The Mythic Soundscape in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950)

Jean Cocteau, Testament d Orphee
Jean Cocteau, Testament d Orphee

The sound design in Jean Cocteau’s cinematic exploration of the Orphic myth within the historical conjuncture of post-war France deserves special attention. It is well known that the famous scene of car radio transmissions in Orphée relates to the clandestine listening of BBC broadcasts and coded messages that the Resistance sent through short wave broadcasts during the Nazi occupation in France. Little attention, though, has been paid to a fundamental problem that Cocteau faced while bringing the Orphic myth on the big screen for contemporary audiences: how do classical myths sound in modern contexts? And what are the modern mythic sounds? Cocteau treated the classical and the modern conditions in their own terms, searching for the ‘mythic’ elements in both and thus eschewing the burden of adaptation. By drawing on archival research in Cocteau’s papers, my presentation will shed new light on the creative process that produced a highly original sound design and especially the audio rendering of the underworld. I will argue that Cocteau’s audio experiments need also to be considered in conjunction with his earlier play The Human Voice (1930) that Roberto Rossellini brought to the screen in 1948 (as the first segment of his film Amore), where a telephone line becomes the sole medium of human communication and ultimately emotional breakdown of a woman’s love life. In Orphée, the mythic sounds and voices of the underworld (the latter delivered by Cocteau himself) probed contemporaneous audiences to reflect on what it meant to be human and on the afterlife of human voices preserved through the mechanical means of sound recording and through what Cocteau called the ‘art of the cinematograph’: that is the media of modern mythography.

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