FREAKSHOW Orphée

Join us every Monday, as we look at a cult movie. Our film of the week this time is a surreal retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

1950
Director: Jean Cocteau
Cast: Jean Marais, François Périer
Available on region one and region two DVD
Watch the trailer here

Over the centuries, Greek mythology has fascinated countless artists and writers, and the stories have been reworked for successive generations. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the best-known tales. Singer Orpheus’s wife is taken by Death. He descends into the Underworld to rescue her. He’s allowed to return with her, but on one condition: he is not allowed to look at her. Of course he does, and loses her again.

This 1950 film by French poet, writer and Jean Cocteau transposes the story to post-war France. Orpheus becomes a successful poet, played as a pantomime of the stormy, alienated artist by Jean Marais. Death transforms into the personification of elegance; a captivating woman in a jewelled black evening dress, gliding about in a black Rolls Royce. In Cocteau’s version, Orphée falls in love with Death, and one can hardly blame him.

The film is at its most captivating when Orpheus invades the limbo of The Zone, a looking-glass world entered by walking through a mirror. Cocteau uses primitive effects (such as back projection) to create an uncanny, dreamlike world of atmospheric ruins. Elsewhere he reverses the film to make the impossible possible: a shattered mirror reforming itself, for example. Nowadays that’s a laughably quaint effect, but in this context it seems magical.

Some might find this slice of French arthouse indigestibly pretentious. At one point Orphée becomes obsessed with a car radio burbling enigmatic one-liners such as “silence is twice as fast backwards” or “the bird sings with its fingers”. However, if you’re the kind of amateur existentialist who admires the ring of a sentence like “look a lifetime in a mirror and you will see Death at work”, then this beautiful film is for you. Morrissey is, presumably, one of its admirers – the cover of The Smiths’ “This Charming Man” features a publicity still of Jean Marais.

Ian Berriman, reviews editor of SFX and cult movie nut, has watched Rat Pfink A Boo Boo four or five times, but never seen On The Waterfront. The nutter.

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