Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and Jacques Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la Peur
August 18, 2010 Leave a comment
Merely Women in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and Jacques Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la Peur
Written for FRNCH 41 at UCLA with Professor Eric Gans on November 25, 2008
I remember really hating Orphée and really liking Le Salaire de la Peur. The primary actor in the latter film, Yves Montand, is quite attractive, so I think that helped. And perhaps I just like swashbuckling and adventurous films more. I found Orphée to be a little cheesy, pretentious, and gimmicky.
At first glance, the surrealism of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and the blatant machismo of Jacques Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la Peur appear to be films of entirely different purposes and aesthetics. Though both are created in the 1950s—Orphée precedes Le Salaire de la Peur—each film is unique in the path undertaken to illuminate a particular prototype of womanhood within the films’ thematic purpose. The banal housewife Eurydice in Orphée and the native simpleton Linda in Le Salaire de la Peur provide astounding clarity to Cocteau and Clouzot’s directorial visions of a woman’s gendered role. As Orphée tirelessly and obsessively seeks his Death, Eurydice can only speak of “baby’s clothes and bills.” Likewise, the gutsy Mario is desperate for a means to escape Las Piedras, but Linda can only tearfully plead her unfaltering allegiance to him. The woman, in both cases, is the obstacle to enlightenment and personal betterment; a mere symbol of domesticity and earthly pleasures, the woman is excess baggage to the French man. This idea is highlighted in Orphée when Eurydice is in the car for the first time with Heurtebise and Orphée, trying to understand her husband’s interest in the cryptic radio messages before she irritates him to the point of being asked to leave, and in Le Salaire de la Peur when Mario and Jo are about to begin the journey to transport the nitroglycerin and Linda jumps onto the truck to convince Mario not to undertake such a dangerous task, which causes Mario throws her off the truck and onto the road.
The first sequence in Orphée strategically places the characters in their roles of power—Orphée as the far-sighted and dominant man and Eurydice as the narrow-minded dependent. Donning the typical garb of a housewife, Orphée’s wife Eurydice is dressed down in white to emphasize her bland and ordinary sensibilities; her blonde hair, especially on black and white film stock, almost seamlessly becomes a continuation of the background. The actress that portrays Eurydice, while certainly quite beautiful, has merely attractive features that are a far cry from being extraordinary or glamorous. There is very little about her that stands out, but this allows the role to exist consistently with the theme that suggests that female inferiority that is a nuisance to the French male. Even the location of the scene, inside an automobile, suggests a journey undertaken, with a fussy woman as the backseat driver, attempting to regain control of the man who, as shown in the sequence, is concentrating on the radio and trying to ignore his wife’s glib chatter. The fact that he is in the driver’s seat reinforces the idea that the vision of the man is superior to the earthly and domestic desires embodied in the woman. Thus, the placement of the actors in the sequence links Orphée to the role of both leader and boss of the journey’s domain. Along the same lines, Eurydice is frequently framed away from Orphée and Heurtebise, a visual fortification of the idea that a woman’s sphere of influence so exists but only to the extent that it should not disrupt that man. In close-up shots of her face, Eurydice is wide-eyed and focused immediately on her husband, while Orphée’s brow is furrowed in deep concentration, eyes straining to see beyond what is in the now. This is additionally highlighted in the dialogue of the sequence, with Eurydice saying pettily, “Nothing matters but this car. I could die and you wouldn’t even notice.” Orphée responds more philosophically, his words an embodiment of man’s broader worldview and capacity for wisdom, “We were dead and we didn’t notice.” This juxtaposition places Eurydice’s visionless understanding of what can only be immediately perceived in conflict with Orphée’s quest. As he and Eurydice go back and forth, the radio continuously and persistently beeps in the background, occasionally becoming the foreground audio when Orphée is attempting to record and decipher the radio’s messages. This auditory effect implies the pressing and overarching importance of Orphée’s obsession with Death and the messages in the radio. Hence, the relationship dynamics highlighted in Orphée represent a larger view of male and female social roles and functions in French society. Orphée’s own words define these roles most clearly at the end of the sequence, as he states harshly, “Take her away, Heurtebise, or I’ll do something I’ll regret!” Only without the woman by his side will he finally gain peace to progress on his journey; for Orphée, the woman is an imposition on his intellect and energy, an unnecessary accessory to a meaningful pursuit of his higher purpose.
