Turned down by producers who found the project too esoteric, Cocteau raised the money to produce Orpheus on his own, and was only able to do so when his cast agreed to work for deferred payment. The scenes of Orpheus and Heurtebise traveling through "The Zone," the no-man's land between life and death, were shot in the ruins of Saint-Cyr, France's military school, which had been bombed by the Germans during the war. But the money saved by not building a set was spent on generators for lighting. In those scenes, Cocteau has a cameo a la Hitchcock, twice glimpsed as an old woman walking in the background, and sitting in a niche.
Cocteau had wanted either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich to play The Princess. Their world-weary elegance would have brought very different interpretations to the role than Maria Casares, who is as slender and steely as a sword -- and as lethal. Cocteau also reportedly considered Jean-Pierre Aumont and Maria Montez for Orpheus and the Princess, and Gerard Philipe for Heurtebise, a role eventually played by Francois Perier. Director Jean-Pierre Melville played a bit part as a hotel manager.
Orpheus is at once timeless, and very specific to its era. Cocteau's sense of humor and self-awareness is evident in the casting and the setting. Orpheus, the successful poet, could be Cocteau himself, and the younger intellectuals could be the Left Bank crowd who considered him passé. Juliette Greco, in real life one of the muses of the existentialists, plays the leader of a feminist group. A pair of sinister motorcyclists are the instruments of Death. The radio messages received on the car radio recall the wartime coded messages for the Resistance broadcast by the British.
In a lengthy interview with Andre Fraigneau for the book Cocteau on the Film, the director said he had a very specific reason for eschewing optical special effects in Orpheus. "I had to make the magic direct, without ever using the laboratory, and showing only what I saw myself and wanted others to see." Thus, when characters walk through mirrors, Cocteau used two rooms, mirror images of each other, and an empty frame between, and doubles for the actors. In the scenes where Orpheus plunges his hands through a mirror that turns liquid, the mirror was actually a huge tub of mercury, because mercury shows only the reflection, and not what's on the other side. Cocteau recalled that the mercury was dirty, and "had to be polished with chamois, like a silver dish," and the impurities kept floating to the top.
Orpheus was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, and won top prizes at the Venice Film Festival in 1950 and the Cannes Film Festival in 1951. A review in Newsweek was typical: "For sheer dramatic intensity and brilliance of execution it ranks among the best efforts of one of the few men who have yet succeeded in writing poetry with a moving picture camera."
Whatever the film's meaning - and that's a subject film theorists have debated endlessly -- Orpheus is totally accessible to ordinary filmgoers, who find its story compelling, its visuals ravishing, and its writing witty. Cocteau himself rejected detailed interpretations, but in an essay at the time of the original release of Orpheus, he wrote, "Two major themes emerge from the film: the poet must undergo many types of 'death' in order to achieve immortality through his art and he must listen to his own voice which comes from his 'nocturnal factory,'" meaning his dreams. And in a letter to his translator Mary Hoek, he admitted, "It is much less a film than it is myself - a kind of projection of things that are important to me." Orpheus would remain Cocteau's favorite among his films, the one of which he was most proud. "Even those who see it without understanding it," he wrote, "keep pictures from it in their minds and think about it. This is what matters."
Cocteau returned once more to the Orpheus myth in his final film, The Testament of Orpheus (1959). By that time, he had become a hero to the young filmmakers of the French New Wave, among them Francois Truffaut, who donated the profits of his film The 400 Blows (1959) to produce The Testament of Orpheus.
Director: Jean Cocteau
Producer: Emil Darbon
Screenplay: Jean Cocteau, based on his play
Cinematography: Nicolas Hayer
Editor: Jacqueline Sadoul
Costume Design: Marcel Escoffier
Art Direction: Jean D'Eaubonne
Music: Georges Auric
Principal Cast: Jean Marais (Orpheus), Maria Casares (The Princess), Marie Dea (Eurydice), Francois Perier (Heurtebise), Juliette Greco (Aglaonice), Edouard Dermithe (Cegeste), Henri Cremieux (Friend in Café), Pierre Bertin (Police Commissioner).
by Margarita Landazuri