Orpheus was Jean Cocteaus fifth film. Rather than a classical retelling of the myth, as he attempted with Beauty and the Beast, here Cocteau updates and modernises the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. He certainly expands the story over the Greek original there is no equivalent of the Princess in the Greek myth, for example. Indeed here, the figure of Eurydice, whom traditionally Orpheus descends into the underworld to win back, is almost an irrelevant character, Orpheus is instead romantically obsessed with the Princess; and when Orpheus and Eurydice are sent back it is not because of his undying love for her but because the tribunal decides they do not belong in the afterlife.
There is much that is autobiographical to the film Cocteau was an acclaimed and influential poet in the Wartime era but who then was savaged by the new generation that emerged following the War, as Orpheus is here. The actor that Cocteau casts as Orpheus, Jean Marais, was Cocteaus homosexual lover, which offers unusual resonance to the melancholy love story. Elsewhere, the milieu that Cocteau gives the legend unmistakably resonates with the shadow of post-War France Hell is an area of bombed cityscape, the afterlife tribunals echo with images of the trials of Vichy collaborators, while the image of Orpheus seeking messages hidden inside random radio noise looks back to images of the French resistance obtaining code messages from the British hidden inside standard radio broadcasts.
There is an elegant intellect in some of the ideas and metaphors that Jean Cocteau swings like the mirror being the interface to the Land of the Dead because it always shows the path of oncoming age, or the intriguing idea that those that rule the afterlife are only pawns in a game that nobody runs. The modernisation of the myth is conducted with a certain degree of wit Orpheuss final glance back at Eurydice takes place in the rear vision mirror of a limousine, for instance; while The Bacchantes (the Thracian women who killed Orpheus according to legend) is the name of a nightclub. Far more so than in the fairy-tale simplicity of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau taps into the French post-war existential cinema. Typical of the films intellectual posturing is a scene where a much-acclaimed work of poetry is revealed as a book with blank pages. The dialogue is full of the banal exchanges that suffer as significance in these films, but mostly Cocteau impresses with the sheer poetry of his images the path through the underworld (a ruined city that is lit to seem unworldly) and the slow-motion fight with the spectral wind, or the final images as Orpheus is taken away by a motorcycle escort of angels and the Princess is led off to her fate, or the simple reverse motion effects that Cocteau uses to show the passage through the mirror. It is rare that French cinema impresses with visual imagery but Orpheus does.
Jean Cocteau later made The Testament of Orpheus (1960), which is not a sequel but an existential meta-fictional autobiography upon Cocteaus part, which does wind in many of the characters and images from Orpheus.