Le Salaire de la Peur is comparable to Orphée in a surprising parallel that goes beyond mere role similarity of the characters. Granted, there is obviously the parallel of the one female character with two male characters, the former being a nagging nuisance and the latter being journey-minded. But more intimately and more specifically, there are notable stylistic and narrative choices that reveal more of a thematic connection than what may be immediately apparent. As Linda rushes down the stairs of a building to meet the incoming truck carrying her beloved Mario, she, like Eurydice, is wearing a spotless white dress. While the dress alluded to dull housewifery for Eurydice, the dress in Le Salaire de la Peur is meant to imply her pure naïveté and immaturity in vivid contrast to the greater intimidation of the darkness around her. In either instance however, there is a continuous aspect of female contextual inferiority. The all-consuming darkness that the truck has to navigate through even in the early stages of the journey is seen to represent the looming Herculean labor before Mario and his comrades as the truck rushes forward with only feeble headlights to provide guidance. As Linda mounts the side of the truck to beseech Mario to forget about the treacherous mission, she too is framed apart from the men by the structure of the vehicle in a fashion that is nearly identical to the framing of Eurydice in Orphée. This division of visual space to keep Linda outside of the gritty manly world Mario sees himself as a member of cements the woeful disregard of Linda’s being in the film. Like Eurydice, Linda is the embodiment of Las Piedras’ uncivilized and narrow-minded society, for she fails to see the merits of his decision to risk his life and reap the benefits of his valor. Additionally, though Linda’s hair is dark and lush in Le Salaire de la Peur—unlike Eurydice’s blonde curls—what would ordinarily be a defining quality of the beauty of any woman is unsympathetically blended with the nocturnal darkness of the sequence’s background. As Linda continues to lachrymosely plead her case, Mario responds in a manner identical in essence to Orphée’s harsh warning in the other sequence. Mario’s eyes are focused on the road as he croaks, “That’s enough. Now beat it!” before flinging her off the door of the truck. Her physical attachment to the truck clearly posed a danger to herself and to the men, a set-up that visually echoes the larger idea of a woman’s contribution to be an impediment to a man trying to do his job. Moreover, on an auditory level, the non-diegetic sound of the wailing horn in the sequence of Le Salaire de la Peur is extremely similar to the usage of the radio beeping in Orphée. Just as Eurydice approaches the car radio’s beeping to understand her husband’s fascination with it, Linda is prompted to rush toward the truck with the blaring horn to change Mario’s mind. The whole time she speaks, the horn and the rumbling of the truck continue to sound with the same kind of pressing urgency that implicitly confirms Mario’s determination to continue with the task and Linda’s apparent function as a nuisance. In both sequences, the beeping and the honking serve to encapsulate the frustration of the male leads as they are forced to divert attention away from the true path of knowledge, self-actualization, or even just plain money to settle the inconsequential female who simply does not understand and never will.
Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and Jacques Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la Peur are literally the films of men. Their emphasis on the male’s superiority however, is only a part of why the narratives of the films are so universal. The woman, be it Eurydice or Linda, is no equal to French masculinity. But without them, the tasks the male characters must face lose much of the necessary catharsis and exigency. In a sense, the great man himself in Orphée and the epitome of rugged adventurer in Le Salaire de la Peur are only as valuable as the women they pushed aside to establish the basis of their manhood. Orphée’s poetic mind and Mario’s manly decisiveness as reflected in either film provide the archetypes for how the French man ought to be. But when the generic little housewife and the simplistic village girl attempt to tarnish this paradigm, they, being merely women in a French man’s world, can be discarded as surplus along the way to greatness.