast) enticed Eurydice (Marie Déa) away from the female-dominated world of the Bacchantes, led by the influential café owner Aglaonice (Juliette Gréco), and married her. (In the myth the Bacchantes are supernatural harpies who tear Orpheus apart when he breaks Hades’ rule and turns his face to look at his wife.) Eurydice adores him and is excited to tell him the news that she’s pregnant with his child, but he doesn’t pay her much notice. He’s preoccupied with the waning of his critical favor and his fear that the critics are right—that he has nothing left to say. The latest rage in his insular world, whose epicenter is the Café des Poètes, is eighteen-year-old Jacques Cégeste (Édouard Dermithe), whose patroness, a mysterious princess (Maria Casares), publishes his poems in her periodical and accompanies him everywhere. When Cégeste gets into a drunken brawl at the café and steps into the road to avoid a cop, he’s run down by motorcyclists. The princess orders her chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), to place the body in her limousine and picks Orpheus out of the crowd to come along and give assistance. They drive to her villa in the countryside, where she resurrects the dead Cégeste—a feat of magic that Cocteau accomplishes with the use of reverse film—and leads him into the underworld through a mirror, the glass transformed into water at the touch of her rubber gloves. The princess is Death, taking the form of a gorgeous, imperious, chain-smoking royal attended by motorcycle riders who dispatch her victims. But she goes too far when she begins to choose them at her own will. She claims Eurydice because Death has fallen in love with Orpheus—we see her steal into his bedroom at night and watch him sleep—and wants him for herself.

In the play, Death doesn’t covet Orpheus, and Heurtebise doesn’t fall in love with Eurydice; Cocteau added this touching emphasis on the intolerable loneliness of the inhabitants of the netherworld. (Heurtebise, we learn, became Death’s chauffeur after killing himself over a woman.) The movie’s other theme is the poetic process as both creation and destruction, as erotic fulfillment and the rival of domestic love and contentment. Cocteau first explored the notion of art as a tyrannical mistress who rewards the artist with inspiration in The Blood of a Poet. Its protagonist, the Poet (Enrique Rivero), brings the statue of a woman (Lee Miller) to life by placing his hand over her face and then, at her command, steps into a mirror. There he finds himself in a hotel corridor; he peeps through a series of keyholes that reveal images and scenarios that, we infer, will furnish the material for his future poems. But in Orpheus the relationship between the poet and his muse is more complicated, and more sinister; by comparison The Blood of a Poet, remarkable and suggestive as it is, is merely a sketch. The Blood of a Poet, like the play of Orpheus, is a pioneering piece of surrealism, like the shorts Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí devised around the same time, Un chien andalou and L’âge d’or, but its style limits its narrative resources. By the time Cocteau started turning out full-length movies, he had shifted to symbolism, a style far better suited to dramatizing magical tales like Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus. But he didn’t abandon surrealism completely. Orpheus becomes enraptured with the messages he hears over the princess’s car radio—strange, poetic phrases pregnant with indecipherable meaning like “Silence goes faster backwards” and “A single glass of water lights up the world” and “The bird sings with its fingers” that echo the language of surrealist plays like Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias.

