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Orphée (1949)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A Paris cafe, popular with poets, is crowded with young writers discussing the latest ideas. Orphee (Jean Marais) walks among them, but not with them, cast adrift by the huge popularity of his poetry with the general population. He feels their hatred, perhaps fuelled by their own lack of success, and realises that to be accepted he must surprise them. An opportunity for this soon occurs when the popular writer Cegeste (Edouard Dhermitte) is knocked down and killed by a motor-cyclist, right outside the cafe. Orphee accompanies the mysterious Princess (Maria Casarès), as a witness, when she takes away the body in her car. The Princess seems to be acting strangely when she moves Cegeste to her chalet, rather than the hospital, and appears to be in command of the motor-cyclists who ran into him. Orphee becomes even more certain that this is all a strange dream when the Princess raises Cegeste from the dead and takes him through a mirror, into another world.

Orphee is returned home the next day, by the Princess' chauffeur Heurtebise (François Périer), but seems oblivious to his wife's, Eurydice (Marie Déa), worries. His preoccupation concerns both the alluring Princess and the radio station which is received in her car; all it transmits are cryptic, and yet poetic, phrases. Orphee is captivated to the exclusion of all else. While Eurydice loses patience with Orphee, Heurtebise falls in love with her (having been ordered to stay with the poet). The Princess is also revealed to be Death, or a form of Death, when she comes to spy on Orphee as he sleeps at night. This dereliction of duty (manipulating human affairs) is all due to her desire for Orphee; murdering Eurydice is simply one aspect of the affair. The failure of Orphee to notice even his wife's death spurs Heurtebise into action.

Convincing Orphee that the Princess really is an agent of Death and that he can still rescue Eurydice, Heurtebise leads him into the Underworld. Here the Princess is on trial for misusing her power in a bid to snare Orphee, aided by her undead henchmen. Orphee is split in his desires for both the Princess and Eurydice, succumbing initially to the embrace of the former before being allowed to take the latter back to the land of the living. The only condition is that he can never look at his wife again, an onerous requirement, and one which turns out to be impossible to keep. Despite these stressful problems Orphee is still fascinated by the radio as it pumps out fractured poetry (which turns out to have been written by Cegeste. Orphee is again forced to visit the Underworld, after glancing at his wife in a mirror, where he chooses between the Princess and his wife.

The images which mould this film, both in symbolic form and through the striking photography, build a narrative which is indescribable with mere words. Simple, yet convincing, effects are used to portray passing through mirrors, into the Underworld, and the raising of the dead. In combination with fine acting from all of the main characters, the classic tale of Orphee's journey becomes fascinating and slightly unsettling as we explore the eternal themes of life and death. Although the story starts slowly and takes a while to reach a focus there comes a point in the film at which everything snaps into place -- suddenly everything is clear. From then on the story only gets stronger and more compelling, building to a satisfying climax. Be prepared for a heavy dose of style and don't worry about the subtitles.

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