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A tale of two Orpheus (Bluray, minor spoilers)
on April 1, 2012
Criterion has put out two films from the 1950s that pay homage to the Greek story of love and death they are named after, both by french directors: 'Orpheus', directed by Jean Cocteau (1950), and 'Black Orpheus', by Marcel Camus (1959).
Despite this, while both are based on the same mythologic legend, neither movie is remotely close to being a carbon copy of the other. In Cocteau's Orpheus, the protagonist is a well known poet in France, who while still adored by his fans seems both burnt out and willing to make fun of the young poets trying to follow in his footsteps. What could be an art-house film that makes fun of art-house culture quickly turns to its mythologic roots however, focusing on the meanings of love and death. When his wife (Eurydice) is killed, and is taken by a supernatural agent of the underworld who serves as a new jealous love interest (Maria Casares), Orpheus has to decide whether he wants to stay alive or die, and whether he wants to stay on earth or live in the underworld (and with whom). The choices carry significant weight, not only for himself but the women he loves.
Access to the underworld is quite literally through mirrors, and Cocteau employs special effects that while now dated were fairly breakthrough for the time and still work extremely well as supernatural gateways made of liquid glass. Played by handsome lead Jean Marais, the character is worthy of the original charismatic Orpheus, but the film does suffer from a lack of realistic love for Eurydice, which makes his choice between rescuing her from Hades or starting a new life seem like an obvious choice and less of a struggle. A few confusing plot elements offer much in stylization but also detract slightly from the film. Overall however a very original, visually compelling, and entertaining interpretation of the Greek myth.
This film is one part of Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy (The Criterion Collection), although it is not a trilogy in the true sense and this reviewed film can be seen as a stand alone effort. I would recommend getting this bluray instead of the Orphic Trilogy to save some money: IMHO this Orpheus is the best of the bunch, and I found the triology to appeal primarilly to those more interested in Cocteau "the man" rather than his movies.