I enjoy studying "Orpheus", my favorite of Cocteau's films for its sheer originality, cryptic whimsy, audio-visual conceptual risks, and superb musical score by Georges Auric. Each time I see it, more is revealed to me, thanks to the richness of the details and the underlying subtext. The picture switches effortlessly between "real-world life" and "dream world / underworld reality". This film features trick shots and special effects that are simple, yet state of the art for their time (as is also the case in "La Belle et La Bête"): rubber gloves, that grant one entrance to the Underworld, by means of walking through mirrors; mirrors with watery surfaces; broken mirrors reassembling; the Princess ("La Mort"--María Casares) disappearing and reappearing; mysterious sequences of numbers and abstract poetry fragments emanating from the Princess' car radio.
Although all the performances are excellent, María Casares is the star of this film, with her strong, take-charge, no-nonsense approach. Conversely, she is also vulnerable, and ultimately pays the price, for misusing the privileges of her power, by falling in love with Orpheus (Jean Marais). The Princess' assistant, Heurtebise (François Périer), is introduced as a vaguely sinister presence, but is soon revealed to be a sympathetic character; he falls in love with Orpheus' wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa). In the end, in an act of compassion, the Princess and Heurtebise are punished for returning Orpheus and Eurydice to the world of the living. The film closes with soaring orchestrations, followed by a coda of drums; intermittently throughout the picture, those drums provide a memorable background for the poets / "bacchantes", their brawling at the Café des Poètes, as well as for the Underworld, for which the ruins of the Saint-Cyr military academy provide a fantastic visual backdrop.
A second DVD of supplemental material provides a wealth of information about Cocteau, for those interested in learning more. By way of the various interviews, documentaries and programs included on the supplemental DVD, one can become more familiar with his archetypes. In one documentary, Cocteau talks about how people often worship the name of an artist, without even knowing their work; they worship fame for fame's sake. So perhaps Cocteau foresaw the development of our current culture that is filled with vacuous celebrities who celebrate the mundane. And yet, maybe hypocritically, he acknowledges the advantages of fame. As much as he was a key figure of the avant-garde of his era, he was also interested in having as big an audience as possible.
Stephen C. Bird, Author of "Any Resemblance To A Coincidence Is Accidental"