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Film / Orpheus

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Orpheus goes through the mirror.

Orpheus is a 1950 film directed by Jean Cocteau.

It is, of course, an adaptation of the Orpheus story from Classical Mythology. The story is given a setting update to modern-day France, with Orpheus (Jean Marais) being a poet of great renown. Orpheus is idly relaxing at one of those coffee shops so adored by Paris hipsters when a Rolls-Royce pulls up. Exiting from the Rolls are Cegeste, a handsome young man and rival poet to Orpheus, and a mysterious woman clad in black called "Princess". Cegeste, who is roaring drunk, insults Orpheus. A fight breaks out, escalating into a massive brawl. Cegeste staggers out of the frenzy, and is promptly run down and killed by two motorcycles in the street.

Orpheus goes to the aid of Cegeste, only for the princess to appear and insist Cegeste be put into the car and Orpheus come as a witness. They then drive not to the hospital, but to the princess's Old, Dark House chateau. That's where things start getting weird. The journey to the chateau is shown in photographic negative. Strange nonsensical messages, highly reminiscent of the coded messages sent to La Résistance from England during the Nazi occupation, start coming over the radio. The Rolls is accompanied by the same two motorcycle goons that ran over and killed Cegeste. It's revealed that the princess is a supernatural being, an angel of Death. She re-animates Cegeste, and the four of them—the princess, Cegeste, and the two motorcycle goons—walk through the mirror, into some sort of alternate world.


Orpheus, shocked by this bizarre turn of events, tries to step through the mirror as well but can't. He collapses in a faint against the mirror. He awakens not in the chateau, but somewhere outdoors in the wild, where he's picked up and taken home by the princess's chauffeur Heurtebise. Heurtebise is soon revealed to be a ghost. Meanwhile the princess has returned from the afterlife, and she has some plans that involve Orpheus's pretty wife Eurydice.

Received a quasi-sequel, The Testament of Orpheus, which was Cocteau's last film. Compare Black Orpheus, another modern-day Orpheus tale made just a few years later and set in Brazil.



  • Art Shift: The already weird journey to the chateau gets even stranger when the surroundings outside the car are shown in photographic negative. (This effect was also used in Nosferatu.)
  • Bar Brawl: Cegeste's angry confrontation with Orpheus at the cafe blows up into an ugly Bar Brawl. Unusual in that it's an outdoor bar brawl, in the cafe's sidewalk seating, but there's still chairs and bodies flying everywhere.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Orpheus and Eurydice are returned to life. But the princess has made her sacrifice and will spend eternity without her love, not to mention having to face some "not pleasant" punishment.
  • Blood from the Mouth: How we know that Cegeste's injury is serious.
  • Boy Meets Ghoul: The plot takes a surprising turn when Orpheus and the princess, an angel of Death, fall in love.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: For murdering Eurydice and taking her to the underworld, the princess has to face a tribunal consisting of some weary-looking bureaucrats. She's basically let off with a warning. For making an unauthorized entry into the afterlife to get Eurydice, Orpheus is forbidden to ever look at her again, with her having to go back if she does.
  • Destination Host Unreachable: Unlike the original myth and most adaptations, Orpheus succeeds in bringing Eurydice back alive but still can't look at her, lest she go back to the underworld. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't last long.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Heurtebise harbors secret feelings for Eurydice, and despairs silently when he has to send Orpheus back to her.
  • Don't Look Back: More severe than the original myth. In the myth, Orpheus is told not to look at Eurydice until they've left the underworld. In this movie, he can't ever look at her again, or she'll return to the afterlife.
  • Dramatic Drop: Orpheus drops his drink when he sees the princess and her crew walk through the mirror.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: Heurtebise chambering a round in an automatic pistol when preparing to defend Orpheus from an angry mob.
  • Femme Fatale: The princess is a literal example of this, Orpheus's dark-clad, alluring lover who also happens to be an angel of death.
  • Ghostly Glide: Heurtebise glides along while escorting the still-living Orpheus through the afterworld.
  • The Grim Reaper: When the princess collects souls she says "I am your death." invokedWord of God from Jean Cocteau says the princess was not supposed to actually be Death itself, but she's clearly a messenger or guide, taking people through the mirror portals into the afterlife. She makes a joke about how she'd be too conspicuous if she went about wearing a black cloak and carrying a scythe.
  • Idiot Ball: Why in the wide wide world of sports are Orpheus and Eurydice still living together, since she will die and go back to hell if he ever lays eyes on her?
  • Intro Dump: The guy Orpheus sits next to at the Poet's Cafe helpfully tells him and the audience that Jacques Cegeste is a fellow poet and the Princess is his companion.
  • It's All About Me: Orpheus is very self-involved. When Heurtebise tells him that Eurydice is dying, Orpheus, who is obsessed with the car radio transmitting from the afterlife, tells him that it's just her trick for attention. Afterwards when Eurydice has been rescued from the afterlife, he whines and complains about how inconvenient it is to not be able to look at her.
    Orpheus: She could realize the awful position I'm in.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Orpheus and the princess embrace and declare their love for each other. The princess then rewinds time, sending him back to a happy life with Eurydice, neither of them having any memory of what happened. She and Heurtebise are then arrested by the motorcycle goons and sent off to whatever "not pleasant" punishment awaits them.
  • Love Triangle: Cocteau's main addition to the Orpheus plot is having Orpheus, who goes down to the underworld to retrieve Eurydice, fall in love with the princess. By the end they're proclaiming their love for each other and he's perfectly willing to stay in hell with her.
  • Magic Mirror: For reapers like the princess and the souls they are escorting, mirrors are portals to the afterworld. Orpheus can enter the spirit world through the mirror by using the magic gloves that the princess deliberately left on the bed.
  • Match Cut: From Orpheus slumped against the mirror, his face reflected in the glass, to Orpheus waking up in a field, his face reflected in a puddle of water.
  • Narrator: Cocteau as narrator comments on the action periodically.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The princess and Heurtebise are arrested and led away, off to face their punishment for sending Orpheus and Eurydice back to the land of the living.
  • Offscreen Crash: Cegeste steps out of frame and the sound of his collision with the cyclists is heard. The same happens to Eurydice.
  • Rewind Gag: The scenes where the princess revives the dead, or rather wakes them up for their journey into the afterlife, were done by having the actors lie down and then reversing the film. It's surprisingly effective in evoking an eerie mood.
  • Reset Button: Orpheus pledges his love to the princess, saying that he belongs to her and he'll stay in the afterlife with her forever. After crying with joy she performs the ultimate sacrifice, literally rewinding events to before Eurydice died, having Heurtebise escort Orpheus backwards through the underworld and through the mirror and back to his house.
  • Setting Update: Narrator Cocteau says "a legend is entitled to be beyond time and place." The story then unfolds in 1950 France.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Orpheus is startled when they come back from the afterworld and he sees that it's still 6:00, which was the time they left.