Orphée’s Death is Wearing Elsa Schiaparelli: María Casares in “Orpheus”

María Casares in “Orphée”, 1950. Andre Paulve Film; Films du Palais Royal


“The Point is not to understand, but to believe.”

In the Greek mythology, the musician Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve his lover, Eurydice, from the dead. Jean Cocteau used this legend as a starting point for his film, a visionary dream-like medium, a glimpse of the phantoms that haunted the poet throughout his life. “His story is so enchanting that it would be crazy to look for another,” Cocteau wrote in Cinémonde, in September 1950, about his source of inspiration, “a mythical bard, the bard of all bards, the Bard of Thrace”. The opening of the film takes us to the Café des Poètes, in St Germain. Cocteau’s Orphée, played by Jean Marais – “Marais illuminates the film for me with his soul” – is a handsome, successful and envied poet, but a vulnerable, fragile and isolated figure nonetheless. His wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), is a simple, middle-class girl. His Death (María Casares) is an elegant Princess who travels in a Rolls Royce with her chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), “a young Death serving in one of the many sub-orders of Death”, who falls in love with Eurydice.

Orpheé is a film that stands alone. Jean Cocteau had manifold astonishing achievements in all areas of art, from poet, novelist and painter, to playwright, ballet inventor and filmmaker – he was “a gifted, versatile and fecund creator,” as Cecil Beaton described him. He used the medium he thought most appropriate to express a certain idea. And through his films, he wanted to express ideas which could not adequately by expresssed by any other means. And he wanted his films to reach the public, even if the public misunderstood them. The important thing was that the film stirred up thoughts and feelings in the viewer. “Orphée’s Death and Heurtebise reproach Orphée for asking questions. Wanting to understand is a peculiar obsession of mankind,” Jean Cocteau wrote about his film. He didn’t seek out technical perfection, but invention. Orphée has had a powerful influence on cinema due to its inventive filming and visual language and because it literally opened up other worlds. It connected with the imagination on a deep level. The conflict between the real world and the unknowable becomes more likely a bridge between the real and the supernatural because the fantastique brilliantly finds a way in the contemporary setting, in the everyday, in the ordinary. “Do we understand anything about the workings of fate? This is the mysterious mechanism that I have tried to make tangible,” Cocteau said. “The film is a thriller which draws on myth from one side and the supernatural from the other. […] The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic. Radios in the cars, coded messages, shortwave signals and power cuts are all familiar to everybody and allow me to keep my foot on the ground.”

Cocteau set his story in contemporary Paris, a ravaged post-war Paris. He used real life extras wearing the fashions of the day and dancing to contemporary jazz at Café des Poètes. “The costumes in fashion at the time of the performance should be adopted”, he believed. He carefully supervised every aspect of the movie making, as he firmly believed that a film worth making should be scripted, directed, edited, and even produced by the same person. The costumes were no less important and although he entrusted the costumes to designers, the best there were, his control over this particular visual aspect is very clear. Coco Chanel had designed the costumes for his play Orphée, in 1926, and for the film he chose Elsa Schiaparelli.

Jean Cocteau, who told Cecil Beaton that he had led his life “in an unreality made up of fun”, though warned him to be wary of artificial beauty, praised Schiaparelli’s eccentricity as a dressmaker and wrote that her influence spread beyond “a few mysterious and privileged women who destroyed the ‘moderne’ style. In 1937 a woman like Schiaparelli can invent for all women – for each woman in particular – that violence which was once the privilege of very few, of those who might be called the actresses in this drama-outside-theatre which is the World.”

María Casares in “Orphée”, 1950. Andre Paulve Film; Films du Palais Royal


Schiaparelli was the enfant terrible of French couture. She started out knowing nothing about dressmaking, therefore her courage had no limits, her designs becoming more and more daring over time. Between 1927 and 1940, “Schiap” continuously revolutionised fashion with practical innovations that we now take for granted, from wraparound dresses, overalls and shirtwaist jackets, to swimsuits with built-in bra (for which she received a patent), wedge heels and folding eyeglasses. She was the first designer to open a ready-to-wear boutique and to stage a runaway presentation as a show, with a set, music, and the skinny models. She brought irony and comedy into fashion, she made it fun for women everywhere whereas insisting on its practicality: “Women’s looks should correspond to their way of life, to their occupation, to their loves, and also to their pockets.”

The fashion designer frequently worked with artists Bebe Bérard, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Vertès, Van Dongen, and with photographers Hoyningen-Huni, Horst, Cecil Beaton and May Ray, which “gave one a sense of exhilaration,” she confessed. “One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell.” Toward the end of the 1930s, Salvador Dalí hailed Schiaparelli’s workshops as the “beating heart” of Surrealist Paris, and the two of them produced the first true hybrids of clothing and art – they collaborated on a “skeleton” dress with a padded ribcage, and a suit with “bureau drawer” pockets, he decorated the now famous skirt of a white evening gown with a bright red lobster. But working with Jean Cocteau on designing his film and theater costumes – her art as a dressmaker had already merged with Cocteau’s own art, as he had sketched some of her embroideries, like the heads she reproduced on the back of an evening coat – was also a way for her to use her métier as genuine creation, as creator of characters, not just dresses. “A dress can not just hang like a painting on the wall, it has no life unless it is worn.” Dress designing was an art, not a profession for her. “I feel that the clothes have to be architectural: that the body must never be forgotten and it must be used as a frame is used in a building. The Greeks, more than anybody else except the Chinese, understood this rule.”

María Casares in “Orphée”, 1950. Andre Paulve Film; Films du Palais Royal


María Casares’ Princess is dark and almighty powerful yet humanly tragic, because love does not escape her. With her long black architectural dresses and her glossy black hair swept back, she is inescapable, enticing and dominant. The ultimate femme fatale. “Death in my film is not Death represented symbolically by an elegant woman, but the Death of Orphée. Each of us has our own which takes charge of us from the moment of birth. So Orphée’s Death, exceeding her authority, becomes Cégeste’s, and Cégeste says to her – when she asks: ‘Do you know who I am? – ‘You are my Death’, and not ‘You are Death’.”

When speaking about Elsa Schiaparelli‘s creations and muses in the book Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations, Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda use the expression jolie laide, which describes an erotic alchemist whose potent allure – an elixir of nerve, will, and ardor – transcends her homeliness. María Casares, one of Schiaparelli’s muses, was one of the most memorable women in France to fit the description. “The charisma of these performers gave a radiance to their witchy features that makes the prettiness of a perfect face seem insipid by comparison,” the authors conclude.

Never a conventional beauty herself, Elsa Schiaparelli was never afraid of being different, using her imaginative creations to flourish and raise above the others – “I would be the only woman of my kind in the whole world.” Despite being who she is, the Death of Orphée, and despite her essential coldness and somber look, the Princess has this invincible female vitality fueled by fantasy, and Eurydice’s warm, domesticated femininity indeed seems insipid and dreary by comparison. Eurydice is firmly rooted in the pastoral environment, static, undemanding, dull, while the Princess is exciting, mysterious, appealing, dangerous, ….from another world. Orphée’s choice is inevitable.

Editorial sources: The Art of Cinema, by Jean Cocteau, compiled and edited by André Bernard and Claude Gauteur / Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations, by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda / Vogue on Elsa Schiaparelli, by Judith Watt / Cecil Beaton Portraits & Profiles, edited by Hugo Vickers



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