The Visual Re-Creation of Orpheus

The Visual Re-Creation of Orpheus

Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus (1949) is an adaptation of the Greek mythological

figure of the same name. The alteration of the story into the visual medium of cinema is

an interesting one. The use of cinematography in the film is creative, and it incorporates

the essence of the myth with Cocteau’s own allegorical imagery. The symbolism of

characters and events accompanied by the use of visual effects create a message that is

uniquely significant.

The special effects are the primary contributor to the distinctive features of

Cocteau’s revision of the literary version. The devices that are incorporated in Orpheus,

such as running the film backwards (the inversion of time) and using the photographic

negative in some environments (inversion of space), function in numerous ways. On the

surface, they add a mystique to the diegetic world that connotes the supernatural and

uncanny nature of the narrative. In a more subtle way, however, they function

psychologically to expose the viewer to the functions and subordinate machinations of

the visual medium. In a way that is unique to the cinema, the special effects disrupt the

pleasant continuity of the viewer. This disjunction is inherent in the ethereal nature of

their circumstances and concomitant with its mythic origin.

The psychological fraction of cinema is the specialty of Jean-Louis Baudry in

Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus. He champions the idea that

in order for the ideological infrastructure of a film to be successful, it must abide by

certain filmic rules and not remind the viewer that they are simply witness to a

representation (rather than a presentation, or a reality). The moral of the Orphic myth,

“Don’t look back,” seems to be a historical analog of Baudry’s thesis. The warning itself

applies to both Orpheus and the viewer of the film (“Don’t look at Eurydice”, and “Don’t

look at the apparatus”). In this respect, the message of the Orphic myth is similarly the

message of Cocteau, from a cinematic standpoint. Thus, it is the particular circumstances

of the cinematic medium that multiply the efficacy of Orpheus.

For proof of Cocteau’s intention in creating this meaning, his previous film with

actor Jean Marais serves as the best example. Beauty and the Beast (1946) begins with a

note to the viewer to remain focused on the “Once Upon a Time” mentality while

watching the movie. This preface is another example of the intentional shift of focus

away from the awareness of representation and towards a passive viewing experience.

Later in the film, a mirror speaks to the protagonist: “I am your mirror, Belle.
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