|Titel:||Essay on Jean Cocteau's film 'Orphée', 1950|
|Abriss:||Dieser Aufsatz wurde für den BfA Kurs im Fach "Kunsttheorie" an der Tasmanischen Kunstschule in Hobart geschrieben. Der Text verbindet Jean Cocteaus Film mit dem Phänomen des Wissens.
Art Theory Honours 1996Raymond Rohner
Honour, Power and the Love of Women
Essay on Jean Cocteau's film 'Orphée', 1950
The film opens with airy line drawings, providing the background for the titles, while a voice recounts the myth of Orpheus. In the first scene we find ourselves in a busy café; young people are conversing in the hubbub of contemporary beat music. Orpheus, dressed in modern clothes, does not show much enthusiasm for the avant-garde scene. He is invited by the owner of the café to have a drink and reveal his sombre thoughts. Orpheus seems to be worried about the struggle and clashes he has with the new emerging poets. "What do I have to do?" he asks. The answer in return is: Étonnez-nous!" Meanwhile a fight has broken out, stirred by the drunken poet Cegeste, who had arrived at the scene earlier. He is accompanied by a beautiful, wealthy woman, called the Princess, who sponsors and reviews his poetic works, and her driver. The driver calls the police who subsequently arrive at the scene. They interrogate the owner and Orpheus, but apology when they learn that their suspect is the famous poet Orpheus. In the background the fight continues. It ends dramatically when Cegeste frees himself, and runs into the path of two passing motorcyclists, who flee immediately. Cegeste seems to be seriously injured. Orpheus, standing in the consternated crowd, is ordered by the Princess to get into her Rolls Royce, and help her to drive Cegeste away. Strangely enough, they don't drive towards the nearest hospital. When the worried Orpheus asks for an explanation, the Princess refuses to answer his questions. Instead, she switches on the radio which repeats strange, surreal poems. Orpheus does not understand the situation. His confusion is increased by the realisation that Cegeste is dead, and by the return of the two motorcyclists who assist with the removal of the body to an isolated country house. Helpless and in a dreamlike state, Orpheus is led into the Princess's bedroom where he is offered champagne. Is this pain or pleasure? He does not witness how, in another room, the Princess orders the dead Cegeste to arise and acknowledge her as his Death. At the very last minute, Orpheus enters the scene, only to see them all stepping through a mirror and vanish into a dark void. The surface of the mirror becomes reflective again. We watch Orpheus investigating the impenetrable surface, pressing his face against the mirror, and then loosing consciousness.
Orpheus wakes up in a barren landscape, with his face reflected in a mud puddle. Staggering over dunes in search of orientation, he finally finds the Rolls Royce with the Princess's driver waiting for him. He does not receive an explanation for his previous experience, but is brought back home.
The film changes to a scene inside a sunny house where Orpheus' wife Eurydice, a female friend called Aglaonice and a superintendent are discussing the possible reason for Orpheus' mysterious disappearance. When Orpheus arrives he angrily orders the visitors to leave. His behaviour seems to have changed dramatically. He refuses to answer his wife's questions, grasps for a bottle of wine and fails to perceive Eurydice's hint of her pregnancy. His excuse to go to sleep turns out to be a lie. He leaves his bedroom through the window, and heads directly for the hidden Rolls Royce. The radio's surreal messages seem to have caught his fascination.
The driver, meanwhile, introduces himself to Eurydice. His name is Heurtebise. He is very friendly and tries to comfort her. We learn through a little lapse in his explanations that he is from the dead, too. Eurydice does not realise this, nor does she perceive how the handset of the phone miraculously hovers to its place after Heurtebise receives a call from the superintendent. The driver receives orders to bring Orpheus to the police station. During the night, we see the Princess enter through the mirror, and look at Orpheus in his restless sleep.
In the next scene, Heurtebise and Orpheus drive into town. On his walk to the superintendent, Orpheus notices the Princess and starts to follow her. In vain though, for the scene reveals the teasing hide-and-seek game of the Princess, who emerges out of nothing and vanishes in the dark shadows behind doorways and columns. Life seems to mock Orpheus. The people in the street cannot help him, they only utter ironic comments during his pursuit. Finally, an enthusiastic crowd of signature hunting school girls prevent him from seizing the Princess who steps into her sports car. Disillusioned, he refuses to go to the police station. Orpheus ignores the fact that the newspapers reveal a strange connection between Cegeste's disappearance and his latest poems - obviously inspired by the radio messages. Heurtebise tells Orpheus that he has received orders from the Princess to wait at Orpheus's house. They drive home.
