Cocteau was a man of all trades,poet,novelist,draughtsman,filmmaker,excelling at all levels.He even wrote scripts for other directors's films.Perhaps he spread his wares too thin and there is a residual distrust of a creative butterfly. However in this one film all his talents are integrated. He was obsessed with the Orpheus myth and gives a modern variation set in 1940s Paris where he is Orphee, a successful married poet beloved of the public but despised by the left wing poets of the cafe society of the left bank. The variation in this film that he is a poet rather than a musician means he ignores his possibly pregnant wife and is told by a left bank patron to 'astonish us'. He becomes obsessed with death in the shape of Maria Casares as food for love and his imagination. Her chauffeur, Heurtebrize, keeps an eye on the comings and goings into Hades(the underworld).He also falls in love with Orphee's wife.She also ends up in the otherworld through the Princess's jealousy and Orphee has to retrieve her.Whether he's more in love with death is the question.A younger poet has passed to the otherside through the mirror portals between life and death. His scrambled poems come over the radio in the Princess's Rolls Royce.Orphee tries to decipher them:'one glass of water ilumines the world..twice','sleeping or awake the dreamer must accept his dreaming' and 'silence goes faster backwards..three times' This last one particularly is demonstrated as Heurtebrize and Orpheus travel through the'ruins of memory' and backwards through time in their descent into Hades. These scenes in the 'zone' are shot in the ruins of the Saint-Cyr military academy and along with Auric's atmospheric music and Nick Hayer's camera mixing layers of light and shade are some of the best in the movie.
There are many technical tricks like the use of reverse filming to bring people to life or to put on gloves to enter through the mirrors,the use of baths of mercury to suggest entry through the portals,the use of gliding trolleys to carry Heurtebreze in Hades while Orphee struggles to walk through the zone. We get the suggestion through the elderly tribunals questioning the Princess and Heurtebreze about their unlawful dealings with the living about tribunals set up to deal with collaborators by the Resistance and the two leather-clad motorcyclists as fascistic assistants who knock people over like two dark angels. Most oddly we have the strange sight of a window-glazier selling his wares in Hades surrounded by ruined buildings.Perhaps he is an angel.The weird transitions and poetic images have have a strange logic in a tightly-scripted dream.The radio poems allude to BBC broadcasts in the war to the French Resistance.The autobiographical elements resonate with the facts of Cocteau's life through the mirror of fantasy,myth and invention.The two best actors are Casares and Francois Perrier (Heurtebreze).There is a fine comic turn with great timing by Maria Dea(Eurydice) when she seeks to avoid Orphee looking at her for fear of returning to Hades. Then she is gilmpsed in a rear view mirror!But she is allowed to return by the Princess and Orphee ends up with his wife with a child on the way. This is a masterpiece playing on the connection between love and death which influenced Resnais' `Last Year in Marienbad' and Godard.