Orphée was made before the birth of the French ‘New Wave’ movement and occupies the ground between fantasy and realism. It was produced shortly after the Second World War, the effects of the war on Cocteau and Paris can be seen represented in the narrative and the mise-en-scene: The mysterious radio messages are similar to the coded broadcasts aimed at the French resistance during the war; the courtroom scenes are reminiscent of wartime interrogations. He uses exteriors of bombed out factories and buildings to represent purgatory, their interiors are used to stage the afterlife. It is interesting to compare Cocteau’s vision with Powell and Pressburger’s heaven in A Matter of Life and Death (1946).
On a more personal level, Cocteau was aware that his poetic work was no longer as fashionable and he mocks avant-garde poetry when he shows a publication entitled ‘Nudisme’, the pages of which are completely blank. Orpheus thinks that this is absurd; his friend (‘The Man’) responds that it is “less absurd than if it were full of absurd writing”. The character of Jacques Cegeste, a promising poet who is cut down in his prime, can be seen to parallel the death of Cocteau’s friend Raymond Radiguet. When ‘The Man’ in the café tells Orpheus to “astonish us”, this is a direct reference to the time when Cocteau was famously told by Diaghilev thirty years earlier to “Ettone-moi!”
With its fetishistic images of bikers from the realm of death and melodramatic performances from Jean Marais and Maria Casarès, it has become a camp classic. Looking beyond the film’s comedic elements, it is an affective meditation on man’s place in the world and the responsibility of the artist.