Having encountered a mysterious Princess on the death of his friend, Cegeste, Orpheus (Jean Marais) becomes so wrapped up in his poetry that it takes the Princess's angelic servant, Heurtebise, to persuade him to enter the Underworld to reclaim his dead wife, Eurydice, from her clutches.
Jean Cocteau's fascination with the poet's place in modern society had already informed The Blood of a Poet and he would conclude his lyrical trilogy with The Testament of Orpheus in 1959. But this central segment proved the summation of his lifetime obsession with the Greek god of creativity. Indeed, this enigmatic reworking of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice could not have been improved upon - even had Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo accepted the challenge of playing the mysterious Princess, whose power over death seduces the hapless poet into descending into the Zone to find her.
Drawing on the classical legend that had inspired Cocteau's 1925 stage play, the story is wondrously intricate. Everything revolves around Cégeste's death at the hands of the Princess's motorcycling emissaries, as this not only causes Orpheus to be lured into the Zone, but it also introduces him (via Heurtebise's car radio) to the eccentric verses that enslave his imagination and cause him to neglect Eurydice, whose death strikes the doting Heurtebise as an injustice that demands the same vengeance that the Bacchanates mete out to Orpheus in mistaken retributon for Cégeste's demise. But while it is a masterpiece of romantic storytelling and artistic analysis, this hymn to the poet's need to be reborn is also a superb technical achievement that invokes the spirit of the silent mesmerist, Georges Méliès, to create what Cocteau considered to be a mythical, supernatural detective thriller. Conjuring up the Underworld in a bombed-out military academy at Saint-Cyr, Cocteau and effects artist Christian Bérard employed all manner of doubles, reflecting and transparent glasses, fake perspectives and ingenious tricks (e.g. using a vat of mercury to produce the impression of a rippling mirror) to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Jean d'Eaubonne's sets, Nicholas Hayer's photography and Georges Auric's score are equally impeccable. But it's Cocteau's genius for the surreal, the supernatural and the sublime that makes this captivating film so magical - even though it's clearly rooted in a world still recovering from the ravages of war.
Cocteau's visual imagination, leading us through mirrors into a bomb-scarred dreamworld governed by the femme fatale of Death, is enduringly magical and strongly cinematic.