Casares Through the Looking Glass


It had been YEARS since I watched Cocteau’s ORPHÉE, so when Fiona got a free copy from Criterion as reward to her contribution to my vid essay on CARNIVAL OF SOULS, I was eager to run it.

When I last saw it, did all the talk about the dead, who are forbidden to love, strike me as having resonance with Cocteau’s outlaw sexuality? I feel like it didn’t, but now it seems inescapable, though of course Cocteau was right to dismiss any overall symbolic intent. It’s more like the film tells its own story, quite literally and shamelessly, but also exists in a nexus of intersecting possible meanings, none of which is THE meaning.

Elaborating on the source myth, Cocteau creates two couples, except they’re not couples… another nexus is created, this time of yearning. There’s Jean Marais as the title poet-superstar (scarcely a plausible job description except when you remember, oh yeah, Cocteau was one), married to Eurydice, Marie Déa, whom he neglects. Then there’s Maria Casares as Death, or A Death anyhow, who is in love with Orph, and Heurtebise (François Périer), Death’s driver, a student who recently committed suicide, who falls in love with Mrs. O.


The black dress has changed to a white dress within the same scene. Apart from THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER, what other films do this?

By film’s end, throwing out the Greeks altogether, Cocteau has contrived an implausible happy ending for the living characters, while leaving the dead ones to face an uncertain but clearly unpleasant punishment for their transgressions against the Natural Order. And they’re not even facing this punishment along with the one/s they love. Death and her chauffeur enjoy a pretty snarky relationship through much of the film, but by the end they stand united, and Herteubise, along with Eurydice the one really sympathetic character, seems to respect Death for her sacrifice, for the way she’s put herself in harm’s way first to pursue the one she loves, then to make sure he’s OK.

The message would see to be: some (the living) have happiness as their right; others (the dead) are forbidden to love and are doomed to unhappiness.


Cocteau felt bad enough about this that he let the characters return in LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHÉE to give him a hard time for dropping them in it.

14 Responses to “Casares Through the Looking Glass”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Do you really find Eurydice sympathetic? I was bored to tears by her…and would have left her for the Princess, Cegeste, Aglaonice, virtually anyone really. But then, to use Cocteau’s symbolic terms, I am one of THE DEAD!

  2. “Herteubise” was inspired by beautiful young glazier Cocteau fell in love with years before and made part of Cocteau’s personal mythology. This glazier can be seen trundling through “The Zone.” But Perrier gets his name.

  3. The glazier’s great. Though he’s the wrong size when he drifts by in the froeground of the rear projection. Maybe an optical distortion caused by the Land of the Dead. A descendent of his makes a guest appearance in Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (a film seemingly planned as the lower half of a see-Venice-and-die double feature with Don’t Look Now).

    I guess Eurydice is more “sympathetic” than actually sympathetic — blameless rather than interesting. I liked how she blossomed under H’s attention, though — although she never notices that she’s blozzoming or that he’s responsible for it.

  4. When I visited Paris in 1984 I was extremely fortunate to see Patrice Chereau’s production of Genet’s “The Screens.” He cast Maria Casares in the pivotal role of The Mother. I had an aisle seat and she made her entrance from the audience RIGHT NEXT TO ME. I heard that voice and saw to my right an arm covered in jewels extended out and upwards. I was in HEAVEN.

    Also in the cast: Hermione Karagheuz (Out 1), David Bennent (The Tin Drum), and Pierre Malet (Laurent’s twin brother)

    In the immortal words of (the now sadly ailing) Mickey Cottrell “Leave it to Chereau to fall for the Rough Trade twin.”

  5. FreddieFoxFan Says:

    Any news on further screenings of Northleach Horror or further development into tv series/ longer film?

  6. Hey, random thought, but your observation on the dress changing color in the same scene brought to mind a bit from an X-Men comic (during the INFERNO crossover) where one of the villains, out on a date, shows her reality-warping powers by changing the style and cut of her dress from moment-to-moment, with no one (in that world) noticing.

    I read that Alan Moore did something similar in his run on CAPTAIN BRITAIN, so maybe Claremont aped Moore, who was in turn inspired by Cocteau or Greenaway?

  7. I love this bit.

  8. Oh yeah, I suppose we should count that one…

    Just saw more comic book apparel changing in one of Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey stories. Crow is given a hat, but it changes shape from panel to panel so he quietly ditches it.

    “I didn’t like it. It kept changing.” — forcing the reader to review the previous page and notice the truth of this assertion.

    Oh, and I hope to have more Northleach news soon…

  9. Bertrand Blier’s “Merci la Vie” features persistent and repeated costume changes in many scenes.

  10. That makes sense, since the film’s reality is in flux. I like the bit where Depardieu yells at the heavens, demanding some consistency — is it WWII or is it AIDS? “If it’s the 90s, there’s no Nazis! And if it’s WWII, then we can all fuck!”

    It’s a pretty weird response to the epidemic — like most movies which attempted literal or metaphoric responses to the health crisis, MLV seems to see it as a heterosexual problem, spread by women to men.

  11. “MLV seems to see it as a heterosexual problem, spread by women to men.”
    …except it also follows – how seriously, I’m not sure – the idea that it’s a plot by Big Pharma and mad scientists to make more money/gain power. The problem with paranoia and conspiracy theories is that they make much more interesting stories than banal normality does.

  12. I’d say the conspiracy theory is only semi-serious, since we’re left in doubt.

    Can’t fault the film for ambition, as it tries to bite off AIDS and the Holocaust… also, Blier’s partner Anouk Grinberg is awesome in it. She should’ve been huge.

  13. Don’t forget Jacques Demy’s version of OrpheeParking

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