Mondes européens

Jean Cocteau and the Orphic Trilogy


In 1964, an interview with the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) was published posthumously in The Paris Review.  In the 1963 interview, toward the end of his life, Cocteau enunciates some of his thoughts about his own work and its popular and critical reception:  “I [have] long said art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious”;  “The work of every creator is autobiography, even if he does not know it or wish it, even if his work is ‘abstract’”;  “Appreciation of art is a moral erection”; and “it seems to me nearly the whole of [my] work can be read as indirect spiritual autobiography,” he says.[1]  These pronouncements amount to a hypothesis about his process and his product.  Cocteau attends to both the conscious work of art-making and to the unconscious effort therein.  The conscious and the unconscious exist in tandem and can only be described in their symbiotic relationship, their “marriage.”  Sexuality is an inextricable, indeed, a “moral” element of his art.  This sexuality is queer:  the sex is masculine and is concerned with masculine beauty (his “appreciation” is an “erection”).  Abstraction does not impute illegibility, although even the artist himself is not always aware of the implications of his art.  Above all, all work, all art is autobiographical, a reflection of the self, and the totality of an œuvre is nothing less than a life itself.  Cocteau himself can be read in his work as much as his work can be read for itself.

The most singular and extended project of Cocteau’s œuvre is the Orphic trilogy, three films which take the myth of Orpheus as their point de départ and never look back (unlike Orpheus himself).  These films are Le Sang d’un poète (1930), Orphée (1950), and Le Testament d’Orphée (1959).  The trilogy took thirty years to complete and a lifetime to achieve.  The films represent a sustained inquiry into the nature of art, particularly poetry, and poetry’s inescapable hold on Cocteau’s life.  Poetry was everything for Cocteau, and everything was poetry: “He was the most self-proclaimed of poets, to the extent that he rigorously classified all his great variety of work, his poems, novels, plays, essays, drawings, and films, under the headings of ‘poésiepoésie de roman, poésie de théâtre, poésie critique, poésie graphique and poésie cinématographique.’ ” (Steegmuller 4)

This last category of poésie cinématographique has proven to encompass some of Cocteau’s most enduring work.  Certainly, his other mytho-poetic film La Belle et la bête (1946) remains his most famous work.   With its fabulous décors, poetic dialogue, and larger-than-life performances, as well as its appeal to both children and adults, that film is Cocteau’s most renowned example of his poésie cinématographique.  But in the figure of Orpheus, Cocteau found the ultimate expression for his poetical sentiments, after imaginatively transforming the ancient singer into a poet, thus permitting Orpheus to stand in for Cocteau in the “indirect spiritual autobiography” that is the trilogy.

For Cocteau, everything he produced was some kind of poetry, which would fall under the classifications listed above:  “With regard to Cocteau’s poetic philosophy…the artist’s definition of “poetry” stands for an “artistic creation,” regardless of genre of form and, accordingly, a “poet” is simply a “creator of art”” (Evans 163).  A poem – in this case, a cinematic poem – is the poet’s product, and he may not be totally aware of its import.  “Art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious,” as Cocteau said, so he is not entirely in control of his creation.  He is the conduit of poems, which must be “deciphered” as coded messages from somewhere beyond:  “The poet’s sole duty is to act as a communicator of the coded enigmas that originate from deep within himself but which are not his” (Evans 163).  This idea is first presented at the beginning of Le Sang d’un poète and is later dramatized in Orphée as mysterious radio transmissions which resemble poems.  The viewer’s task is to decode these messages – these poems – to understand and appreciate them.  In this essay, I will rely on Cocteau’s biography as well as a queer aesthetic to unlock the meaning of these films, just as Cocteau relied on the figure of Orpheus to unlock his own poetry.

