Full of haunting, imagery, Orpheus is surrealist filmmaker’s Jean Cocteau’s bold attempt to merge film and poetry. Bored by his life of fame and notoriety as a leading Left Bank poet, Orphée (Jean Marais) is ready for new experiences. At the Poet’s Café, he walks among other writers without really becoming part of them. He feels their hatred, perhaps fueled by their own lack of success, and realizes that to be accepted he must surprise them. The opportunity arises when the writer Cegeste (Edouard Dhermitte) is killed by a motorcyclist outside the café.  Orphée accompanies the mysterious Princess (Maria Casarès), as a witness, when she takes away the body in a Rolls Royce. She brings Cegeste back from the dead and takes him through a mirror, into another world.

OrpheusReturned home the next day by the Princess’ chauffeur Heurtebise (François Périer), Orphee seems oblivious to his wife’s Eurydice’ (Marie Déa), worries. His preoccupation concerns both the Princess and the radio station—which transmits cryptic, yet poetic phrases—received through her car. Orphée is utterly captivated by it, at the exclusion of all us. While Eurydice loses patience with her husband, Heurtebise finds himself falling in love with her. Along the way, it revealed that the Princess is Death, when she spies on Orphée as he sleeps at night. This dereliction of duty (manipulating human affairs) is all due to her desire for Orphée; murdering Eurydice is only one consequence of the affair.  Orphée’s failure to even notice his wife’s death forces Heurtebise to take action.

Finally able to convince Orphée that the Princess is death, and his wife can be saved, Heurtebise takes him to the Underworld. There, the Princess is on trial for misusing her power. Orphée finds himself split in his desires for both the Princess and Eurydice, though he wil be forced to choose one woman over the other.

It’s well known that Jean Cocteau was a faithful opium user, and one wonders if that influenced this film. The story itself, with people going through windows to other worlds has a trippy, floating quality to it. The imagery, almost fetishistic in style, is quite a surprise for 1950. Death is corseted into an hourglass black dress with elbow high rubber gloves; her motorcycle guys walk around in black leathers. So, if we put it all together, Orpheus plays out like a visually stunning, erotic fairytale. For any Cocteau fan, this is a definite must-see.

Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of a sixty-year-old film looks very good, but naturally not as good as a newer title. The blacks and whites are nicely balanced, while and even layer of film grain gives things a true filmic texture. While I noticed one or two scratched on the print, considering the films age, Criterion has delivered an amazingly clean transfer.

The mono audio (the film is in French with English subtitles), does the job nicely. While it won’t overwhelm you with its punch, all dialogue, music, and effects come through convincingly and clearly. Nice job here.

We get the following special features:

  • Audio commentary featuring French-film scholar James S. Williams: Recorded for Criterion in May 2011, he is very informative providing background on Cocteau, his filmmaking process, and more.
  •  Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown (1:06:51 in 1080i) (1984) a feature-length documentary directed by Edgardo Cozarinsky, this is a fairly extensive look into the life of the filmmaker.
  • Jean Cocteau and His Tricks (13:29 in 1080i) a 2008 video interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau.
  • 40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau (40:37 in 1080i) a 1957 interview with the director.
  • In Search of Jazz (17:36 in 1080i) a 1956 interview with Cocteau on the use of jazz in the film.
  • La villa Santo-Sospir (36:29 in 1080i) a 1951 16 mm color film by Cocteau.
  • Gallery of 48 1080p images by French-film portrait photographer Roger Corbeau.
  • Raw Newsreel Footage (1:41 in 1080i) from 1950 of the Saint-Cyr military academy ruins, a location used in the film.
  • Theatrical Trailer (3:31 in 1080p)
  • Booklet: featuring an essay by author Mark Polizzotti, an excerpted article by Cocteau on the film, and an essay on La villa Santo-Sospir by James S. Williams.