I find it very hard to root for jerks. I assume that’s not an unusual opinion. Jerks are, by their very definition, contemptible and obnoxious. They do and say the least likable things, and it is therefore hard to like them. I don’t root for jerks, but a film having a jerk as the lead character doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t enjoy it. Anti-heroes, or even just plain villains, can make for very interesting cinema. A portrait of a vile person can have things to recommend it. What I struggle with, is when a movie seems like it wants me to root for the jerk.
This version of the Orpheus story definitely has a jerk as its main character. He’s rude, he’s obnoxious, he’s contemptible, he’s annoying. He thinks he’s better than everyone else, and gives almost none of his time and attention to those around him. He is especially jerky towards his wife Eurydice, who he is supposed to be so in love with that he would risk his life to rescue her from death.
I found it almost impossible to root for Orpheus, but I’m convinced that Jean Cocteau wants me to. His Orpheus is a poet, and therefore anything he does is meant to be ok. He must do these things, to be a great artist. That might be true, but as we saw in Baal, that doesn’t mean anyone has to care about him. To be transparent, I am not a fan of the Orpheus story. I just find the outcome incredibly upsetting and stressful, which I think is the point? I’m going to reveal the ending of the original tale, but to be fair it’s a story from 2000+ years ago, so I think the statute of limitations has run out.
In the story, Orpheus’ wife Eurydice dies and is taken to the underworld. He goes to rescue her and charms everyone to the point that they allow her to leave. However, the catch is that on the way out she has to follow behind Orpheus and he can’t turn around to look at her. He fails, right before the exit, and she is whisked back into the underworld. He is torn apart by the Bacchae so he can at least be with his love in death.
This version flips things around. Instead of being in love with Eurydice, his wife, he’s in love with Death. This is basically a movie about Thanos, from 70 years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a really interesting change. Orpheus is a poet and apparently a goth-ish one, and he loves Death so much that he follows her after his wife. It changes the basic structure of the story enough that I liked it.