The most famous of the legends about Orpheus concerns his marriage to Eurydice, her premature death, and his unprecedented journey to the underworld to retrieve her.  This story comes to us primarily from the Metamorphoses of Ovid and the Georgics of Virgil.  Orpheus is a musician in Thrace in ancient Greece, where he sings and plays the lyre to great renown.  He is married to Eurydice, who, shortly after their wedding, is bitten by a snake on the ankle, dies, and descends into the underworld.  Overcome by his grief and love, Orpheus attempts to follow her there, where he entreats Persephone and Hades to allow Eurydice to return to life.  Orpheus sings and plays so movingly that neither can deny him his request.  Eurydice is permitted to return to the land of the living with Orpheus, but under a particular condition:  that Orpheus not look at her until they reach the surface of the Earth, otherwise she will die again, and permanently.  The singer and his bride, still limping from her wound, retreat from the underworld.  Just before the surface, Orpheus, seized by love, turns and regards his beloved, his outstretched arms searching for her embrace.  Eurydice then dies a second death.  Virgil has her castigate her grieving husband, demanding, “What was it, what madness, Orpheus, was it, that has destroyed us, you and me?” (179);  in Ovid, she merely pronounces the word “farewell” (267) then disappears.  Orpheus aims to cross the river Styx a second time to fetch her again but is prevented from doing so:  he has lost Eurydice forever.  In Ovid’s telling, he sits by the river for seven days, bemoaning Hades’ empty promise;  in Virgil’s account, he sits for seven months, weeping and singing his story in song.  For the rest of his days, Orpheus refuses the love of other women, either to maintain his wedding vow to Eurydice or simply out of incurable grief.  In Ovid, in fact, Orpheus turns his affections to young men, essentially initiating homosexual practice in Thrace.  Virgil recounts a far more sinister fate:  the roaming Bacchantes murder him, tearing him limb from limb, possibly because he spurned their advances or refused to worship these women’s god.  The legend of Orpheus has inspired myriad works of art across the centuries, perhaps most famously Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridiceand Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, both of which impact the Orphic trilogy (for example, instrumental sections of Gluck’s score are utilized in the film Orphée).

Cocteau had treated the Orpheus myth before he created his three films.  He wrote a play called Orphée in 1925, which was presented in 1926 at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris.  (His film Orphée is not an adaptation of this piece, although they share several attributes.)  In this play, the poet Orphée and his wife Eurydice live in a mock-Grecian villa where Orphée keeps a horse in the house that mysteriously transmits poetic messages to the bard, one letter at a time.  The horse’s latest message is “Madame Eurydice reviendra des enfers” (an acrostic composition which produces the word “merde”), to Eurydice’s confusion and consternation.  She has a habit of breaking windowpanes in order for her only friend, the glazier Heurtebise, to have to pay a visit to repair them.  One day, while Orphée is away, Eurydice receives a poisoned letter, which kills her.  As she is dying, she sends Heurtebise away to find Orphée;  she retreats upstairs to expire.  On the empty stage, Death and two of her accomplices emerge magically from a large mirror.  Death appears as a beautiful young woman with long rubber gloves.  Together the three are processing Eurydice’s death, which somehow requires an elaborate machine.  They finish up and disappear via the mirror, leaving the gloves behind forgetfully, just as Orphée and Heurtebise return to find Eurydice’s corpse.  Heurtebise, who knows about such things, informs Orphée of what has happened and how he can possibly rectify it.  He is to enter the mirror and descend into the underworld, offering to return Death’s gloves in exchange for the chance for his wife to live again.  Wearing the gloves, Orphée penetrates the mirror and disappears;  mere moments later, he returns, followed by Eurydice.  The condition for her return is the same as in the myth – he cannot look upon her.  Only now, in Cocteau’s version, they cross the barrier into the world of the living successfully.  The horse’s prophecy comes true:  Madame Eurydice revient des enfers!  However, the arrangement persists beyond their return home:  Orphée cannot look upon Eurydice ever again.  This results in some light comedy as the couple negotiate their new existence, Eurydice attempting to serve lunch, for example, without meeting Orphée’s eyes.  In a fit of irritation, “il perd l’équilibre,” and Orphée sees Eurydice.  She disappears immediately (ostensibly through a trap door during a brief blackout).  In fact, Orphée claims to have done it “exprès,” which injures the heartsick Heurtebise.

The “tragédie” continues ever more outlandishly as the Bacchantes pursue Orphée, eventually decapitating him offstage.  Orphée’s head, which continues to speak, plays out scenes with a police inspector and a court clerk as Eurydice emerges again from the mirror to take his “invisible” body back through to the underworld.  When the head is asked its name, it responds “Jean Cocteau”;  its address, Cocteau’s famed residence, “Rue d’Anjou, 10”;  its birthplace, Cocteau’s:  Maisons-Laffitte, outside of Paris.  Clearly, the author identifies with Orphée and self-identifies before an audience.  “Le décor monte au ciel,” state the stage directions, and suddenly Orphée and Eurydice’s home is in heaven.  Through the same mirror arrive a fully intact Orphée, Eurydice, and Heurtebise, who is actually an “ange gardien.”  Orphée prays before their midday meal to give thanks to God who has saved him as well as to Eurydice, who has killed the horse, which was really a devil in the form of a horse.  “Nous vous remercions de m’avoir sauvé parce que j’adorais la poésie et que la poésie c’est vous,” pronounces Orphée, “Ainsi soit-il” (Orphée [play] 422).  This bizarre rewriting of the Orpheus myth exalts “la poésie” above all else, even above Orphée and Eurydice’s mythic love, even though the poetry emitted by the horse was the words of a devil.

