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A 1940s poet gambles everything in an infatuation with death and fame in Jean Cocteau's highly personal update of the Orpheus myth
Artist, poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau was haunted by the Orpheus myth, and this multi-layered allegory has as much to do with his own notion of creativity as it does the original Greek tale, which told of a divinely gifted musician's love and loss of his wife Eurydice - a story in which Orpheus had to charm his way out of Hades.
Updating the story to post-war France, here Orpheus is a commercially successful poet stung by the disdain of his peers. When a rival writer dies in a car accident, Orpheus accompanies a mysterious Princess to her chalet, then becomes obsessed by a series of cryptic radio broadcasts. His wife Eurydice immediately begins to worry but already it's too late - the Princess is revealed as Death and Orpheus is ready to risk everything to satisfy his new mistress.
Jean Cocteau was 60 years old when he began filming Orphee (he wrote the screenplay in 1926), but the execution is remarkably fresh. Early scenes in the Cafe De Poetes capture all the bitching and bitterness of a backstabbing literary community. Later, however, things take a more surreal turn, with Orpheus slipping through a mirror before being held to account at an underworld tribunal.
Cocteau assembles a succession of unsettlingly strange images yet the narrative remains tightly-stung throughout. Playful, mysterious and ripe with symbol but also accessible and loaded with Cocteau's own sly wit, it's a testament to the director's belief in the poetic potential of cinema that he creates a film as fascinating and resonant for contemporary audiences as the original myth was for himself.
A fresh and fascinating treatment of an abiding myth.
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