Eurydice witnesses her husband's obsessive attachment to the strange radio messages. By now, they have become a simple series of numbers. Orpheus angrily justifies his obsession, telling her that he is searching for the Unknown and that he has lately received some most inspiring messages. The messages were in the form of beaming lights, in a life, which had began to rot and stink.
Eurydice decides, regardless of Heurtebise warnings, to go and seek advice from her friend Aglaonice. She is hit by the Princess's motorcyclists, in front of Eurydice's house. Heurtebise carries her into the bedroom. The Princess and Cegeste enter through the mirror. The motorcyclists have not managed to kill Eurydice, and the irritated Princess now has to finish their job. She has to cope with the inexperienced Cegeste, who is ordered to send any messages regardless of their meaning to Orpheus' radio. To make matters worse, Heurtebise strongly rejects the Princess's intention. It seems that the Princess acted without permission when she took Eurydice into the Underworld. Heurtebise revolts and hurries to warn Orpheus. However, the poet is listening to his inspiration and does not believe the warnings. He wants to be left undisturbed in the Rolls Royce.
When Heurtebise returns to the bedroom, the Princess has finished her job and ridicules him triumphantly. He watches the Princess and Cegeste leaving through the mirror and waits for Orpheus to come.
Orpheus is shocked and dismayed. He bemoans his wife's death and laments his nightmare experiences. He finally learns through Heurtebise that the Princess is Death. However, not all is lost! The Princess has left her gloves in the room, so Orpheus will be able to follow her and try to reclaim his wife. When Orpheus and Heurtebise step through the mirror, they enter a strange "Zone" where time passes slowly. It seems that Heurtebise does not have to walk, and he gives mysterious explanations about the Zone and the zombie-like people inhabiting it. He confesses that he does not understand completely the phenomenon of the Zone. They finally enter a subterranean cellar, via a war torn house. A tribunal of old judges is waiting for them. The judges have previously interrogated the Princess who confessed to being in love with Orpheus. She and Orpheus are led into a bedroom to wait. The judges then question Heurtebise, with Eurydice in attendance. Heurtebise confesses his love for Eurydice.
Meanwhile, Orpheus and the Princess are embracing each other in an act of tender love and promise never to part again. There are difficulties though, because there is a greater power behind her. They both must reappear before the judges. The judges give them parole on the condition that Orpheus will never look at his wife again. Heurtebise is allowed to accompany Orpheus and Eurydice back to the living world, where time has not gone by since they left.
Back at home the situation is preposterous. On several occasions, Orpheus almost looses his wife. Eurydice has to hide underneath the table and even avoids looking into mirrors where Orpheus might see her image accidentally. Ironically, it's when they sit in the Rolls Royce to wait for messages, that Orpheus glances at the mirror and catches sight of Eurydice. She vanishes instantly from the back seat.
The next scene is dramatic. A crowd of angry avant-garde poets and feminists gather in front of Orpheus's house. They throw stones and enter the premises. Orpheus tries to defend himself with a handgun, but loses the gun in a fight and is accidentally shot. He dies in the back of the Rolls Royce while Heurtebise is driving him away. In an emotional moment Orpheus is reunited with the Princess, who is waiting in the Underworld. However, their happiness has to be sanctified with a hideous criminal act, before their goal can be realised. The hideous crime to be committed is a second killing of Orpheus by the Princess with the help of Heurtebise and Cegeste, who, in a dramatic moment, strangle Orpheus. Heurtebise's telepathic power then guides Orpheus back to life through the zone and the mirror to his bedroom. Orpheus wakes up in his bed, in the arms of his wife Eurydice, and seems unaware of what has happened to him. Eurydice complains of a bad dream she has had. Life has returned to its initial harmony. They both speculate happily on the character of their future baby. It is a happy ending for Orpheus and Eurydice, but not the end of the film.
In a last scene, the pleased Princess thanks Heurtebise for his help. The Princess and Heurtebise have broken the law and await their unknown fate. The film ends with Cegeste watching them being led away by the two motorcyclists.