Already in his exploration of Orpheus’ story, Cocteau envisions the hero as a poet, a famous poet, and imagines a modicum of marital strife between Orphée and Eurydice.  His Orphée is captive to strange messages coming from strange sources (the horse).  There is a beautiful woman who is Death, and her long gloves allow access through the magical mirror, which leads to the underworld.  These and other elements will reappear throughout the trilogy, not only in the film Orphée.  Most importantly, Cocteau sees himself in Orphée, in the decapitated head of the poet – they have the same name, same address, same hometown, same history.  Orphée is also a poet, not a musician, so for Cocteau, a poet, his identification with Orpheus is creatively complete.  However, in a classical context, the distinction between a singer and a poet would not have been as rigid as our modern definitions are;  Orpheus plays the lyre and sings along with it, creating “lyric” poetry.  So he was already a kind of poet – it was not too far a stretch for Cocteau to insist upon this in his play.  Imagining himself in mythic terms, Cocteau rewrites not only the legend of Orpheus but his own (self-aggrandizing) legend.  This ability to see himself in such enormous proportions will sustain him in the creation of the trilogy.  Orpheus is his mirror, his means of reflecting back to himself his artistic identity.  He gazes upon his own image even as he redraws that image in mythic, eternal dimensions.

Cocteau was a great admirer of the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Bernstock 165), whose German-language Sonnets to Orpheus appeared in 1922.  Cocteau spoke and read German after being raised by a German nurse.  Surely, these fifty-five sonnets informed Cocteau’s vision of Orpheus as a man and as a myth.  One sonnet in particular may have inspired his idea of the mirror:

Mirrors, no one has ever yet described

you, figured out what you honestly are.

You are merely a few sieve holes inscribed

on sliced regions of time hopelessly far.


You are the prodigals of the empty chamber

when dusk spreads on the woods enormously…

Like a sixteen-pointed stag the chandelier

strides through your impenetrability.


Sometimes you’re full of paintings.  And a few

seem to be brushed right into your background

while others you’ve sent timidly away.


But the most beautiful of them will stay

till bright Narcissus catches and breaks through

to her chaste lips hidden in the beyond.  (Rilke 161)

Rilke inserts a motif of mirrors into the myth of Orpheus in only one of his many sonnets, but Cocteau becomes obsessed with them.  “No one has ever yet described/you, figured out what you honestly are,” was a challenge to Cocteau.  He takes up this task in his play Orphée and in the two films, Le Sang d’un poèteand Orphée.  The mirror becomes one of his signature motifs.  In the play Orphée, Heurtebise announces “le secret des secrets” to Orphée:  “Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient.  Ne le dites à personne.  Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la Mort travailler comme des abeilles dans une ruche de verre” (406).  In Le Sang d’un poète, the titular poet enters and exits a strange other world through a mirror (actually a pool of water).  In the film Orphée, several characters including Orphée and Heurtebise traverse a tri-partite dressing mirror (in this case, liquid mercury).  As Death comes and goes through mirrors, so we see Death working in the mirror – that is, as we regard ourselves in the mirror, we watch ourselves aging, inching ever closer to inevitable mortality.  The journey that Orpheus undertakes as he tempts fate and tests death is contained in a single glance in the mirror:  unconsciously, we meet Death in the mirror but insist we see Life and eventually, we turn away.

