Despite (or perhaps on account of) his celebrity status (really?) as a feted poet, Orphée (Jean Marais) is fated to a discontented and moody existence, devoting more time to his poetry than to his devoted wife Eurydice (Marie Déa). His eye is taken, though, by another young poet, the dissolute Jacques Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) who has barely enough time to register his degenerate credentials before he’s run over by black clad bikers (archetypal emissaries of Death who will recur in films as diverse as those of Kenneth Anger, Freddie Francis’s Tales From The Crypt, Anthony Balch’s Horror Hospital, 1973 and Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, among others).
Orphée is roped into a phoney attempt to save Cégeste by the black presence of Death herself (Maria Casares) with whom, as a moody artist, he naturally develops an obsession (a mutually felt one, as it happens). Increasingly preoccupied with deciphering cryptic radio messages that are apparently broadcast from The Beyond, he neglects Eurydice even further, until she is felled by those bikers and carried off to Hades. Under the guidance of Death’s ambiguous chauffeur / PA Heurtebise (François Périer), Orpée passes through the looking-glass into The Underword (cue can-can music…)
Stating his case to a tribunal of judges who appear to be Death’s employers, Orphée reclaims his bride, with the proviso that if he ever looks at her, he will lose her again. After some comic bits concerning the convoluted domestic arrangements entailed by this, the inevitable happens, but Heurtebise puts an additional spin on the original Greek legend (which might well have influenced Mario Puzo when coming up with the climax of Superman II, 1980). Heurtebise and Death (compliant in this reversal of the ordained order of things) are led off to their punishment by the bikers and Orphée is permanently reunited and reconciled with Eurydice in marital bliss…
Jean Cocteau was, among other things (many, many other things) a gay film maker. Having taken the opportunity afforded, by this characteristically lush BFI restoration, to re-watch his spell-binding Orphee (1950), I was left wondering about the distinction between a gay man directing a film and a man directing (if indeed there is such a thing) a gay film. In one of the supporting extras on this disc, John Maybury director of Love is the Devil and The Edge of Love argues that as homosexuals don’t have children (not necessarily true, these days), the works of artists such as Cocteau constitute part of the “Queer Family Tree”. Cocteau, however, was working in an era whose prevailing mores obliged him to be more reticent about revealing his orientation than might be the case in present day France and as such the choice of Orpheus, a figure of multifarious mythic manifestations, was a particularly useful one from which to take an oblique tack…
Orpheus doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s seminal Theogony but in Virgil’s classic telling of the tale, his poetic mastery of the lyre and the beauty of his singing voice wins over animals, plants and yes, inanimate objects. Simonides adds that he even managed to charm Charon, Cerberus and Pluto into surrendering Eurydice, back to the land of the living, though his regard for her does not extend to complying with the instructions that will prolong her revival. In Cocteau’s film, moreover, Orphée makes a similar journey through The Zone in search of the handsome young poet Jacques. Apollonius of Rhodes tells us that Orpheus played his lyre for Jason to neutralise the feminine lure of the Sirens’ song and one version of his death, as recounted by Ovid, is that he was torn apart by female celebrants of the Dionysian rites, enraged by his renunciation of the love of women for that of young men. In Cocteau’s film Juliet Greco (below, with the director) plays Aglaonice (a name associated with witchcraft in Greek mythology), who stirs up the local rabble against Orphée under suspicion that he has plagiarised the work of Cégeste and might have something to do with his disappearance. Perhaps the implication is that he has in some other way “outraged” Cégeste?
Developing the theme of his 1932 short Le Sang D’un Poète, Cocteau presents the otherness of The Poet / “Artistic Type” as virtually interchangeable with that of the homosexual, to the point where “poetical” becomes as much of a euphemism as “earnest” or, indeed, “gay”. As for that happy hetero ending… well, I’m not old enough to have any way of knowing how that went over at initial screenings of Orphée, but I do remember reports of riots breaking out in cinemas during screenings of Nancy Walker’s Can’t Stop The Music (1980) when allusions were made in it to The Village People having girlfriends!
Apart from the aforementioned extra, you get an audio commentary, courtesy of Roland-François Lack and interviews with such Cocteau associates and collaborators as Jean Pierre Mocky, Pierre Bergé and Dominique Marny. Cocteau’s AD Claude Pinoteau discusses the director’s many ingenious, in-camera effects in the featurette Jean Cocteau And His Tricks, which deploys many of those itself. La Villa Santo-Sospir is a 1951 short directed by Cocteau, revealing the walls he “tattooed” for a friend’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. Plus original and re-release trailer, reversible sleeve with new artwork by Edward Kinsella and fully illustrated booklet containing an essay by Ginette Vincendeau, an interview with Jean Cocteau from 1950 and much else.
Despite Cocteau’s up and down relationship with Andre Breton and co, this is sheer Surrealism (no doubt informed by the copious amounts of opium that JC was imbibing at the time) of the kind that David Lynch could never begin to approach with his meretricious wannabe outpourings (Peter Gabriel came considerably closer with his whole Lamb Lies Down On Broadway concept).
As for that distinction between “film made by gay man” Vs “Gay Film”… well, check out the rumble at the Café des Poètes, just before Cégeste gets run over and note the pale youth who keeps withdrawing from the fray to arrange his lank locks. Orphée is A Gay Film and gloriously so.