Orpheus (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Produced by André Paulvé
Written by Jean Cocteau
Starring Jean Marais
François Périer
María Casares
Marie Déa
Music by Georges Auric
Cinematography Nicolas Hayer
Edited by Jacqueline Sadoul
Distributed by DisCina
Release dates
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  • 29 September 1950 (1950-09-29) (France)
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  • November 29, 1950 (1950-11-29) (United States)
Running time
95 minutes
Country France
Language French

Orpheus (French: Orphée; also the title used in the UK) is a 1950 French film directed by Jean Cocteau and starring Jean Marais.[1] This film is the central part of Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy, which consists of The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960).


Set in contemporary Paris, the story of the film is a variation of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus. The picture begins with Orpheus (Marais), a famous poet, visiting the Café des Poètes. At the same time, a Princess (Casares) and Cègeste (Edouard Dermithe), a handsome, young poet that she supports arrive. The drunken Cègeste starts a brawl. When the police arrive and attempt to take Cègeste into custody, he breaks free and flees,only to be run down by two motorcycle riders. The Princess has the police place Cègeste into her car in order to "transport him to the hospital." She also orders Orpheus into the car in order to act as a witness. Once in the car, Orpheus discovers Cègeste is dead and that the Princess is not going to the hospital. Instead, they drive to a chateau (the landscape through the car windows is presented in negative) accompanied by the two motorcycle riders as abstract poetry plays on the radio. This takes the form of seemingly meaningless messages, like those broadcast to the French Resistance from London during the Occupation.

At the ruined chateau, the Princess reanimates Cègeste into a zombie-like state, and she, Cègeste, and the two motorcycle riders (the Princess' henchmen) disappear into a mirror, leaving Orpheus alone. He wakes in a desolate landscape, where he stumbles on the Princess' chauffeur, Heurtebise (Périer), who has been waiting for Orpheus to arrive. Heurtebise drives Orpheus home where Orpheus' pregnant wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), a police inspector, and Eurydice's friend Aglaonice, (head of the "League of Women," and apparently in love with Eurydice), discuss Orpheus' mysterious disappearance. When Orpheus comes home, he refuses to explain the details of the previous night despite the questions which linger over the fate of Cègeste, whose body cannot be found. Orpheus invites Heurtebise to live in his house and to store the Rolls in Orpheus' garage, should the Princess return. Eurydice attempts to tell Orpheus that she is with child, but is silenced when he rebuffs her.

In time Heurtebise falls in love with Eurydice, Orpheus become obsessed with listening to the abstract poetry which only comes through the Rolls' radio, and it is revealed that the Princess is actually Death (or one of the suborders of Death). When Eurydice is killed by Death's henchmen, Heurtebise proposes to lead Orpheus through the Zone (depicted as a ruined city – actually the ruins of Saint-Cyr military academy) into the Underworld in order to reclaim her. Orpheus reveals that he may have fallen in love with Death who has visited him in his dreams. Heurtebise asks Orpheus which woman he will betray: Death or Eurydice? Orpheus enters the afterlife by donning a pair of surgical gloves left behind by the Princess after Eurydice's death.

In the Underworld, Orpheus finds as a plaintiff before a tribunal which interrogates all parties involved in the death of Eurydice. The tribunal declares that Death has illegally claimed Eurydice, and they return Eurydice to life, with one condition: Orpheus may not look upon her for the rest of his life at the pain of losing her again. Orpheus agrees and returns home with Eurydice. They are accompanied by Heurtebise, who has been assigned by the tribunal to assist the couple in adapting to their new, restrictive, life together.

Eurydice visits the garage where Orpheus constantly listens to the Rolls' radio in search of the unknown poetry. She sits in the backseat. When Orpheus glances at her in the mirror, Eurydice disappears. A mob from the Café des Poètes (stirred to action by Aglaonice) arrives in order to extract vengeance from Orpheus for what they suppose to be his part in the murder of Cègeste. Orpheus confronts them, armed with a pistol given to him by Heurtebise, but is disarmed and shot. Orpheus dies and finds himself in the Underworld. This time, he declares his love to Death who has decided to herself die in order that he might become an "immortal poet." The tribunal this time sends Orpheus and Eurydice back to the living world with no memories of the previous events. Orpheus learns that he is to be a father, and his life begins anew. Death and Heurtebise, meanwhile, walk through the ruins of the Underworld towards an unspecified but unpleasant fate.

Main cast


In 2000, critic Roger Ebert added Orpheus to his "Great Films" list, praising the simple but ingenious special effects, and writing: "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".[2]


External links