Dreaming, Immortality, and Fate in Orpheus

Orpheus (1950) Directed by Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orpheus takes the original Greek myth and updates the action to occur in post World War II France, where Orpheé is a famous but largely dissatisfied poet. The story begins in the Poet’s Café where a rival of Orpheé’s, a man named Cegeste, is killed by what appears to be an accident resulting from a drunken brawl in which Cegeste is run over by two motorcyclists. This is the incident which brings Orpheé face to face with a woman referred to as “The Princess” and later called “Orpheus’ Death.”

Cocteau turns the everyday world into a magical realm in which people can view their own “Death” and the impact that its many henchmen have on all aspects of life. In Orpheus, mirrors become pools into which the mortal and immortal alike use to travel to the underworld, and at times, even return to the land of the living.  In the land of the living, Orpheé becomes obsessed with the Princess/”Orpheus’ Death” and spends inordinate amounts of time trying to decipher the coded messages from the radio. As the film progresses, the audience learns that the radio messages originate from the workers of the underworld (specifically through Cegeste).  The radio recites meaningless lines in a repetitive and monotonous fashion; “the mirrors would do well to reflect further…three times…” which precede Orpheé‘s changing of the radio station, seemingly causing the Princess’ mirror to break while she sat gazing at her own reflection.

In an article written by Jean Cocteau, excerpted from The Art of Cinema (1992), the director explains that he intended his audience to question whether or not “we [as a species] understand anything about the workings of fate.”[1] For instance, why is Death portrayed as she is? Why do she and Heurtebise drive in a Rolls Royce? How is it possible that Heurtebise is able to appear and disappear at will while at other times submits to human laws? Cocteau argues that his film is not a dream unto itself, instead he states that “through a wealth of detail similar to that which we find in dreams, [the film] summarizes my way of living and my conception of life.”

The idea of dreaming is first introduced when Orpheé stands at the foot of the stairs in the chateau gazing at the Princess in amazement. The Princess quips at Orpheé’s dumbstruck expression, saying “You’re clearly asleep,” Orpheé responds that he is indeed asleep and that it is very strange. When Orpheé prods the Princess for information about Cegeste and her henchmen, she refuses to answer his questions, retorting “sleeping or dreaming, the dreamer must accept his dreams!”[2] This is the first indication of Orpheus’ obsession with his death, as well as the first clear time that the idea of dreaming or being asleep while one is still living consciously is introduced. His obsession with Death, his attempt to understand the supernatural things going on around him, and his eventual ‘love’ for Death steadily moves the plot forward as the audience sinks deeper and deeper into Orpheé’s obsession.

Cocteau presents the mysteries of the film in a manner which makes the audience feel connected to unraveling the mystery alongside Orpheé. I do not believe this was an unintentional choice either. Cocteau notes that both Orpheé’s Death and Heutebise reproach Orpheé for posing questions. He remarks that “wanting to understand is a peculiar obsession of mankind.” The idea of understanding as being an uncontrollable obsession is best explained by the actions of the characters throughout the film. It is also Orpheé’s fatal flaw as it were, because without the sacrifices made by Death and Heurtebise for Orpheé and Eurydice, they might still be trapped in the underworld. This idea, in conjunction with the Underworld court’s distinction between being a writer and being a poet in their examination of Orpheé’s case, clearly links back to a statement Cocteau makes in his article. He argues that “Beauty hates ideas. It is sufficient to itself. Our age is becoming dried out with ideas; it is the child of the Encyclopaedists. But having an idea is not enough: the idea must have us, haunt us, obsess us, become unbearable to us.” While a writer’s job is to convey some sort of immediately relative information (such as the loathed reporter), a poet’s duty is to become obsessed with an idea to the point of immortalization of that idea.

Cocteau identifies three basic themes in Orpheus. First, that the poet must undergo a series of successive deaths before he becomes “changed into himself at last by eternity.” After Eurydice is first taken by Death, Orpheé regrets his foolishness, begging to be woken up he exclaims that reading, writing, thinking and singing about death did not prepare him to actually know Death. Heutebise explains to Orpheé that “a poet is more than a man” and that he does not have to kill himself in order to find Eurydice. By the end of the film Orpheé and Eurydice are holding one another in their bed, blissfully ignorant of the events that had just occurred, and happily discussing their child that has yet to be born and the “only love which counts- ours.”

Second, there is the theme of immortality. The person representing Orpheé’s Death (the Princess) sacrifices herself and relegates her own existence to a fate worse than the underworld, in order to make Orpheé immortal and return him to Eurydice. In addition, the surrealism of the underworld and its constant emergence in the land of the living causes the audience to question the finality of death as well as the relative unimportance of life, particularly jobs.  For example the glass-vendor who is constantly shouting “Glazier!” illuminates the relative importance of one’s job. Passing the glass-vendor, windswept Heurtebise guides Orpheé (who looks as though he is traveling through water) explaining that life itself is a long death and that “this is the zone. It is made of man’s memories and the ruins of their habits.”Cocteau remarks that the glass vendor is the only one who is “able to illustrate the saying that there is nothing so hard to break as the habit of one’s job; since although he died very young, he still persists in crying his wares in a region where windowpanes are meaningless.”

The third theme identified in the article is the use and meaning of the repetition of mirrors throughout the film. As one watches oneself age in a mirror they are simultaneously bringing themselves closer and closer to their own personal death. As Heutebise explains to Eurydice; “I am letting you into the secrets of all secrets, mirrors are gates through which death comes and goes. Moreover if you see your whole life in a mirror you will see death at work as you see bees behind the glass in a hive.”

These are just some of the interpretations introduced by Cocteau. However, I am far from making any definitive interpretations of these themes on my own until I have the opportunity to discuss these with others. Thus, any opinions you have would be greatly appreciated.

–Alauna Safarpour


[1] “Orpheus” Cocteau, Jean. Excerpted from, The Art of Cinema (1992), reprinted with permission of Marion Boyers Publishers, NY, London.  http://www.criterioncollection.com/current/posts/12-orpheus

[2] Emphasis added, Orpheus (1950), Jean Cocteau






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