Mirrors do not appear in Ovid’s or Virgil’s tellings of the Orpheus myth.  The mirror motif comes to us instead from Narcissus, as Rilke observes.  Cocteau’s singular invention is to synthesize these two disparate figures – Orpheus and Narcissus – and their stories into one compelling, poetic narrative.  The myth of Narcissus also comes to us via Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of a beautiful young man who denies the advances of women and other young men.  The nymph Echo falls desperately in love with him, but when he refuses her, she wastes away in her grief until nothing remains but her voice, which only repeats what Narcissus says – hence, an echo, a verbal mirror.  As punishment for spurning so many would-be lovers, the goddess of revenge, Nemesis, leads Narcissus to a clear reflecting pool, where he spies his own image, with which he falls instantly in love.  However, this love remains entirely elusive;  it can’t be kissed or held, “an immaterial hope,/a shadow that he wrongly takes for substance” (Ovid 77).  Paralyzed by his overwhelming love, Narcissus wastes away unto death at the side of the reflecting pool, forever transfixed by his own image.  In some versions of the myth, he drowns trying to reach his love in the pool.  Just as in the last stanza of Rilke’s sonnet, Narcissus in fact “breaks through” the pool to enter “the beyond.”

Narcissus falls in love with his mirror image;  the pool is a mirror which contains his death as well as the object of his love.  At the same time, Cocteau’s Orpheus looks at and even enters into a mirror which is the doorway to death, where he must seek his love, Eurydice.  For both Narcissus and Cocteau’s Orpheus, the mirror is the locus of love and death.  Then, with mathematical precision, the two myths converge.  Orpheus and Narcissus merge in the mirror, and the poet falls in love with Death.

Jean Cocteau was born outside of Paris, at Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, on July 5, 1889.  His father, Georges Cocteau, was a lawyer and amateur artist.  When Cocteau was nine years old, his father shot himself in the head with a pistol in his bed and died.  His reasons appeared to have been financial worries, which proved unfounded.  Decades later, Cocteau alluded to his hypothesis that his father was a closeted homosexual and, unable to repress his true nature, self-annihilated.  Cocteau was an unsuccessful and indifferent student and was expelled from the Lycée Condorcet.  At fifteen, he ran away for a year to Marseille, where he undoubtedly had his first sexual experiences with men and with women.  (In Le Livre blanc, he describes a peep show there starring working-class young men, viewed voyeuristically…through a two-way mirror.)

By eighteen, Cocteau was already something of poetic prodigy.  In 1908, the theatrical producer Édouard de Max arranged for a matinée poétique at the Théâtre Fémina in Paris where the guests allegedly included the great Sarah Bernhardt (Williams 2008, 31).  It was a resounding success and led to overnight fame amongst the Paris literati and to Cocteau’s first publication of poems, La Lampe d’Aladin, in 1909.  Le Prince frivole appeared the next year, although its title stuck to Cocteau as a somewhat condescending nickname for almost the rest of his career.  Still, he soon became acquainted with an entire world of poets, painters, actors, dancers, choreographers, composers, artistes all.  However, as “just” le prince frivole, the young Cocteau was not always taken as seriously as he considered his artistic ambitions should be.  One moment stands out in his development of this time.  While crossing the Place de la Concorde one evening in 1912, Cocteau heard the voice of the founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, who viewed the little prince as little more than that.  “Étonne-moi!” Diaghilev most famously bellowed, “I’ll wait for you to astound me!”  (Williams 2008, 49)  The challenge was declared.  Cocteau would be seeking to étonner for the rest of his life.

By 1917, he was doing just that.  His first full-length work for the stage was the libretto to the ballet Parade, created for the Ballets Russes, which had music by Éric Satie and décors by Pablo Picasso;  the dancing was choreographed by Léonide Massine, who appeared in the production as well.  Cocteau would continue his association with Picasso throughout his life – he even appears in Le Testament d’Orphée.  But Cocteau’s most important relationships, romantic and platonic, were soon to come.  Three men in particular were to exercise an enormous influence on his personal and artistic life:  Raymond Radiguet, Jean Marais, and Édouard Dermithe.

Cocteau met the fifteen-year-old Radiguet, a poet in the making, in 1918.  It is now generally accepted that Cocteau, at least, was deeply in love with Radiguet;  whether that relationship was consummated is open to question.  They collaborated extensively, they traveled together, and Cocteau supported Radiguet financially through the writing of his novel (the only one published in his lifetime), the scandalous Le Diable au corps, which appeared in 1923 (Steegmuller 305).  That same year, Radiguet died suddenly of typhoid fever, which he had contracted on vacation with Cocteau.  Le Diable au corps deals explicitly with the relationship of a teenage boy with a married, slightly older woman, and as an artifact of Radiguet’s life, it has usually been used to insist upon his heterosexuality.  What is not in question is the great feeling that Cocteau had for the young man;  poems and drawings exist, some rather sexual and romantic, that attest to Cocteau’s love for Radiguet.  Upon Radiguet’s death, Cocteau was so overtaken by grief that he did not attend Radiguet’s funeral and soon slipped into opium addiction, which would plague him for the rest of his life.  This experience of losing a loved one far too soon, so inexplicably, so fast, would haunt his entire œuvre.  No other relationship would come close to satisfying Cocteau’s idealization of this lost young love.

