‘It is a privilege to be timeless’: On Time in Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950)

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée is the retelling of the classic Greek myth on the legend Orpheus, in which Orpheus has to travel to Hades in order to save his love, Eurydice. However, Orphée presents things differently, as Orpheus (played by Cocteau’s lover and the wonderfully handsome, Jean Marais) finds himself falling in love with a princess, who is Death, that came to visit him in a local café. Unlike La Belle et La Bête (1947), in which the protagonists are (arguably) awarded a happy ending, Orphée finishes in a much more somber tone, reminding audiences what has been communicated throughout the film thanks to the constant shots of mirrors and reflections; that love, no matter what time or place you are in, can never be defined or translated. However, the films are similar in that they both present an idiosyncratic and poetic interpretation of time travel – Belle travels to and from the Beast using a lavish glove as a transportation device, while Orpheus and co. glide through mirrors into Hades; whilst one travels within the confines of the same world and the other from life and death, the scope and breadth of the distance they travel to and from remains just as impactful due to the reasons for doing so.

orph1 Belle

Just like Belle transporting back to her home is futile due to her love for the Beast, Orpheus knows that traveling to Hades in order to save Eurydice is in vain since he evidently is not going for “both” of them, as he explains to Death’s driver, Heurtebise, but for Death herself. Yet, the Death he is striving after is his own death; this is unrequited love at its greatest peak, as for Orpheus to be with Death would be fruitless, since the only way this could happen is if he were to die. It is here we can draw parallels to the filmmaker’s life as Cocteau and Marais’s relationship was affected by the fascist air left in the remnants of the war – perhaps, at one point, to the infamous lovers, they felt their love was only possible if it were to transcend the very essence of time itself, and the only way that is possible, according to this film, is through death.

The voiceover at the opening of the film declares, “it is a privilege of legends to be timeless.” This, along with the dramatic, non-diegetic composition by Georges Auric (whom also worked on La Belle), and the well-known tale of Orpheus all draw the spectator in to the dramatic, grandiose setting; the inevitable decline from this state begins as soon as Death appears. Ginette Vincendeau describes the legendary Greek’s humanisation yet transcendence perfectly in her essay for the BFI, stating the film “navigates between myth and realism, boulevard theatre and surrealist poetry, the fantastique and post-war politics.” The point here, in terms of the film’s time travel theory, is that there is none: instead it’s an abstract, poetic concept that would play on the radio channel Marais’s character becomes obsessed with.

orpheus2

The dolly shots presented in the Hades sequences (which have inspired other directors, for example Spike Lee) by director of photography Nicolas Hayer emphasise the point of time travel in the film: it is supposed to be poetic and outlandish because the form of time travel the film manifests is something we see everyday; the decaying of our faces and exacerbation of our personality. Heurtebise was not wrong when he declared that it “takes long to die,” yet, this film reminds viewers that through art, in all its forms, audiences can time travel to different worlds.

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