55. Maria Casarès in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée: “Did you expect a shroud and a scythe…?”

Today my estimation of Cocteau’s Orphée/Orpheus (1950) is much the same as when I first saw it aged 17: it seems one of the great poetic works of the cinema. Its charms have worn on me a little since then, I confess, because you had to be a certain age at a certain time to be enchanted at discovering the image-wellspring of Francis Coppola’s Rumblefish and the 12” sleeve of The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man.’ And while the teenage Me was still sufficiently enamoured of the theatre to savour the air of stagecraft around Cocteau’s film – that feel of a classic being revived in stylish if low-budget modern dress – the holes are a bit more evident to my eyes now. Yes, the holes, and also the frequently rubbishy performances… I was relieved to read that the critic/novelist Gilbert Adair, always spot-on about Cocteau, is with me on the try-hard/no-good-ness of Jean Marais’s performance in the title role. But Adair also makes a good fist of itemising the film’s allure.

“…oh, the magic! The hooded, helmeted motorcyclists of the underworld, a hand penetrating a shivering, shimmering mirror (in reality, a vat of mercury), enigmatic messages emitted by short-wave radio (inspired by the BBC’s coded wartime broadcasts to the French resistance), Orphée pursuing his own Orphic and anthropomorphic Death (a morbidly chic Maria Casarès) across a topographically askew Paris, and so much more…”

Like all the best art Orphée is a work of the spirit, done with conviction: Cocteau put all of himself into it. (Or should I say, all of the better/presentable parts of himself…? Since the eroticism of the film is only a transference and, while I was taught to view the film as loaded with symbols of the Nazi menace to France, it later became known through the revelations of his Diaries that Cocteau saw something to admire in Hitler…)
But per Adair the mercury-mirror is surely the film’s finest poetic stroke, the epitome of Cocteau’s conjuror-like hand-crafted philosophy of filmic ‘special effects.’ (As he told Andre Fraigneau, ‘I had to make the magic direct, without ever using the laboratory’) Thus it was a labour of love to get that gloved hand immersed in mercury, expensive and volatile stuff, with the added aggravation of cloudiness and floating dirt and the need for repeated polishing to preserve its reflective surface….

The mirrors of Orphée and Cocteau’s poetic use of them were (yes) a direct influence on the black-magical mirror in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest: ‘a huge, oval-shaped cheval glass, its frame carved from black walnut, crested by a garlanded cartouche with a relief of serpents sinuously entwined’, and with ‘a pleasing wear and mottle to the plate glass.’ Similarly my Dijana Vukovara character, with her ‘dark chocolate’ hair, her rather French and ‘slightly imperfect’ good looks, her dress of ‘ black watered silk, bias cut on the bodice, with a voluminous skirt, bluish in its blackness where the light from the chandeliers rippled’… All of this bears a certain resemblance to Cocteau’s rather divine Princess/Death, Maria Casarès.
It’s said that Cocteau had really wanted either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich for the role. Fine, but they couldn’t have held a candle to Casarès. Born in Galicia, her family exiled by the Civil War, she trained at the Paris Conservatoire and entered movies formidably with Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis and Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. When first we and Jean Marais meet her in Orphée, it’s during daylight hours at a literary café. She’s the testy patron to the loutish young poet Cegeste, and she looks a tad mannish – black dress and bolero, gloves and pearls, hair scraped back, a hard smoker. But after she’s swept away in her black sedan with leather-clad outriders, we begin to realise she needs the night and a key light on her face to flourish.
After dark we start to notice her figure, the gloss of her hair, the grain of her voice, her ability to raise the dead and walk through a mirror as though it were water… ‘Did you expect a shroud and scythe?’, she murmurs. ‘If I appeared to mortals in the guise they expect it would make our task more difficult…’ Despite her powers, she is compelled to face an underworld tribunal on account of her feelings for Orphée. (‘I have no right to love. Yet I do.’) There are, of course, heavy gay undertones here, and the exquisiteness of the Princess’s desire is somewhat diminished by Marais’s Orpheus being the object of it. But as a viewer I can ignore/forgive all that, so fine is Casarès in every respect. In life she was also for several years the lover of Albert Camus, who clearly knew even more than he’s credited for.

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