IntroductionTo what extend does Jean Cocteau's film Orphée explore the relationship between social power, sexual desire and artistic inspiration? Before answering this question which underlies the subject of the art theory course, a second question has to be considered. To what extend is Cocteau's exploration autobiographical rather than a general approach to the psychic drives of artists? In other words, does the discussion of his film require preliminary knowledge of Cocteau's life? According to Arthur B. Evan's book on Jean Cocteau and his films of orphic identity, the film Orphée shows many autobiographical references1. Some references point to figures used in his earlier works, others cover persons and situations from his real life. Though it is useful to have knowledge about these references, I found it rather unnecessary to develop my paper in their light. Furthermore, an autobiographical interpretation would miss a decisive point of Cocteau's cinematographic work, which is to engage the audience in a personal experience with the symbolic content of the figures and situations in his films. Cocteau once said about films: It is commonly said that such and such a film is perhaps good, but that it is "not cinema", or that it lacks beauty but is "cinema", and so on. This is forcing the cinematograph to be mere entertainment instead of a vehicle for thought.2 The image of the film as a vehicle for thought, supports my decision to venture on my own interpretation. This also relates to my course work, which researches the relationship between artistic and scientific knowledge.
After a brief reference to Cocteau's understanding of art, I will show that Orphée offers an intensive and exciting exploration of artistic inspiration and creativity, based on Cocteau's own life-long experience of art-making. The exploration of artistic inspiration and creativity is a search for knowledge. I will argue that the phenomenon of knowledge has been addressed considerably in this film. My arguments are initially based on what is said between the figures in the film. However, the crucial point of my essay is not the discussion of relevant statements in the film. Rather, I will approach the film Orphée by discussing how Cocteau avoided the film to become a shallow picture of knowledge, contradicting the depth of the myth. The arguments are further consolidated with the analysis of the film's structure, focussing on the relationship between film and audience. I then will show that it is possible, with reference to the film Orphée, to distinguish between different natures of knowledge. In conclusion, Cocteau's envisaged nature of knowledge may well be considered an important keynote for further discussions on artistic creativity.
The role and identity of the poet
Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) led a very turbulent life which encompassed periods of fame, scandal, depression and opium addiction. He began to make films late in life, after he had already acquired fame as a bohemian poet. Fame did not treat him easily. Cocteau was known for his struggle with critics and rival art scenes. After the death of his lover Radiguet, he became more introverted, and began to focus on the role and identity of the poet. He saw the role of poetry in procreating oracular wisdom. The poet was a medium, the intermediary and bridge to the 'Beyond' through which divination occurred, rather than the authentic origin and source of poems. Beyond the many surfaces of reality, there was the realm which had its own voice reaching the subconsciousness of the artist. Opium, for example, would facilitate the contact and enhance the dialectic with the Unknown - the 'Marvellous'. Cocteau believed that poets have no choice in the matter of their inspirations. Their skill is to interpret and translate the discourse with the Beyond.
Poetry was initially Cocteau's most cherished medium, but he assigned the same role to all artistic creativity, including painting, play writing and music. When he discovered the artistic potential of the film medium, he quickly and audaciously began to develop his own style and to change the rules of cinematic production. Rather than seeing films as mere entertainments, he started to explore and to use their power for projecting his artistic vision into the audience. The figures and scenes in a cinematograph, as he called his films, conveyed symbolic references which would act upon the unconsciousness of the viewer. Cinematic tricks and the prevention of the images from flowing, as in a narrative-type of film, would help to penetrate the private world of hidden dreams and intuitions.
Death, love and poetry
According to Cocteau's vision, the artistic process to create a work of art, such as a film, not only requires passion and strict discipline but also involves several figurative deaths3. Cocteau's own preoccupation with death, love and poetry, led to him being personally identified with the mythic figure of Orpheus.
There is doubt among scholars, as to when and where the Greek orphic myth appeared first. It has been appropriated and transformed in every period of human civilization. Cocteau appropriated the myth and created his own version. The narrative voice at the beginning of the film Orphée briefly explains a familiar story line: Orpheus was a poet and singer of Thrace in ancient Greece who was famous for taming wild beasts with his beautiful songs played on the lyre. When his wife Eurydice died he went to the Underworld to ask her back. The charmed gods allowed his request on the condition that he never looked at her again. He failed to do so and lost her forever. After withdrawing into the woods he was torn to pieces by the enraged Bacchae. The privilege of legends is to be timeless, tells the narrator in Orphée, and the film sets out to show how a modern poet (Orpheus) comes to terms with 'the Marvellous'.
Don't try to understand!
