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Orphee

Director: Jean Cocteau

(France| 1950. English subtitles. Black and white. 112 mins.)


Re-released in a new print, this 1949 classic from French filmmaker Jean Cocteau is notable for its vivid and inventive imagery, bringing the Greek myth of Orpheus to post-war Paris with a style that’s both poetic and realistically gritty. Orphee (Jean Marais) is a famous poet who neglects his faithful wife Eurydice (Maria Dea) to hang out with his pals at the trendy Cafe des Poetes. But one day he witnesses an accident and is whisked away by a mysterious princess (Maria Casares) and her chauffeur (François Perier). Thus begins an odyssey between the worlds of the living and the dead as all four characters struggle for the souls of Orphee and Eurydice . . .
Almost every scene in Cocteau’s film is touched by a kind of mad cinematic genius that’s utterly unforgettable. He’s basically creating gay iconography here, illustrating a story about a forbidden love with booted motorcyclists, flouncing artistes and even a dominatrix. He cleverly uses mirrors as a path between the two worlds, which communicate back and forth by radio signals. This is intriguing and very tricky filmmaking that never forgets the emotional core of the story. Even the rather wooden Marais is effective here as the confused Orphee, although the film basically belongs to the spiky diva Casares and her meddling-but-selfless sidekick Perier. But it’s Cocteau’s blurring of reality, myth and fantasy that makes the film so startling, even now. It’s impossible to imagine anybody ever making another film like this, and surely that is the definition of a masterpiece.

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