Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

(vt Orpheus) French movie (1949). André Paulvé/Films du Palais Royal. Pr Paulvé. Dir Jean Cocteau. Screenplay Cocteau. Based on Orphée (1927) by Cocteau. Starring Maria Casarès (Death Princess), Marie Déa (Eurydice), Édouard Dermithe (Cégeste), Juliette Gréco (Aglaonice), Jean Marais (Orphée), François Périer (Heurtebise). 112 mins (usual version cut to 98 mins). B/w.

In France, soon after WWII, hugely popular poet Orphée is loathed by the trendy student Left Bank society. While in a café there he witnesses a brawl, at the end of which drunken young poet Jacques Cégeste is run over by a pair of mysterious motorcyclists. Cégeste's mysterious companion, known only as the Princess, commands that Orphée come with her and the corpse in her car (chauffeured by the Angel Heurtebise) to a gloomy château; there, partly witnessed by Orphée, she raises Cégeste from the dead and leads him, Heurtebise and the two motorcyclists through a Mirror to the Underworld. Back home, Orphée becomes interested in enigmatic messages which he can pick up on the Princess's car radio; these he believes to be brilliant poetry, but when he sends them to a friend they are identified as unpublished fragments by the dead Cégeste, and rumours swell. Meanwhile the Princess – Orphée's personal Death – has taken to visiting him as he sleeps, for she is in love with him. Soon she has her motorcycling aides kill Eurydice. With Heurtebise's guidance, Orphée dons Death's forgotten gloves and probes through the mirror into the Underworld, seeking either Eurydice or the Death Princess – he knows not which. In the Underworld a tribunal reprimands Death and all her aides for their misbehaviour, and decrees that Orphée (who has now exchanged oaths of undying love with Death) and Eurydice may return to the land of the living provided he never claps eyes on her again. But one day, still compulsively jotting down the radio messages, he accidentally catches sight of her in the car's rear-view mirror. Before he can react, the lynch-mob arrives, and he is killed in the scuffling. He rejoins Death in the Underworld, but her love is greater than his, for, though she knows it means her own ultimate extinction, she sends him back through time to a point from which he and Eurydice may live happily ever after.

O is not an unambiguous movie; any attempt to produce a definitive interpretation is doomed. Rather, it provides a tangle of meanings and half-meanings from which the viewer is invited to choose. This ambiguity – whether wilful or profound – penetrates to every level; Marais, the archetypally heterosexual Orphée, was in fact Cocteau's lover, a fact which (deliberately) invests the screenplay with an additional layer of meaning. The pacing and cinematography are stunning, and the mood of the movie generally almost overpowering, although occasionally punctured by passages where flat narration replaces performance. Nevertheless, O is memorable. [JG]

see also: Le Testament D'Orphée (1959).

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.