However, Cocteau did engage in numerous other relationships, mostly homosexual, and often quite openly.  He was the known lover of the actor Jean Marais during Marais’ rise to fame onstage and onscreen, which was due primarily to Cocteau’s intervention.  They met in 1937 when Marais auditioned successfully for a chorus part in Cocteau’s play Œdipe-Roi.  Marais ultimately became something of a matinée idol, prized for his golden-boy good looks, if not always valued for his skills as a performer.  This was perhaps best exemplified by Cocteau’s 1943 adaptation of the Tristan and Yseult myth, L’Éternel Retour, directed by Jean Dellanoy, which starred Marais and Madeleine Sologne.  The film played upon the stars’ great beauty as indicative of their mythic stature.  Marais’s desire for real recognition of his acting talent was how he convinced Cocteau to film La Belle et la bête in 1945.  By spending half of the film made up unrecognizably as the horrible Beast, as well as by playing another, far different character in the film, the handsome Avenant, Marais achieved a double success:  he proved his actor’s craft with the two wildly disparate roles, and he overcame his remarkable beauty as the ugly but affecting beast.  Marais would go on to star in Cocteau’s adaptations of his own novels, L’Aigle à deux têtes and Les Parents terribles, both released in 1948.  As a central figure in Cocteau’s creative imagination, his muse, Marais also plays an important role in the Orphic trilogy:  indeed, he is Orphée in the film Orphée in 1950, and he has a cameo in Le Testament d’Orphée nine years later.

This trajectory mirrors Marais’ romantic involvement with Cocteau.  By the time of Orphée, Marais and Cocteau were drifting apart, and Cocteau became infatuated anew with the actor and painter, Édouard Dermithe (also spelled Dermit), thirty-five years younger than he.  Dermithe appears in small roles in some of Cocteau’s films but emerges most prominently in Orphée and Le Testament d’Orphée.  In both films, he plays the character of Cégeste, the young poet felled at the height of his fame and power.  In a strange twist, the childless Cocteau eventually adopted the adult Dermithe as his son, making him the guardian of his legacy after his death.

So Cocteau’s biography includes his homosexual (and occasional, or purported, heterosexual) relationships, so his “indirect spiritual autobiography” reflects these queer aspects.  Cocteau utilizes the myth of Narcissus specifically for his association with homosexuality, as the generator of his queer aesthetic.  Narcissus is, of course, a male adoring another male, even as it is himself – love of sameness merges with love of self.  Male homosexuality, from a psychoanalytical point of view, was at least at one time strongly correlated with narcissism and discussed as one reading of the Narcissus myth.  For Freud, this emerged first in an essay on Leonardo da Vinci in which he links “autoerotism, homosexuality, and narcissism” for the first time (Dean 123).  Essentially, the homosexual represses his overwhelming love for his mother and substitutes himself, or versions of himself, in her place, giving rise to an attraction to other individuals who resemble him, which replaces his infantile self-love.  This homosexual orientation leads to a bleak end:  “We know that narcissism must be pathogenic because of Narcissus’s fate, and so, by virtue of the intuitive association between self-love and love of the same, homosexuality takes over this connotation of impending doom” (Dean 123).  Partly because homosexuals, in an ideal narcissistic state, do not reproduce, homosexuality is linked with death;  Narcissus leaves no legacy but his story.  These ideas would persist in Freud’s On Narcissism in 1914, albeit somewhat more sympathetically to the homosexual.  This is the poetic conception of homosexuality with which Cocteau works, one where same-sex love is a ‘zero-sum game’ because reproduction is impossible.  There is little productive relation with difference between partners;  indeed, the attraction is based on their similarity.  Lovers cancel each other out, rather than compliment one another.  Their love is thus something annulled, sterile, even dead – regardless of personal pleasure.  For Cocteau, the mathematics of homosexuality always add up to nil.  From this viewpoint, which I certainly do not endorse, except poetically, Cocteau envisions the overlapping of this queer love with its self-evident demise, so that sex and mortality collide, and Orpheus can entertain a romance with Death.

