“The legend of Orpheus is well known. In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a troubadour from Thrace. He charmed even the animals. His songs diverted his attention from his wife, Eurydice. Death took her away from him. He descended to the netherworld and used his charm to win permission to return with Eurydice to the world of the living on the condition that he never look at her. But he looked at her, and was torn away from her by the Bacchantes. Where does our story take place and when? A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place. Interpret it as you wish.” So begins Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), as perfect a film as you’re likely to find—a retelling of the Orpheus myth set (despite the disclaimer) in the art world of Paris at the time it was made, allowing the film to be as much a critique of that world as a version of the story.
As such, it becomes more than a modern-dress variant of the myth, it becomes a statement about art, the art world and Cocteau’s place in it. It’s not entirely free of self-criticism, either, since Cocteau most clearly relates to the “too famous” poet of the title, whose fame has won him the adulation of the public and the scorn of his peers. In that role, he allows himself to be lectured that “no excess is absurd,” while taking up the challenge to “astonish us.” And that’s exactly what he spends the remainder of the film doing in a series of evermore beautiful and atmospheric scenes of surrealist poetry on film. Cocteau’s vision remains unmatched, and when you see characters pass from one world to another through mirrors—via the simplest effects imaginable—you see true artistry that puts today’s CGI “wonders” to shame. Few films are as magical, and none are more haunting than this monumental work.