Mark, being a wise and generous editor, allowed his contributors a fairly catholic definition of 'horror' -- Jo Fletcher wrote about Carousel, for example -- which meant I could slip in a piece about a movie that, while not exactly a shoo-in for the torture-porn crowd's seal of approval, is nevertheless a milestone of the fantastic and a recognised classic of world cinema. Here 'tis:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the golden road to Samarkand.
-- Hassan, James Elroy Flecker
Orphee, Jean Cocteau's poetic masterpiece of 1949, is a rich enough film to reward several different readings of its mysteries, while its ultimate meaning remains as elusive and intangible as the 'meaning' of the Mona Lisa. Cocteau himself had a superbly patrician contempt for the reductive nature of critical analysis anyway -- "Beauty detests ideas," he was quoted as saying. "She is sufficient unto herself." Still, at the risk of offending his departed spirit, I'd like to consider Cocteau's film, his beautiful mystery, from one particular angle.
Orphee has much in common with my two other favourite movies, King Kong (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). They're all three in black-and-white, all three fantastic in nature, and they're all three pretty much guaranteed to deliver a good time to even the most jaded of viewers. It's something else they have in common, though, that makes them my own particular holy trinity of cinefantastique. All three of them could be called -- were one to reluctantly don one's pretentious hat for a moment -- examples of Gnostic Cinema, by which I mean that all three of them are overtly about what all horror/fantasy is so often covertly about; the quest for knowledge. Forbidden knowledge, to be specific -- knowledge that is arcane, occult, metaphysical.
Now, it's of course true that many a thoroughly enjoyable but less imaginatively courageous B-movie is fuelled by something similar -- a mad scientist's search for the secret of life, for example, or a bunch of Nazis' quest for the Ark of the Covenant -- but the difference in Orphee (and in Kong and Bride, for that matter) is that the search for knowledge -- the lust of knowing what should not be known -- is celebrated, either textually or sub-rosa, rather than condemned.
In Cocteau's film, the secret being sought is, on one level, the secret of artistic success. Orphee (Jean Marais), once the hottest poet in post-war Paris, is being supplanted by a bunch of young turks (whose flagship journal, Nudisme, consists -- hilariously but significantly -- of blank pages) and wants to get his mojo back. Thanks in part to secret and surreal messages broadcast over a ham radio (in scenes consciously reminiscent of wartime transmissions to the French resistance), he begins to get a clue. It's another clue, however -- the one which comes in the frighteningly delicious form of Maria Casares as cinema's ultimate femme fatale -- which modulates the sought-after secret into a matter of life and death.
All supernatural movies are about the relationship between the rational and the irrational. And the good ones, I suggest, are about reading that relationship as a romance rather than anything else. Metaphorically, they are about our urge -- acknowledged or otherwise -- to consummate our blinkered lives with the unblinkered Beyond. The reductio ad absurdum of many of these pictures, good or bad, is "There's a girl and there's a monster and he'll do his best to get her". And when the monster proceeds to do his best, when the surface message becomes that he wants to cut her up or bring her to the dark side or impregnate her with the devil's seed or generally give her a good seeing-to for having had unmarried sex with some other beautiful teenager, the sub-textual message is much simpler: He Wants Her. The heroine has been chosen as the Bride of the Uncanny. She must be taken. And any rival males must be destroyed. What's fascinating in Orphee is that the genders are reversed. Though Orphee will ultimately play the questing male when his own wife Eurydice (Marie Dea) is taken into the underworld, he is also the 'bride' at whom Death has set her cap -- Death here being incarnated by the aforementioned Casares as a Princess from another country who drives her Rolls Royce, along with its motorcycle outriders, between the worlds of the living and the dead.
A superficial psychological explanation of that gender switch is the fact that Cocteau was gay, but that does a disservice to the real radicalness of the idea. In Orphee, the questing gnostic hero (here artist rather than scientist, interestingly) can become the centerpiece of his own story, can be a Carl Denham who needs no Ann Darrow to mediate between him and Kong, can be a Henry Frankenstein (or a Dr. Pretorious) who needs reanimate no dead female flesh to glimpse the mystery.
Much of Cocteau's work in the cinema has an overtly otherworldly quality, whether it be the surrealist dreamscape of Le Sang d'un Poete or the fairy tale worlds of L'Eternel Retour or La Belle et la Bete. Orphee, on the other hand, has the look and feel of the kind of unblinking monochromatic neo-realism that became dominant in much post-war European cinema. It nonetheless remains an unapologetic tale of the supernatural, and one which paradoxically gains power from its quotidian portrayal of post-occupation Paris while ultimately transcending it; the magic emerges from the mundane rather than from denying it -- and is all the more magical for it, a diamond that shines not in a jeweler's prepared setting but in, and because of, the rough rock through which it sparkles.
Recasting the Orpheus myth in a Parisian demi-monde where the most venal of motives (the snatching of someone else's work to restore a vanishing fame) can lead to the most transcendent of fates (a trip through the looking-glass and the unconditional, and ultimately self-sacrificing, love of an Elemental), Cocteau creates a world of beautiful cruelty and unexpected grace. Despite the narrative's humanist and sweetly satisfying ending in which the mortal lovers are reunited, Eurydice is experientially its almost disregarded victim; all human affections are as nothing, the film seems to say (albeit with poignant regret) to the romance of the poet and his muse. Even when -- especially when -- that muse is Death.