Jean Cocteau, who earned a reputation in the '20s as a "mad genius," made his film debut as the writer, director, and narrator of this haunting masterpiece. Like an artist splashing paint on a canvas, Cocteau created a mesmerizing collage of allegories and images full of visual symbolism and abstract effects. In what is still considered one of cinema's greatest experiments, Cocteau exposes his private demons to public scrutiny as he explores how artists become obsessed with their own creations.
"A realistic documentary of unreal situations" reads the introductory card of Jean Cocteau's debut film, which recalls the work of the silent surrealists (notably Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou and L'Âge d'Or). Cocteau uses dream imagery to explore poetry, artistic creation, memory, death, and rebirth in four separate fantasy sequences. In the first scene, an artist confronts his creations when they take on a life of their own. In the second, he dives through a mirror (a primitive but startling effect Cocteau refines for Orpheus) and into a skewed hall where every door reveals a fantastic dream scene. The third sequence finds a gang of boys turning a snowball fight into a cruel war, and in the last an audience gathers to witness a dead boy's resurrection amidst a strange card game. These descriptions do little to communicate the poetry of each segment, which rely on creative imagery to create meaning not in stories but in symbols and metaphors. Cocteau's realization is often stiff and stilted, the work of a visual artist transforming still images into an medium that moves through time, but it's never less than beautiful and evocative. Cocteau returned to many of the same themes in Orpheus and The Testament of Orpheus. --Sean Axmaker