Wednesday, July 21, 2010


On a recent visit to the south of France, I discovered a museum devoted to Jean Cocteau, one of my favorite filmmakers, whose symobolic use of motorcycles left a deep impression on me as a young man.  The musuem, in a 17th Century fort, is charming and full of pebble mosaics Cocteau himself designed.  A new museum is being built nearby for a far more extensive collection of his work.

In 1949 Jean Cocteau (above) began filming an adaptation of the Orpheus myth, set in contemporary times, with his own spin on the story which bore relevance to his own life at that moment.   Famous as a poet and playwright/producer before WW2 in France, and afterwards for his stunning adaptation of 'Beauty and the Beast' ('La Belle et la Bete', 1947 - still the finest film version of the story), Cocteau sought to solidify the success of 'Beauty' with an experimental version of the ancient tale.

In the Greek original, Orpheus is a great poet whose singing can charm the birds, trees, people, rocks.  He marries the beautiful Eurydice, but she is bitten by a poisonous snake on their wedding day and dies.  Orpheus follows her to the realm of Hades, enchanting Charon, ferryman of the dead, to carry him across the river Styx to the land of shades.  Orpheus even enchants Hades, lord of the underworld, who allows Eurydice to return to the land of light, on the condition Orpheus not look at her until she reaches the surface.  He forgets himself when he sees light, and Eurydice fades away as a shadow.  Orpheus tries again to enter the Underworld, is refused, and wanders the woods, playing music, until the Bacchantes (Maenads, frenzied women) tear him limb from limb.  His head floats down the river, singing, and his body parts wash up, ironically, at Lesbos.

In Cocteau's version, Orpheus is a poet whose fame is great, but who lacks respect from the new, young, existentialist/beatnik poets who drink at the Café des Poétes.  While visiting the café, Orpheus is disrespected by the very drunk but hot new poet Cegeste, who is shortly killed by a pair of motorcyclists roaring through town.  A rich woman in a Rolls Royce (the Princess), who escorted Cegeste to the cafe, orders Orpheus to help carry the body of the young poet in her car.  It is revealed to Orpheus that she is Death, or one of many such embodiments, and the intimidating and lethal motorcyclists are her henchmen.  Orpheus and Death fall in love, and Death sends Cegeste's poetry through the radio in her Rolls to Orpheus, who becomes obsessed with the poetry and Death, and ignores his beautiful wife Eurydice.

Death, jealous, has her henchmen kill Eurydice, and Orpheus follows her to the Underworld through a mirror (simple and effective special effects are used involving dual film stocks, reversed footage, and a 2-ton tub of mercury!).  For interfering with Life, the Princess must stand before a tribunal in a ruined building (much of the Underworld is a bombed-out French military school), for it seems that while nobody really gives the orders for who is to live and die, such orders echo through Hades like the sound of drums. Orpheus wins Eurydice back to Life, but catches a glimpse of her in the rear-view mirror of the Rolls.  The Bacchantes, habitués of a lesbian beatnik bar, are furious that their former bar-girl Eurydice is dead, and kill Orpheus.

The effects used in the film are simple and evocative, and his use of motorcyclists as the Henchmen of Death is very effective; the sound of their engines approaching is the cue that someone is about to die; the bikes roar into the scene for a shadowy instant, then blast away down the road, leaving a body sprawled on the pavé.

As it turns out, Death rides an Indian!  Two in fact; the machines used in the film look like a '37 Chief and a '40 Sport Scout with early skirted fenders.  I was surprised while researching this article that the two machines used are mismatched, but there you have it; Orphée was made on a very limited budget.  He probably borrowed the studio head's Rolls...

The Henchmen's outfits are actually very standard motorcycle gear for '49 - leather helmets with shaded goggles (a darkened half-lens can be flipped up or down; I have a pair), dark wool shirts and trousers, gauntlet gloves, and wide leather kidney belts.  The costumes for the film are slightly exaggerated (gauntlets and belt are a bit wider than normal), but emphasize a kind of menace which a motorcycle policeman of the era would recognize, and utilize as an effective tool of intimidation.

All motorcyclists intuitively feel the visual power of a helmeted rider - and some clearly think that's the best part of motorcycling.  If we're honest with ourselves, I think we would all acknowledge the thrill of that dark power.  There's an alchemical transformation of a rider on a motorcycle; the erotic bond of human/machine is what makes them so irresistible, and so powerful to watch.

Cocteau recognized this, being a student of mythos.  There's even a scene, he couldn't resist, in which an armed Rider momentarily stands next to a statue of Venus, the dark rider ready to kill next to the white nude marble of Love -  Eros meets Thanatos indeed!