Orphée - Orpheus - Jean Cocteau - Jean Marais - mirror

1950, directed by Jean Cocteau

During the opening titles of Orphée, Jean Cocteau summarizes the Greek myth in voice-over, suggesting that because it transcends time and place you may “interpret it as you wish” – not the movie itself, but the original legend, which the movie proceeds to interpret in its own way. Cocteau’s interpretation is particularly strong because it unites two elements of the story – art and death – in a single point.

Amid all the movie’s magic and mythology, its journeys through mirrors and visitors from the underworld, it’s easy to neglect the opening scene at the Café des poètes. More than Orpheus’ and Eurydice’s home – which belongs to modern France, but whose unassuming domesticity is timeless – the café grounds the movie in its own times. This bohemian artists’ café is so quintessentially French and contemporary that it’s the most glaring anachronism in Cocteau’s retelling of the ancient myth, even more than the cars, motorcycles, and radios. Nevertheless, even this modern café will prove timeless in its own way, a kind of gathering the ancient Greeks would have recognized.

Orphée - Orpheus - Jean Cocteau - Café des poètes

At first glance, in the embrace of the camera’s circular pan, the café looks like a joyous place of music and youth, but it soon proves to be a place of strife – a vain, restless world obsessed with novelty and fashion. Orpheus is an outcast in this world, still popular with the public but scorned by the avant-garde who finds the 18-year-old poet Cégeste more relevant. It might seem, therefore, that Orphée is a comment on the particular underworld of French art, but the film is larger than that. It critiques the aspirations of artists everywhere who wish to elevate art onto an imaginary plane above life. Whoever romanticizes art in this way, the movie tells us, exposes a fascination with death.

When Cégeste and Orpheus first encounter each other in the café’s doorway, the young poet snorts contemptuously while the older poet looks on with superior disregard. In the following conversation with the retired poet, it’s plain that Orpheus isn’t impressed with the young upstart, but that all changes moments later when Cégeste dies. Suddenly Orpheus is so enraptured with Cégeste’s pithy lines, broadcast via the princess’s car radio from the realm of the dead, that he’s ready to trade his entire output for a single phrase from the dead youth. He becomes obsessed, withdrawing into his garage to spend every free moment listening to the bewitched radio, neglecting his wife who’s consequently killed by the same speeding motorcycles that struck Cégeste. He’s so blind to Eurydice, in fact, that when she tries to reveal that she’s pregnant, he heedlessly tramples on the baby clothes she’s just knitted.

Orphée - Orpheus - Jean Cocteau - Jean Marais - María Casares

Orpheus’ fascination with death plays out not only in his strange absorption in Cégeste’s verses, but also in his love affair with the princess who claims to be Death personified. The metaphor is thus doubled – as soon as he puts art above life, he is literally in love with death. He is no longer creative. He tramples on the tokens of Eurydice’s creation, and he’s content to transcribe the rarefied poetry of an immature rival he had never cared for before.

The love affair with the princess is not so much an addition to the myth as an act of interpretation. The ancient Greeks, with the same wisdom that recognized the Oedipus complex, also understood that the inflation of the artist into a hero, or of art into something sacred, expresses a hidden death wish. Reaching for an abstract ideal entails looking down on everyday reality and, in essence, rejecting life. Orpheus has a double motive for retrieving Eurydice from Hades – to save her, but also to enter that world himself. When the couple returns to the world of the living, his urge to look at Eurydice is both the natural wish to behold his beloved and a secret wish to repeat the journey below. Of course the prohibition against looking at her is hard to live with, but he had already been ignoring her for a while before she died – so in a sense he should be accustomed to looking away.

Orphée - Orpheus - Jean Cocteau - María Casares - bedroom

True to the original myth, Orpheus loves his wife, even at the same time that he’s drawn to Death. In contrast to the princess, Eurydice is a force of life, a fitting object of engagement for a poet or an artist. Before she’s introduced, Orpheus consoles himself that the public still loves him, and his friend at the café replies that “The public is alone.” We’ll soon see, however, that Eurydice also loves Orpheus, so that either the retired poet is wrong, or Eurydice represents the public in an allegorical sense. In any case she’s the bearer of life, the life that an artist must love, reflect, and cater to. The film’s plot, in this sense, is a contest between two women for an artist’s devotion – a battle between a living audience and morbid vanity.

