Scenes I Go Back To: Orpheus

Despite using simple practical effects, the resulting scene is no less magical and haunting.

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus was the first film that showed me that films could, indeed, be works of art; after watching it, my approach to film was never quite the same. I first caught a glimpse of Orpheus when a classmate did a presentation on it for the film history class I took during college. And I later wrote a term paper on the film for that same class.

The scene that my classmate showed to the class, the first scene I ever saw from Orpheus remains my favorite. The poet Orpheus is preparing to pass over into the realm of the dead to retrieve his wife Eurydice, who has recently been killed (yes, the film is based on the classic Greek myth). The only way to enter the other realm is to pass through mirrors, which requires special gloves to do so.

Orpheus slips on the gloves — or rather, they slip onto him, crawling across his hands of their own accord — and begins passing through the mirror, which is now like liquid mercury. The final shot finds Orpheus becoming increasingly ghost-like as he walks further into the mirror, and the realm of the dead.

Although the effects used to create the scene — running the film backwards, clever camera positions and use of reflections — seem incredibly simplistic and quaint by today’s standards, the result is no less magical and haunting. Primarily because the simple effects force you to use your imagination to fill in the blanks, to make that necessary leap of belief — unlike the tens of millions of dollars worth of CGI you see everywhere these days, which just bludgeons you over the head with its varying stabs at realness.

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