During the film, Orpheus asks many questions which bear the signature of Cocteau's pondering on poetic inspirations. The answers are cast into the film endowing it with a didactic aura. Is this Cocteau's oracular wisdom? He seems to give us the key for our own artistic liberation, the knowledge essential for any artistic endeavour. Paradoxically, many answers are advices not to try to understand: in the Rolls Royce while driving Cegeste away; in the Princess's bedroom; in front of the mirror before Orpheus' descent into the Underworld. Similarly, there are comments, such as "Your worst fault is that you know how far is too far" (the owner of the Café des PoÍtes) and "I don't know more than you" (Heurtebise in the Zone).
A skeptical question arises. How can an illuminating statement on artistic inspiration be of sincere depth if 'not-knowing' seems to be an essential message? A cinematographic film unfolding knowledge on artistic creativity, by accentuating the importance of 'not-knowing', would undermine its own credibility. How did Cocteau solve this problem?
I believe that Cocteau saw artistic inspiration strongly tied up with the faculty of knowing and not-knowing. He addressed the phenomenon of knowledge excessively in his film. Orphée suggests that the danger of churning out shallow truths about artistic inspirations and creativity, can be overcome by dealing with knowledge as an ever changing form of relationship, rather than a rigid structure of facts. Cocteau even went so far as to play with the audience's role of knowing and not-knowing during the film, in order to emphasize the dynamic nature of artistic knowledge.
The painful struggle for knowledge
Knowing and not-knowing are accompanied by emotions. The solution of a mathematical problem gives rise to emotions of joy and confidence. Not knowing how to make a living, as another example, may be rather threatening and frustrating. The emotions can be rather bleak. With a formula for producing artworks the artist looses the excitement of surprises, hence the café owner's advice to Orpheus: …tonnez-nous - surprise us! This is not the formula, not the known facts, nor the simplifying statement, but the struggle between knowing and not-knowing which creates the potential for passionate emotions. The more painful the struggle, the brighter the flash of genius and the louder the 'Eureka!' call of the searcher.
Cocteau's film Orphée successfully mirrors the meaning of struggle in artistic creativity. Though Orpheus is initially introduced as one of the greatest artist of his time (e.g. the scene with the police interrogation in the café), the film hardly portrays him as such. Only in the opening scene, and near the end of the film, does the audience get the feeling of looking at a perfect and wise man. These are short sequences in comparison to the rest of the film where Orpheus goes through a nightmarish struggle. Does he not look rather like a suffering fool who disregards reason and life? Did he choose to look for inspiration? Not at all, for it is the Princess who asks him, in a rather humiliating tone, to step into her car. Where is the confidence and wisdom of the poet?
The audience who may or may not know
Cocteau's cinematic skill did not confine him to the depiction of a suffering poet who tries to understand, and to know where his marvellous inspirations come from. If this had been the case, the film would be a mirror simply reflecting Cocteau's insight about art, but not really engaging the audience at its most. As I have previously mentioned, Cocteau's cinematographs had to be more than a narrative entertainment. They had to be powerful art works themselves, drawing the audience to the Beyond.
I believe that Cocteau endowed this film with the quality to be an orphic mirror itself, emulating the reflecting and translucent stage of the mirrors in his film. In Orphée, they are the bridges between reality and the Beyond. Cocteau managed to enhance the 'bridge' nature of this film by deliberately dragging the audience several times into the position of not-knowing, and back into the position of the ones who know.
When the accident with Cegeste happens, the audience knows as much about the plot as Orpheus does. We, too, begin to think that something is not quite right when the Princess meets the motorcyclists again. Only when she makes Cegeste acknowledge her as his Death do we really learn who she is - not so Orpheus, he only witnesses her strange disappearance through the mirror. Only very much later in the film, when Heurtebise reveals to him the Princess's real persona, does Orpheus realise that she is Death. Before that scene, the audience is dragged into the voyeuristic position of the one who knows, and who watches the famous poet fooling himself, and making a nightmarish mess out of his life. He even takes the meaningless messages from his young rival Cegeste, as the most important inspirations of his life! Our archimedean viewpoint blurs when Orpheus is about to step through the mirror. We don't know the fate of his journey, and the things shown and explained to Orpheus are mysterious and new to us also.
