Dir: Jean Cocteau
Star: Jean Marais, François Périer, María Casares, Marie Déa

Former TC
Top 50 Film
Death (Casares) takes the form on Earth of a princess (as she says, if she did the cloak and scythe thing, people would freak) and moves between her world and ours through mirrors, collecting the souls of those about to die - and occasionally employing those to whom she takes a special fancy. When Orphée (Marais) is fortunate enough to accompany her, he becomes obsessed with her, spending all his spare time listening to obscurist radio broadcasts he believes are intended for him. When she comes for his wife, Eurydice (Déa), Orphée makes the way into the underworld with the help of her chauffeur (Périer), and convinces Death to return Eurydice to the land of the living - though she imposes a condition that he must never look at her, or her parole will be revoked instantly. In a world filled with mirrors, that might be a great deal harder than it seems.

A delightful relocation of the Greek myth of Orpheus into France just after the end of World War II, Cocteau uses deliberately simple cinematic tricks, even by the standards of the day, to create a mystical world just beyond our own. For instance, people are brought back to life by running film backwards, so they rise mysteriously from the floor to a standing position: it's effective and has a better edge to it than all the CGI in the world. If the film has a particular weakness, it's that the plot is thinly stretched, with way too much unrequited love: Orphée loves the Princess, Eurydice loves Orphée, the chauffeur loves Eurydice. Enough already. Cocteau's origins as a poet are perfectly clear here, and he brings a beautiful lyrical touch to the cinema screen - this truly is like poetry or a half-remembered dream, committed to celluloid. That's both its biggest strength and its most glaring flaw.

[November 2009]

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