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!


Chris Hutson said...


Great article. My uncle in France was for a long time president of a film club in Tours and I remember watching Orphee as a child. I couldn't understand it at the time but I was mesmerized by the motorcyclists. That affinity of motorcyclists that you allude to is an undeniable truth. In some way, it is the glue that holds the brotherhood together. Thanks for a wonderful post!


Pamberjack said...

You went to art school, didn't you...

Anonymous said...

Great tail of one of my all time favorite films. Thank you for explaining so many details, rekindling my memory. I must find a digitized copy of it as my old VHS is sadly gone forever. A truly remarkable film.

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,
Thanks for a close (and clarifying) reading of this famous film. I saw it first in my college film club and I've never forgotten it. All sorts of stories (myths?) swirl about the film, not least (as you probably know) regarding the motorcycles Death's messengers ride. Some accounts have it that they were Vincent Black Knights or Black Princes, obviously wrong as these did not come on the market until several years after "Orpheus" was finished. Others claim they were BMWs, possibly left over from the Occupation, and covered with cladding to conceal their identity as there were still lots of hard feelings. Interesting to find out that Cocteau in fact was using American iron (the frame captures tell the story, but how'd the Indians ever get over there?).
There's a lot more to the backstory of "Orpheus," including the use of WW II-era locations (the bombed school building), accusations made against Cocteau for some of his proclivities during the Occupation (found to be unsubstantiated), Jean Marais's role in the Resistance and in the Free French forces, and Maria Casares's (Death) family background in the Spanish Civil War. It's interesting to "read" the film against this wartime background, which at the time was only a few years past and would shape French memory and French culture for a long time to come.
But your piece was about the motorcycles and although it's rarely referenced in accounts of the early (post-WW II) cinematic image of the motorcycle/motorcyclist--too European, I guess--"Orpheus" is right up there in my book. In fact, in some ways it predates "Scorpio Rising" (another excellent post, thanks) much more than does "The Wild One," and not just with the homoerotic associations.
Thanks for the memories.

James J. Ward
Professor of History
Director, Honors Program
Cedar Crest College

YJH said...

As your friend and as your reader, let me tell you this is simply one of the most wonderful article I have ever read at all. It could/should be a Vanity Fair / New York Times story. With much admiration for your work. Thank you

vintagent said...

@Pamberjack; Worse in fact. I studied Art and Architecture with Reyner Banham, and Agroecology with Stephen Gliesman. Thus, I am an eco/archo/artist, turned writer, but all motorcyclist, always.

@Anon; there is a new Criterion cd edition of the film with lots of extras. The imdb review is just terrible, by a pretentious poet, who hates everything Cocteau. Go with your gut on this one; bikers get it. We flirt with Death more than we care to acknowledge.

@James; thanks for mentioning the wartime associations. Yes, the radio's secret messages and tribunal are very much meant to evoke the French resistance. The motorcycles may have been ex US servicemen; they weren't particularly old when the film was made, and frankly there weren't new motorcycles available in the France of '49 which were large and intimidating and suitable for Death's henchmen.
And, ref Kenneth Anger and 'Scorpio Rising'... both Jean Marais (Orphée) and Edouard Dermithe (Cegéste) were Cocteau's lovers, so there's your homoerotic connection - backstage! And, Cocteau so admired Anger's first published film 'Fireworks' ('47) that he invited Anger to France, where he remained for the next 12 years, returning to the US to make 'Scorpio Rising' in '62. Clearly, Cocteau was a profound influence on Anger, so your note is right on target.

Laslo Benedick's 'Wild One' appeared in '54, and there's little experimental content, except for the shock value and fear it engendered. The use of the dark power of Motorcycling, combined with the 'is he or isn't he' sexuality of young Marlon Brando, tainted the image of the motorcyclist in America for generations. Of course, some riders took it as a template, while others suffered the stain. It took the genius of Soichiro Honda to transform the thuggish image, and The Art of the Motorcycle exhibition to lend, finally, some legitimacy for motorcycling in the eyes of the public.

@Yves; too short for Vanity Fair. But of course, when I find a story perfect for their will happen.

PegLegCraig said...

Thanks for the info on the disk, I'm on it! Motorbikes forever!!

Eric said...

Thank you for the brilliant article, I read many of your interpretations and presentations and try to learn, this is such an example. If I can improve my own writing just to a few percent of your capacity I will be satisfied.
So true about the helmet, I stand just that little more upright and a little more confident when I wear mine. How also we like to personalise them I guess this dates back such a long time.
Clips of this film have been used in a documentary about an Indian Rally in Scotland. "Old Indians Never Die" by filmaker Pepe ? It is my bedtime viewing so frequently.
Thanks for all.

jsfury said...

While the Greeks had strange stories only the French can make it more "bizarre". Got to be the water, or is it the cafe'?


theselvedgeyard said...

Paul, you're a true renaissance man.