OK, so the rockers and mods were still a decade away when Jean Cocteau released Orphée (Orpheus) in 1950, but the film gives a rockers and mods vibe, with the poets playing the mods and the sinister motorcycle cops cum Death’s assistants playing the rockers.
Deepening the mod and rocker theme, the different factions are represented by their choice of different exotic vehicles. The main character, a successful poet that is beyond the “mod” phase of his peers (played by Jean Marais, who looks like he could walk out of the film and into a modern day Lacoste ad with no updating whatsoever) drives English cars while Death and her minions prefer French machines.
Of course, anyone who’s seen this film knows that Death steals the show. Played by María Casares, she is both sinister and tender in her portrayal of an elemental force.
Normally, a semi-surrealist, existential retelling of one of the less pleasant Greek myths would be something I’d run from at breakneck speed, but since I’m on a mission to watch the 1001 films list, my hand was forced.
And I’m glad it was. This is not just a great film, it is a good film. Wonder of wonders, the artistic sensibilities don’t get in the way of a compelling, emotionally gripping story.
We enjoyed this one enormously, even if it doesn’t have a traditional happy ending (when death is dressed as a dominatrix half the time, you might expect other kinds of happy endings, but it doesn’t have one of those, either).
It also exudes a sense of moving into a more modern era, foreshadowing the sixties before anyone imagined the sixties were coming, but in a very different way from On the Town. While the American film seemed to break tradition, this one simply drags the art film into the present and even pushes it into the future without breaking the central tenets of the genre.
Recommended to pretty much everyone, but especially to serious cinephiles who will be appreciative of the nuance (look at me, pretending to know about cinema!). A good one.
Also, shouting out to ons of the stars of this one, Juliette Gréco, who is still among us. Thanks for being a part of this!
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work often goes off in strange directions. His collection Pale Reflection is a great introduction to his writing which should appeal to people who like Orpheus. You can buy it here.