Surreal Cinema: Jean Cocteau


Director: Jean Cocteau, Feature Film, France, 95 min, 1949

“Orpheus” is a Greek myth about a musician who descends into the underworld to reclaim his dead wife, and so enchants the gods with the music of his lyre that they permit her to return to the land of the living–on the condition that he never look at her. Jean Cocteau set his 1949 film of the story in modern-day Paris and added twists that would have startled the Greeks, especially a romantic triangle with Death as the third partner. The film shows Cocteau’s taste for magic and enchantment; he uses simple but dramatic special effects and trick shots to show his characters passing into the world of death by stepping through mirrors, and when he wants a character to spring back to life, he simply runs the film backward. He weaves his effects so lightly into the story that after a time they aren’t tricks at all, but simply the conditions of his mythical world.

Seeing “Orpheus” today is like glimpsing a cinematic realm that has passed completely from the scene. Films are rarely made for purely artistic reasons, experiments are discouraged, and stars as big as Marais are not cast in eccentric remakes of Greek myths. The story in Cocteau’s hands becomes unexpectedly complex; we see that it is not simply about love,death and jealousy, but also about how art can seduce the artist away from ordinary human concerns, so that after Orpheus astonishingly returns from the land of death, he is more concerned with the nonsensical radio transmissions than with his wife who loves him.

Orpheus’s peerless visual poetry and dreamlike storytelling represent the legendary Cocteau at the height of his powers.

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Event Details

Name Orpheus
Date Sat 19 Aug 15:00