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Cocteau’s “Orpheus” is a labyrinthine trip down the mythological rabbit hole

Sunday, March 22, Chazen Museum of Art, 2 p.m., free.

Sunday, March 22, Chazen Museum of Art, 2 p.m., free. Info

Orphée (Orpheus) is a realistic film;” Jean Cocteau wrote of his boldly experimental reworking of the Orpheus myth. “Or, to be more precise, observing Goethe’s distinction between reality and truth, a film in which I express a truth peculiar to myself.” As writer-director, Cocteau transplants the story of a gifted Greek troubadour, who ventures into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from Death, to postwar France. Cocteau’s version stars his ex-lover, Jean Marais, as the titular hero— a famous, handsome, aging poet shunned by the younger generation, who is first seen in a Parisian café discussing his predicament with a long retired writer. All of a sudden, a brawl breaks out, and he witnesses the death of a rival poet, Jacques Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe), whose body disappears into the backseat of a black Rolls Royce. The vehicle’s owner— an elegant, enigmatic princess (Maria Casarès)— insists that he accompany her. Thus, Orpheus embarks on a puzzling, enchanting, and dreamlike journey down the rabbit hole. 

Far from a literal adaptation, Orpheus adds various twists to the traditional story, especially the love triangle between Orpheus, Eurydice, and the Princess, the latter who seems to be an embodiment of Death. Throughout the film, the Princess’ car radio transmits fragments of surrealist poetry that Orpheus frantically scribbles down, believing they are meant specifically for him. In his quest for inspiration, the poet pursues the Princess to the Land of the Dead, where physical laws defy our own. Cocteau employs simple yet impressive visual effects to portray the rippling mirrored portals that lead to the underworld (filmed with pools of mercury) and reverse photography when a character springs back to life. In the Zone, the no-man’s-land between life and death (shot in the ruins of the bombed-out Saint-Cyr military academy), gravity can be overturned suddenly and people either glide around with ease, or struggle as though moving through viscous fluid. 

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Early in the film, the Princess reproaches Orpheus for asking questions. “You try too hard to understand what’s going on… and that’s a serious mistake.” Viewers would do well to accept her advice and attune themselves to Orpheus’ own particular dream logic. Cocteau imagines the underworld as a labyrinthine, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, complete with makeshift tribunals, obtuse judges, inscrutable regulations, and leather-clad motorcyclist henchmen who resemble fetish models. Although the plot may be difficult to discern, Cocteau creates an intricately layered, immersive sensory environment, while seamlessly blending contemporary symbols with mythological archetypes. The influence of Orpheus can be seen in countless works ranging from The Matrix (1999) to Twin Peaks (1990-91). The latter t.v. series presents an FBI agent as a hero similarly descending to the underworld to save a young woman. (Moreover, the distinctive chevron-patterned carpet in “The Red Room,” backward talking, cryptic messages, and hidden gateways all mirror Orpheus.) A masterpiece of pure cinematic poetry, Cocteau’s film, like the legend of Orpheus, exists beyond time and place.

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