Orphée (Jean Marais) is a poet who is afraid he's washed up now that the next generation of artists is making its mark on the world. He sits in the local poets' cafe and grows bitter, and when he ventures outside he almost walks into a drunken eighteen year old poet, Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe), being practically carried in, accompanied by his chauffeur Heurtibise (François Périer) and his apparent guardian, "The Princess" (María Casares). As Orphée sits at a table with his editor he laments the new style of art, scornful of a book that contains nothing but blank pages, but as they discuss, Cégeste stumbles out of the cafe, a fight breaks out and he ends up being knocked over by a couple of motorcycle riders who drive straight on. The Princess orders Orphée to assist when Heurtibise bundles the young man's body into the limousine, and soon he is on a journey he would have never have expected...
Writer and director Jean Cocteau only made a handful of films, but what he did create for celluloid turned out to be not simply influential but inspirational as well. Next to La Belle et la Bête, Orphée was his most celebrated film, taking as its source the Greek myth of Orpheus in the Underworld, a tale that is briefly told over the opening credits, but rather than a straight retelling, as La Belle et la Bête is (near enough), Cocteau set this in the present day and wove layers of meaning into his narrative. From the beginning it might appear that, if Marais is indeed representing him, Cocteau was worried he was over the hill and concerned he would have to make way for younger artists, so he may well have put as much effort into this film as he could to prove his continuing relevance.
He needn't have worried as Orphée is a beguiling, if sinister work, that crucially explores its strangeness without alienating the audience. It may begin as a straightforward drama, but once its hero gets into that limousine it's clear that things are not going to run in a conventional manner with the car radio broadcasting weird messages and the landscape outside turning to negative. Cocteau obviously loves his special effects, and never puts a foot wrong in using the admittedly primitive styles which enhance an already bizarre atmosphere. When Orphée reaches the Princess's house in the countryside, he is alarmed by what he sees: she is in fact Death herself, and has claimed Cégeste as her latest conquest, reanimating his corpse to do her bidding. Death and her assistants travel between the otherworld and the land of the living through mirrors, and Orphée passes out when he witnesses this, awaking on a beach and wondering what exactly just happened.
Heurtibise is there, and drives him back home where his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa) has been worried sick not knowing where he has been. Now Orphée is obsessed with Death, as the film appears to be, and in truth doesn't come over as a particularly pleasant chap, shouting at everyone, including his newly pregnant wife, and generally acting selfish. It's a tribute to Cocteau and Marais that we still want to follow him on his quest to find out what is going on, and perhaps it's the glamour and mystery of death itself that sustains it; nobody knows what really happens, and this idea of the other side is a deeply intriguing one, existing behind mirrors and looking like a run down city by night. Yes, Orphée manages to reach the Underworld when Eurydice is killed by those black-clad motorcycle riders, and the traditions of the myth are adhered to, although here Death and Orphée have fallen in hopeless love. Cocteau's film is a genuine classic, and acres of meaning can be read into it; alternatively, just admire the imagination behind it and translated onto the screen. Music by Georges Auric.