There is a recurrent commercial on Danish television that shows some obscure scenes with a French speaking clown, a black cat, people being serious and strange and everything being absolutely absurd. It is done in black and white and ends with a woman asking: “You think this is dark? Then you should try Café Noir”
Now I know where it comes from.
My guess is that the common idea that French movies are arty, obscure and dark originates from the work of Jean Cocteau. It was brought to its elaborate and obscure height in the sixties, but Cocteau’s “Orphée” is all that already in 1949 (or 1950 according to IMDB).
I am not a fan. I find it overly pretentious and stylized to an extent that makes it difficult to relate to the characters and not least the story. It also tries very hard to drive home some points that the film at large suffers and still I generally fail to understand those points. Okay, I may be stupid, but this is also a personal experience and so my return from this movie may well be limited by my stupidity.
It is well known that “Orphée” is (largely) based on the story of Orpheus. Orpheus was an ancient Greek mythological character He was supposed to be a sublime poet and quite an adventurer (he went with Jason and the Argonauts on their quest). His wife Eurydice dies and Orpheus follows her to Hades (helped by the nymphs who were swayed by his music). In Hades Orpheus music also swayed Persephone to let him bring Eurydice with him back. Only he cannot look back at her until both are fully restored, but Orpheus do exactly that and so Eurydice is lost.
Cocteau sets his Orpheus story in contemporary France. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a popular poet and Eurydice (Marie Déa) is his wife, home alone, isolated and practically forgotten by Orpheus. Orpheus witnesses what looks like an accident as two motorcyclists run down a young man (another poet) and Orpheus is asked by the woman accompanying the young man to help her drive the man away. Then things start getting odd. The woman (María Casares) is actually Death, Persephone I take it, and the two motorcyclists are death angels in her service who kills those she points out.
Persephone has a crush on Orpheus. She visits him when he sleeps and she sends him mysterious radio messages that sound like coded wartime instructions and apparently they work. Orpheus is in rapture over these messages, entranced by this woman and completely ignores his pregnant wife. In my interpretation of what is going on Persephone picks up Eurydice and brings her to Hades while she instructs her assistant Heurtebise (François Périer) to assist Orpheus in following her into the underworld.
Hades looks like a wartime ruin. That is probably no coincidence as this was what hell looked like in the forties. Still it is not exactly how you would normally imagine that place. Hades is all about judgment. Everybody is on trial, but for what and to which sentence is unclear. Heurtebise is like the ferryman on the river Styx helping people in and out, but here he is also in love with Eurydice. Orpheus gets Eurydice with her home and of course see her in a mirror, but not before having had some serious fights with her. Orpheus still has his head full of Persephone.
Orpheus dies and returns to Hades. He and Persephone are now ready to consummate their love so Persephone sends, at the cost of her own… existence…, Orpheus and Eurydice home, madly in love and with no memory of their travels in the underworld.
If we focus a bit on the story, or at least my interpretation of the story (it is rather unclear what is really going on), then it follows the Orpheus myth to some extent. Parts of it is even rather literal. But it also takes some odd turns. The strange double dating of Persephone and Orpheus and also Eurydice and Heurtebise is quite distracting. I do not know what to make of it. Orpheus is like a manic obsessed with death and it makes him truly unlikeable. Is it a spell Persephone has thrown on him? Also the ending leaves me baffled. What just happened? The only thing I can think of is that Persephone is so in love with his art (which we never experience and we never see her enjoy) that out of love she gives him back his life and wife so that he can make great art.
The surreal use of symbols and the rather confusing storyline makes it very difficult to follow the film and since I have not found any deeper meaning I do not think it is particularly rewarding to try to understand it. Obviously many of the seemingly meaningless scenes and characters are supposed to mean something, but much of it is too obscure for me. What is worse, this use of symbolism or striving to drive home some obscure points ruins the immediate value of the scenes. People act strange, dialogue is stylized and impersonal and we are no longer dealing with persons but with caricatures. You can root for a person if you can recognize something in the person, but a caricature is an empty shell and I loose interest. When I no longer care for the characters I no longer care for the story and the movie becomes hollow.
At first I thought the problem was just the subtitles, but although my French is rather limited, I did realize when I listened carefully that the weird utterances really was what they were saying.
Compared to the other Cocteau film I have seen, “La Belle et la Bete”, Orphée is a step down. The story is less recognizable and although “La Belle et la Bete” was also obscure Cocteau adds an order of magnitude to that parameter. Gone is also much of the magic. Orphée is praised for its special effects, but compared to “La Belle et la Bete” it is rather tame.
I did not “get” “Orphée” and that may be my problem, but I also did not feel encouraged to try to work it out. It left me baffled and mostly uninterested. Definitely one of the poorer entries on the list, though I am sure many will disagree.