When Maxim Gorky saw the first brief Lumière films, he was chilled rather than excited, because their eerie silence and their grey, grainy pallor made him think he was in a post-mortem underworld, a kingdom of the shades. Yes, cinema is an art that we can only experience in a darkened room, and the people we see on the screen are ghosts, shadowy replicas of themselves, not real physical presences; film-makers inevitably conduct us on a journey into the supernatural realm imagined by Gorky.
In the classical myth, Orpheus descends to the underworld in order to win back his dead love Eurydice. In Cocteau’s modern adaptation, the Orphée of Jean Marais follows the same course, and in doing so explores the surreal mystery of cinema. He enters the underworld by slithering through the surface of a mirror, which liquefies as he touches it. Here is Cocteau’s mission statement for an art that in his opinion should abandon the banal job of reflecting reality, which can be left to mirrors. Cinema has a more mysterious vocation: it allows us, as if hypnotised, to dream with our eyes open.