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Orpheus

Orpheus

Orpheus

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1950 / 95min / 35mm

DIRECTOR: JEAN COCTEAU

CAST: JEAN MARAIS, FRANçOIS PéRIER, MARíA CASARES

Cocteau’s Orpheus is a film I saw several times on television. Like many other young intellectuals, I fell in love with his cinematic masterpiece Beauty & the Beast. I own it, along with Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus. Orpheus per se is a recreation of Cocteau’s play of the same title, with a number of eccentric changes. I’d read the play, along with the translation of Infernal Machine (his retelling of Oedipus), in elementary school, along with books like Mr. Thompkins in Wonderland and a lot of books on math and calculus, as well as the science fiction of Sturgeon, Heinlein, and Bester. In terms of message and influence, it was simply the realization that fantasy can be both beautiful and intellectual at once.

Orpheus is an allegory of the relationship between poetry and death in terms of a modern retelling of the old myth—something that many readers of my own early work regularly accused me of doing. Often, they would look for mythological resonances where there were none because, somehow, one mythic suggestion sent them off reading significance into everything. I do remember one viewing of Orpheus, however, when I saw it on the television for the first time. I watched it very carefully sometime in the ’70s or ’80s, and while one after the other of the special effects looked incredibly clunky (and I had read several books on how they had been achieved), the final scene with the black motorcyclist taking both death and the poet off into darkness suddenly caused me to have incredible goosebumps.

It only happened that once, and I have never been able to make it occur again, but perhaps, for some of you who have or haven’t read the original play, it will do something similar.

Notes by Samuel R. Delany

Screening in the series Delanymania.