What neither Orpheus nor the viewer expects is that he will wind up reciprocating Death’s feelings for him, but it makes conceptual sense. There is, of course, a Freudian level to this turn of events, and both surrealism and symbolism are the children of Freud; but Cocteau is more interested in the idea of death as the prize of prizes for a poet, the source of imagery that will enliven Orpheus’s work, imagery worthy of Dante and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. His love affair with the idea of death begins on his journey to the underworld with Heurtebise to try to get back his wife. It’s Heurtebise who encourages him to set out on that journey, who insists, when Orpheus protests that no man can venture into Death’s realm, “A poet is more than a man”—a line that always makes me think of the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, where Emily, newly arrived in the land of the dead, asks the Stage Manager if any living person ever truly experiences life every minute and he answers, “Saints and poets, maybe—they do some.” Cocteau does his most beautiful—and poetic—work in this scene, where, after Heurtebise leads Orpheus through the mirror in his bedroom, they enter a sort of no-man’s land, the Zone, that is a passageway between the worlds of the living and the dead, and that Heurtebise can float through effortlessly while Orpheus, who as a living man has no business being there, has to struggle, pulling against gravity, to make his way, like the Poet in the hotel corridor in The Blood of a Poet. The Zone is bounded by all the mirrors in the world. And except for a few nomads wandering, lost, through it, presumably unable to detach themselves entirely from the lives they have left behind—Heurtebise tells Orpheus that the Zone is “made of men’s memories and the ruins of their habits”—its only inhabitant is a young glazier who carries panes of glass on his back. (The critic Pauline Kael identifies this droll touch as a nod to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, where Chaplin plays a poor glazier who occasionally, clandestinely, smashes a pane of glass so that he can make a few coins replacing it.) Heurtebise is breaking the rules by revealing the “secret of secrets” to a living human being; or rather, he’s breaking them again, since he’s already, like Death, committed the cardinal offense of falling in love, forbidden to the dead in either world. And when he explains the significance of the mirrors, he offers a marvelous poetic reading of their symbolic link to death: “Look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you’ll see Death at work like bees in a hive of glass.”

Before they embark upon this journey, Heurtebise asks Orpheus if he’s going in order to find Eurydice or Death, and the poet replies, “Both.” “So you can betray one with the other,” comments the chauffeur. A tribunal of judges in the underworld awards Eurydice to Orpheus and Heurtebise returns them both to the other side of the mirror, but once they have returned Eurydice sees that her husband is more distant from her than ever and recognizes that his preoccupation with the ghostly messages on the car radio (Death’s limo is still parked in Orpheus’s garage) indicates that Death is her rival and the real reason for his trip to the underworld. Cocteau came up with perhaps the most ingenious and wittiest dramatic representation anyone ever has of the ages-old notion that a male artist’s true partner is his muse and that the woman he claims to love will always take second place.

At the end of the film, Death makes the supreme sacrifice for Orpheus. After Orpheus inadvertently catches sight of Eurydice—through the rear-view mirror of the limo!—and she vanishes, Death summons the motorcycle riders for him too. But Heurtebise takes him to the underworld by an illicit back route that requires all of Orpheus’s strength and will power to traverse. There Death makes him believe that they will be together and free forever if he will promise to submit himself to whatever ordeal she imposes on him. Then she has Heurtebise smother him while Cégeste holds his legs, and the double negative of a death in the realm of the dead restores both him and Eurydice to the land of the living. The voiceover narrator explains, “The Death of a poet must sacrifice itself to make him immortal,” but in dramatic terms that’s not precisely what occurs, since both Orpheus’s and Eurydice’s memories of their time in the underworld have been erased and his only emotional loyalty at this point is to his wife and the child in her belly. “There’s only one love that counts—ours,” he assures her. Cocteau didn’t bother to work out the implications of this finale for Orpheus’s art, but if he remembers nothing of his journey—and since, as Cocteau is careful to show us, no earthly time passes while the characters are in the realm of the dead—it’s hard to imagine how it could immortalize him, i.e., elevate his poetry to the level of a Dante. Perhaps that’s why he chooses to end his movie with the haunting image of Death and Heurtebise, on the other side of the mirror, being led off to their separate unnamed punishments for breaking the laws of the netherworld. That is, he returns to his other theme, the loneliness of Death and her minions, which is so profound that it turns them into unthinkable criminals in their own world. Yet isn’t that an idea that only a great poet could conceive of? Cocteau here becomes inseparable from his hero, touched by a vision that, in the narrative, he can only receive by being transported beyond the world we know. A poet is more than a man, and Cocteau’s identification with Orpheus is complete.


Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at the College of the Holy Cross, where he teaches theatre and film. He writes regularly for The Threepenny Review and Critics at Large and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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