In the creative world, this characterization of a queer Narcissus probably emerged most vividly with the life and work of Oscar Wilde, and indeed, Cocteau himself was inspired by the Irish poet.  Cocteau composed poems based on Wilde’s Salomé as well as two odes which associate Wilde with gay love in Le Prince frivole.  Most tantalizingly, Cocteau worked on an unpublished and unproduced theatricalization of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, composed sometime around 1908 in collaboration with Jacques Renaud and entitled Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray (Eells 92).  Thematically, for the first time, we find one of Cocteau’s inspirations for the mirror, for Wilde’s picture of Dorian Gray, though a painting, acts as a sort of moral mirror for the libertine title character.  As the immortally beautiful Dorian never ages or changes, his painted portrait does, showing the slow corruption caused by his hedonistic lifestyle.  It is all too apparent how this concept worked upon Cocteau:  Wilde’s picture is literally a living mirror, reflecting the outer and inner character of the subject.  Dorian is also a Narcissus figure, so in love with the beauty of the original painting – that is, in love with an image of himself – that he trades immortality for that beauty.  Dorian remains as eternally beautiful as ever as his portrait suffers the blows of crime and age.  Disgusted, he eventually attacks the now horrible portrait and in doing so, kills himself.  Love of self, narcissistic love, love of male beauty, all commingle in the magical, living portrait which mirrors the actual effects of Dorian’s unspeakable crimes.  Cocteau imaginatively translates this into an actual mirror and creates one of his signature motifs, while shedding some of the moralizing to which Wilde’s novel was subject, which required major revisions for publication.  Cocteau’s unfinished work on Wilde reconstitutes itself in these Orphic films and others.  Perhaps the most verifiable relation between Cocteau’s mirror and Wilde’s picture actually appears in La Belle et la bête:  when the morally hideous sisters hold up Belle’s magic mirror to gaze at themselves, they instead see to their consternation an ugly old woman and a raffish monkey, the reflections of their actual inner characters.

As the myth of Narcissus thus presents an avenue for Cocteau to explore gayness in his own work, so the myth of Orpheus provides an opportunity to revise and ultimately subvert a famously heterosexual paradigm.  It is, after all, the story of one of the great male-female love affairs, one which risks death to maintain itself.  However, there remains a queer element to the Orpheus story, in two particular ways.  One, plainly, is the fortune of Orpheus himself, who shunned female company for that of younger men after he loses Eurydice.  The second, more complicated relationship with homosexuality relates, unsurprisingly, to Narcissus and narcissism.  Orpheus the widower, with no offspring and only male lovers, is the homosexual man whose only end is death (even before, or despite, the violent attack of the Bacchantes).  Homosexual love, unlike heterosexual love, cannot reproduce and leave a physical and genetic legacy.  Love of sameness (homosexuality) – again, in this instance, a male adoring another male – is easily related to love of self (narcissism), so Orpheus falls into a narcissistic position as a homosexual man.  Indeed, his only real love after Eurydice is his art, a reflection of himself;  his male lovers resemble him and reflect his own desires back to him.  This theory of homosexuality and narcissism, initially proposed by Freud, infiltrates Cocteau’s œuvre and marks these Orphic films in particular as decidedly queer.  Of course, in our contemporary times, the general and scientific understanding of homosexuality is markedly different:  gay women and men are accepted in the wider society, and their orientation is no longer viewed as pathological.  However, to fully appreciate Cocteau’s work, we must immerse ourselves in his creative milieu.  These ideas about homosexuality then have a poetic resonance, which I identify as Cocteau’s queer aesthetic, even as they have been decidedly debunked in the past few decades.  By historicizing the homosexual elements present in Cocteau’s films, we can avoid affirming their essential negativity and appreciate them for their subversive qualities.

Both of these mythic personalities must meet death.  For each, death is implicated in their search for love.  Orpheus must overcome death to retrieve Eurydice from the underworld.  Narcissus’s dedication to his love results in his death, whether wasting away next to the pool of water or drowning in it (as we will see in Le Sang d’un poète, Cocteau prefers the action of drowning).  We must remember that Cocteau himself was rudely confronted by death both early in life (his father’s suicide) and in his own quest for true love (the untimely demise of Radiguet).  His identification with the mythic figures of Orpheus and Narcissus relies on their relationships to death – in fact, as we shall see in Orphée, these relationships to death sometimes even amount to love.

