The disarming fact about the fantasy in Orphée is its absolutely irrefutable logic. Stand in front of a mirror, and what do you see? Yourself, of course, but in a slightly alien guise, a stranger who might just conceivably have access to another world. Or again, you see the door through which death comes and goes; as Heurtebise explains to the bewildered Orphée: 'Watch yourself all your life in a mirror and you will see death at work, like bees in a hive of glass.'
In front of a café on a quiet square, a literary lion's den where Orphée slightly shamefacedly defends his establishment position, a gleaming Rolls suddenly purrs into view. Out of it steps a woman, elegant and predatory, clad in a white jacket and a black gown. Two motor-cyclists roar by, anonymously muffled in helmets, gauntlets and goggles, leaving a spread-eagled corpse in their wake.
One hardly needs the additional evidence of the strange car journey through the night, pausing at a 'Stygian' level-crossing as the motor-cyclists join the cortege and the landscape is mysteriously transformed (by a sudden switch into negative projection), to recognize that Cocteau has created a perfect modern metaphorical equivalent for the classical mythology of death; here it comes at high speed, brought by 'hell's angels' - a cavalier way to go which trails its own alluring glamour as fearsome, as fascinating and as perverse as the cold enigmatic Princess herself.
The theme Cocteau orchestrates in Orphée is his perennial one: 'A poet must die several times in order to be born.' Orphée dies the first time to affirm his earthly love for his wife; a second time to defend his poetic inspiration (a false inspiration since the poems come from elsewhere, from the exterior rather than from inside the poet himself); and a third, in despairing acknowledgment of the impossibility of his other love in the mirror-world beyond reality.
The astonishing thing about the film is that, even while conducting this intricate metaphysical disquisition, it remains wholly gripping. It is, in fact, immensely thrilling in a sense rather lost to the cinema since the days of silent movies. As Orphée watches the Princess and her aides glide through a mirror which becomes instantly impenetrable to his touch, or accompanies Heurtebise in his gliding descent through monumental ruins that mark the limbo between Earth and the Underworld, one is irresistably reminded of the great, surrealistic serials of Louis Feuillade, in which the real, everyday world is lent a disturbingly unfamiliar quality.
In theory, the rules of the Underworld in Orphée, whereby Death comes and goes by mirror, are simple; but in the film, Cocteau keeps a number of surprises up his sleeve. Particularly notable is the marvellous moment when the engraged Princess, accused by Heurtebise of having killed Orphée's wife because she herself loves him, imperiously shatters the mirror with her fist (instead of observing the prescribed routine of gliding through it wearing rubber gloves), and the sudden metamorphosis of her black robe to dazzling white in simultaneous acknowledgment of Heurtebise's charge.
A common, although minor, critical reservation about the film has often been the banality of the scenes between Orphée and Eurydice at home. Although Cocteau admittedly presents a dismayingly stereotyped view of domesticity (the close-up of a knitted baby shoe which Orphée tramples underfoot, too excited by his discoveries to listen to his wife's 'great news'; the mild comic horseplay as Orphée and Eurydice try to adjust to a home life in which he must not look at her), this banality is an inescapable element of the whole. It is the 'mire' to which the poet must be returned, and which the new vision he has been granted may eventually illuminate. Orphée is one of the French cinema's supreme masterpieces, magnificently acted and photographed, and expressing the very quintessence of Cocteau's vision and genius.