The scenes subsequently reveal that Death is not simply a powerful authority, but is suffering from love! It overturns a cliché image of Death, which has already been fading, when she struggled with her unsubmissive and errant helpers Heurtebise and Cegeste. When the audience is sent back to the scenes of normal life with Orpheus, Eurydice and Heurtebise, it is confronted with a total new perception of the background of the story, and the phenomenon of artistic inspiration. Yet, the film does not allow us to enjoy this knowledge for long, since the scenes procreate a ridiculous and tormenting situation. We are made to feel this cannot continue, and even Eurydice tries to end the granted parole. Again, estranged from Orpheus, the knowing viewer watches him trying to battle on and even go back to the car in search for inspiration. He looses Eurydice when he accidentally perceives her in the mirror of the limousine. The scenes are dramatic when Orpheus gets killed. We are violently hurled into the Underworld and are dragged with him through the strange zone between life and death, the known and the unknown. Ignorant as we are again, we must wait to find out what the Princess is going to do with Orpheus. We end up quite surprisingly where the film began: The normal life of a radiant poet. It is a rather short scene. The perfect happy ending of a life - we think we comprehend. However, we are not yet released from the magical embrace of the film. The real end of the film comes in the last scene, when the Princess and Heurtebise are led away by the motorcyclists towards their unknown fate!
The nature of knowledge
Cocteau's film Orphée explores the subject of artistic inspiration and creativity. So far, I have shown that it is closely linked to the phenomenon of knowledge. Not only does it portray Orpheus' struggle to know and to understand what is going on, but it also engages the audience in oscillating modes of perception. It is important to note that Orpheus does not really discover the answers, nor is the audience given a free ticket to Cocteau's Beyond. The role of "not-knowing" in artistic processes is a prominent message in the film. Despite that, Orphée does not simply imply that no knowledge is attainable at all. The film's contribution lies in the suggestion of what the nature of knowledge about art is likely to be.
Knowledge about artistic inspiration and creativity seems to be less of a factual phenomenon. There are no platonic laws governing the causes and effects in the realm of art. Ultimately, there is no static thing, such as a recipe, waiting to be grasped, nor an apprehendable source of inspiration to be found. What Cocteau shows is that the nature of his envisaged knowledge is rather that of a relationship. It is dynamic and changing, continuously creating itself out of a struggle between knowing and not-knowing.
The nature of knowledge is reflected in the figure of the Princess. Personifying Death, Cocteau could have endowed her with absolute power and certainty. Yet, he portrays her as a changing character expressing the obscure nature of a relationship rather than the clarity of a cliché image. In her role as a sponsor of poets she does not reveal factual knowledge. When the owner of the Café des PoÍtes shows Orpheus her critique on Cegeste's poetry, he presents him with a book of blank pages. The Princess enters a relationship with the artist and has to struggle with Cegeste's immaturity and with her own feelings of love for Orpheus. She has the power to order, yet she disobeys the law in her desire for Orpheus. She watches him secretly at night, yet plays a game of hide-and-seek in the town. She loves him, but has to kill him at the end of the film in order to maintain their love.
According to Cocteau, knowledge about art must inherit the dynamic nature of relationships. It must recreate itself continually, grow, freeze and wither in an eternal cycle. If it did not, knowledge would become a mirror, simply reflecting what is held in front of it. But "mirrors do well to reflect more" is one of the surreal radio messages. The reflections disclose what else can be said. Orpheus hesitates in disbelief when Heurtebise tells him that he has to follow the Princess through the mirror in order to claim his wife back. He is to learn a lot more during his visit in the Underworld, as the film reveals the emotional relationships which have formed between the Princess/Orpheus and Heurtebise/Eurydice.
The scenes reflect the dynamic nature of knowledge, but they also make clear that this comes with a sacrifice symbolized by the verdict that Orpheus must never look at Eurydice again. Indeed, he never does see her again, for it is only her reflected image in the Rolls Royce's mirror which he accidentally sees. Realising his fatal error he turns immediately around, but she has already disappeared from the back seat. Knowledge as a relationship becomes meaningless when it freezes into a static image.
ConclusionTo write about art and life implies knowledge. So does the creation of art and the living of life. The film Orphée suggests that this knowledge is dynamic rather than static, paradoxically obscure rather than illuminating. It is a relationship which can be rewarding as well as painful. Cocteau must have experienced this many times in his life. He wanted to understand poetry and have his poetry understood by his audience. Orphée was his cinematic answer. To what extend does it, finally, explore the relationship between social power, sexual desire and artistic inspiration? My answer: To the extent of being intoxicating rather than illuminating!
BibliographyEvans, B. Arthur, Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity. Philadelphia. The Art Alliance Press, 1977.