Love and death, eros and thanatos, are inextricably intertwined in the myths of Orpheus and Narcissus and offer Cocteau elaborate fodder for his own meditations on these mysteries.  He structures these films along Orphic and Narcissistic patterns as journeys into the unknown, through a magic portal (normally the mirror), requiring various accoutrements and guides.  We shall see the repetition and development of some of these devices across the Orphic trilogy.  These films may be viewed, through the lens of Orpheus, as sustained inquiries into the heterosexual relationships of characters derived from the ancient myth.  However, I will argue that Cocteau subverts this legend with a queer subtext characteristic particularly of Narcissus.  For audiences at the time, this subtext may or may not have been apparent – in the case of the most famous picture, Orphée, probably not.  My essay will reveal that a close analysis of the content and structure of these films indeed supports a queer aesthetic, under the sign of Narcissus as much as of Orpheus.

This queer aesthetic is two-fold.  Firstly, and more self-evidently, it privileges homoerotic forms and figures, such as the phallic crumbling tower in Le Sang d’un poète.  To decipher these forms and figures requires a sensitivity to queerness that stems from my personal history as well as from a more general study of erotics in literature and film.  Secondly, the queer aesthetic represents a disruption of the traditional, heteronormative paradigm in which most mainstream film is situated.  Especially for Orphée, the most mainstream of the three films, the queer aesthetic can be located where Cocteau subverts traditional notions of sexuality and gender, for example, in the character of the Princess, a female who is coded as male.  This subversion is pictoral as well, as Cocteau makes visual references that connect the three films to themes of homoerotic ecstasy that he introduces in Le Sang.

The visual component of the experience of these films is girded thematically as well by the myths of Orpheus and Narcissus.  They are both tales about looking – Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, Narcissus looking at himself – which upend our notions of the gaze, and specifically the erotic gaze.  Orpheus’s gaze at Eurydice is a look of love, but it actually promises her death.  Narcissus’s gaze at himself is equally as tender and as perilous, for he will drown in the pool which reflects that gaze.  That narcissistic regard, in turn, characterizes the entirety of the trilogy as it becomes clear that it functions as Cocteau’s “indirect spiritual autobiography.”  He trains his often homoerotic gaze on others, and eventually upon himself, in an exercise of extreme but poetic narcissism that supposedly reflects his full self.  He utilizes Orpheus and Narcissus for the mythic capital they have to spend:  they are stories which are flexible enough to withstand his rewriting and invention.

The site of their convergence is the mirror.  While Cocteau’s mirror shows quite a bit more than what it merely reverses, its foremost function is the reflection of identity.  It refracts the narcissistic gaze, sending back to Cocteau information about himself.  This identity is poetic and not literal.  Cocteau is analyzing his own identity in order to create a legacy – an identity which endures.  For this he reaches out to these mythic characters who have remained in our collective imagination over centuries.  He self-identifies with Orpheus and, as we have proposed, his corollary Narcissus in different ways in each film.  It can even be said that his self-identification with these figures deepens as the trilogy progresses.  He may or may not be the titular poet of Le Sang d’un poète, he is clearly an inspiration for Orphée in Orphée, and most obviously, he plays himself (or a version of himself) in Le Testament d’Orphée.  So his participation in the creation and dissemination of these films increases over time as the project slowly but surely delineates his “spiritual autobiography.”  His work is not merely autobiographical, however, as Cocteau operates in such mythic proportions.  He rewrites these myths to such an extent that they seem to emerge as much from his own imagination as from antiquity – what Clément Borgal calls his “mythologie personnelle,” populated with figures from his own life and conceived on his own terms, a constellation of lovers and others circling his own poetic stature (198).  Ultimately, Cocteau aims for the poetic immortality afforded to Orpheus and Narcissus, to myths in general.  While both characters perish (as does Cocteau), their stories persist in verse and in memory – in poetry.  Only by meeting death, as do Orpheus and Narcissus, can Cocteau achieve that kind of immortality.  Locating love and death in his famed mirror, Cocteau renews the power of these two myths to reflect his own artistic goal – hence the inscription on his tomb:  Je reste avec vous.

[1] “Jean Cocteau, The Art of Fiction No. 34.”  Interviewed by William Fifield.  The Paris Review 32 (Summer-Fall 1964).  Web. 22 May 2015.