Complicating this love triangle is the princess’s chauffeur Heurtebise, who falls in love with Eurydice. He’s the bearer of death as Eurydice is the bearer of life, but he’s also a suicide who misses life. Whereas Orpheus loves life as a full participant, Heurtebise loves life in the melancholy way that so many romantics do, longing for a loss he regrets. He covets Eurydice, but he remains in the service of death. Eurydice welcomes him into her home but never reciprocates his desire, as an artist’s faithful audience will not respond to a lifeless substitute.

Orphée - Orpheus - Jean Cocteau - Marie Déa - François Périer - Eurydice - Heurtebise

All of this may sound excessively allegorical to today’s audiences, for whom allegory is out of fashion, but we must remember that Orphée was made less than five years after World War II. In occupied France allegory was the best recourse movies had to communicate subversive ideas and feelings. Allegory is typically a language of the oppressed, but for the same reasons it’s also useful for communicating unpopular ideas that would provoke resistance if expressed too directly – including a critique of elevated notions of art in a country that has long revered artists.

This allegorical storytelling, which goes hand in hand with a streak of fantasy, is reminiscent of France’s recent wartime cinema, but Orphée also evokes fresh memories of the war in more direct ways. Cégeste’s mysterious radio verses are like the nonsensical phrases that the Free French broadcasted on Radio Londres to transmit coded messages to the Resistance (preceded, like in Orphée, by snippets of Morse Code). Everything about the princess’s world – her military bearing, the helmeted motorcyclists, Heurtebise’s uniform, the tribunals, the neo-classical ruins (filmed at an old military academy) – vaguely evokes Nazi Germany, whose cult of death and affinity for romantic ideals would have been familiar to the French.

Orphée - Orpheus - Jean Cocteau - Rolls Royce - motorcycles

These echoes of Nazi Germany indicate what’s at stake when art becomes detached from life. As soon as Orpheus begins to follow the princess, he enters a world of reversals – negative photography, backwards motion, gravity turned on its side, crossing through a mirror. The poet’s attraction to death is a kind of perversity, and we can read a distilled perversity in each of Cégeste’s lines: “Silence goes faster backwards,” “The bird sings with its fingers,” etc., not to mention the totally blank magazine Nudisme. It’s not the minimalism or even the abstraction of this art that Orphée criticizes, but its irrelevance to life. The movie does not necessarily target any particular style of art (although Cocteau had sharp differences with the Surrealists), but rather an attitude that justifies art for its own sake, separate from humanity.

Orphée - Orpheus - Jean Cocteau - Jean Marais - Marie Déa - Eurydice

At the end the princess and Heurtebise sacrifice themselves to let Orpheus go back in time and return to Eurydice. He holds his wife affectionately, speaks of resuming his work, and contemplates the birth of a son. It’s a happy ending for the couple, but not for the princess and Heurtebise, who walk to their doom in the final shot. The sacrifice of these two spirits is an act of love, a twist on the ancient myth where the gods fell in love with Orpheus. Here the story threatens to undo its point: by making the artist so seductive that the immortal spirits exempt him from their rules, the story comes close to putting both art and artist above mortal life. The movie however is careful to avoid this. Orpheus is saved, but he’s not brought back to the café to enjoy a life of fame – he’s brought back to his bedroom to enjoy an ordinary life with his family. Cocteau also inserts a paradoxical comment in voice-over: “The death of a poet requires a sacrifice to render him immortal,” speaking of immortality and death without excluding either one. The typical understanding of an artist’s “immortality”, if we’re not to take it literally, is in the sense of reputation – but if we’ve paid attention to Orphée, it’s not the vanity of reputation that counts. What’s essential is that the artist always remains connected to life.


The Blood of a Poet – Artist’s journey away from an inert kind of art; line near the end about death and immortality

Vampyr – Death as a metaphor for art detached from life

A Matter of Life and Death – Contest between a poet and dead spirits for a couple’s continued life on Earth

Les parents terribles – Spirit of ancient Greek drama translated into film

Les enfants terriblesFilmed concurrently with Cocteau’s involvement; allusions to ancient Greek myth or drama

Vivre sa vie – Story of a man drawn into art at the expense of a woman’s life; critique of placing art above life

Pierrot le fou – Art as an expression of a death wish

I Knew Her Well – Art disconnected from humanity leads to death

Made in U.S.A – Series of short meaningless but enigmatic sentences

Andrei Rublev – Argument that an artist’s work must be grounded in earthly reality


  • Silence goes faster backwards.
  • A single glass of water lights the world.
  • The mirrors would do well to reflect further.
  • 38, 39, 40
  • 2294
  • The bird sings with its fingers.
  • The mourning of young widows is as brief as a noonday candle.
  • Jupiter gives wisdom to those he would lose.