Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus was released in France in 1949. The actors include: Jean Marais (as Orpheus), Maria Casarès (as the Princess of Death), Marie Déa (as Eurydice), and François Périer (as Heurtibise). The film was written and directed by Jean Cocteau. The cinematography was by Nicolas Hayer, music by Georges Auric, and the film was produced by Emil Darbon.
The film is based on the legend of Orpheus. Cocteau narrates an introduction to the film, in which he tells us that, according to legend, Orpheus was a remarkable singer. Orpheus was distracted by his own songs when his wife Eurydice died, and he then descended into Hades where he was reunited with her. They were allowed to leave Hades, on the condition that he not look back at her as they were leaving. But he looked back at her, and she was lost to him forever.
As the film opens, the poet Orpheus is sitting in a Parisian café, the Café of the Poets. Another young poet, Jacques Cégeste, arrives, and is accompanied by a mysterious woman known as the Princess. Cégeste is drunk, and gets into a brawl. The police arrive, and when Cégeste resists being arrested, he is run over and killed by a motorcyclist. The motorcylist leaves the scene of the hit-and-run accident.
The Princess takes Cégeste’s body away in her limousine, accompanied by Orpheus. The limousine is joined along the road by the group of motorcyclists who apparently killed Cégeste. They arrive at the villa of the Princess. Orpheus demands to know what is going on.
The Princess sits in front of a mirror, and it cracks. She raises Cégeste from the dead, and swears him to obey her. She takes Cégeste with her as she walks through a mirror in the wall. Orpheus tries to follow her, but he remains in the real world.
Orpheus falls asleep in front of the mirror, and wakes up on a sand dune. He walks toward the limousine of the Princess, and the chauffeur takes him home. Eurydice has heard about the accident, and is worried about where he has been. Eurydice wants to tell Orpheus that she is pregnant, but he is too preoccupied to listen to her. Heurtebise, the chauffeur, talks with Eurydice. They are attracted to each other. Heurtebise tells Eurydice that he has committed suicide over an unhappy love affair. Heurtebise is actually a ghost. The Princess is also a ghost.
Orpheus listens to messages that are being transmitted on the radio of the limousine. The messages are being sent from the underworld by Cégeste, the young poet killed in the accident. Orpheus is so preoccupied that Eurydice tells him that if she were to die, he would not notice her.
Orpheus catches a glimpse of the Princess, and runs after her, but cannot find her. Eurydice runs out into the road, and is run over by one of the motorcyclists. The Princess and Heurtebise bring Eurydice’s body back to her bedroom.
The Princess reveals that, though she is like a ghost, she is an eternal being. Heurtebise is in love with Eurydice, and the Princess is in love with Orpheus. Orpheus is listening to the radio messages in the limousine, and is so preoccupied that he does not hear the warning of Heurtebise that Eurydice is dying.
The Princess raises Eurydice from the dead, and leads her through the mirror in the wall of the bedroom. They descend into the underworld. Cégeste follows them, and the mirror closes after they have entered.
Heurtebise informs Orpheus that Eurydice is dead. Heurtebise also tells Orpheus that the Princess represents Death, and that mirrors are doors through which Death comes and goes. If you look at yourself in a mirror for long enough, you will see Death appear.
Orpheus is so distraught by his wife’s death, that he wants to follow Eurydice into the underworld. Heurtebise gives him a pair of gloves, so that Orpheus can follow Heurtebise through the mirror into the underworld. Orpheus sees his own unhappiness in the mirror, but Heurtebise convinces him to believe in the possibility of entering the underworld, and leaving present-day reality.
Orpheus follows Heurtebise through the mirror, and walks in slow-motion through the underworld, as Heurtebise hovers ahead of him, leading the way.
The Princess appears before a tribunal. She is accused of having taken her own initiative in bringing Eurydice to the underworld. The panel of judges accuses Heurtebise and the Princess of having had personal reasons for prolonging their stay in the real world. The judges accuse the Princess of wanting Orpheus for herself, and she admits that she loves Orpheus.
The judges ask Heurtebise if he loves Eurydice, and Heurtebise admits that he loves her.
The judges pronounce the verdict that Orpheus will be freed, on the condition that he is silent about what he has seen in the underworld; and that Eurydice will be released, on the condition that Orpheus never look at her; if he looks at her, he will lose her forever.
Orpheus and Eurydice try to comply with the verdict, but when they are back at home they are sitting in their car, and he accidentally sees her in the rear-view mirror. She disappears immediately from the real world.
Orpheus is shot in a scuffle with the friends of Cégeste. Heurtebise, along with the motorcyclists who guard the Princess, takes Orpheus away in the limousine. Orpheus is led back to the underworld, where the Princess is waiting for him.
Orpheus and Heurtebise float sideways along a wall, and then go flying along a lonely street. Orpheus runs in slow-motion. When he meets the Princess, he embraces her. He tells her that she burns like ice, but she tells him that he still has a human warmth.
The Princess sacrifices her endless existence in the dead world, so that Orpheus may return to the living world. He walks backward through the mirror into Eurydice’s bedroom, where the dead Eurydice lays on her bed. Eurydice wakes up, and tells him that she has had a terrible nightmare.
Heurtebise watches as they embrace each other. Orpheus and Eurydice rejoice that they are reunited with each other, and that they will have a child.
As the film ends, Heurtebise and the Princess are arrested, and are led away by the guards in the underworld.
Themes of the film include the contrast between reality and illusion, between dreams and the waking world. The film also deals with the poet’s preoccupation with death and immortality. The Princess (who is Death) is attracted to Orpheus, and he is attracted to her.
The film also centers upon the relationship of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the importance of their commitment to each other. Orpheus and Eurydice are each distracted by the illusion of falling in love with others who do not really exist. They return to everyday reality to realize the importance of the love which they feel for each other.