a long read for your Tuesday morning~
For a while, I saw Orpheus and Eurydice everywhere. I blame one of my favorite movie commentators, Pavan, for the long, rambling thoughts below. She posted a tiktok about the myth that wormed its way into my brain, took up residence, and never left. “[I] am smug about rising in love, not falling in it,” she says, while confessing her weakness for the tragic lovers. Even as a person who adores a Happily Ever After, I can’t help but feel the same way.
For me— and I immediately want to caveat with the fact that I am nowhere near an expert in this kind of thing—there are three critical parts of a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice:
Orpheus’ descent into the underworld and the negotiation to return Eurydice to Earth;
Orpheus and Eurydice’s ascent; and
The look back at Eurydice that sends her into the underworld to die again.
These retellings also often explore memory: the fallibility of it, the memories we hold of loved ones and the crushing grief that accompanies them, the way that we recognize and remember ourselves in the love others have for us. You may also notice that in these stories the “underworld,” be it a dream or spirit realm or a lonely castle in Brittany that is curiously absent of all men, is often a space where time doesn’t work quite right, and where the rules are hazy at the edges. Is this underworld real? And does it matter? Can we trust our memories to ground us in something true?
I saw them first in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi heist movie Inception. The protagonist Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio), walks with his crew into the dreams of a man soon to inherit a large corporation on behalf of another businessman, named Saito, trying to eliminate his competition. All the while he is dodging the vengeful memory of his deceased wife and the Eurydice in this version, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who bursts through his subconscious at every available opportunity.
The clues for this interpretation, once you’re looking for them, slip right off the screen. Dom is the most gifted dream-walker, sought after for his talents like Orpheus and his lyre. The mazes within the dreams are created by a young architecture student named Ariadne (Elliot Page), like the mythical princess of the same name, famed for guiding Theseus through the labyrinth with a ball of string. The initial descent into the dream world takes place when the crew cross water via a bridge, likely a symbol for the River Styx (or the Acheron), which the ferryman Charon conveys souls across and into the underworld. Mal repeatedly seeks Dom out to tell him to take a leap of faith, to stay behind in a world where they are promised to grow old together, reminiscent of Orpheus’ instruction to have faith that Eurydice is following him on his ascent into the world they hope to share again.
Dom descends into the dreams, which become more and more challenging and bring him closer and closer to his inner turmoil until finally, three levels down, he’s face-to-face with his wife.
It’s hard in that moment to know if he has been chased or if he has been chasing her. He’s destroyed by grief and guilt at his complicity in her death. He keeps a version of her in a prison in his mind. Mal begs him to die with her, stay with her. There’s a moment where the audience really believes that he might do it, until Dom says this in the most tender way you can imagine-
“I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, with all your perfection, with all your imperfection. Look at you. You’re just a shade of my real wife— you were the best that I could do, but I’m sorry. You’re just not good enough.”
(yes, I do cry at these lines every time I watch them, why do you ask?) And so Dom washes up on the tumultuous shore of his own deepest consciousness. Without her. After a brief conversation with the businessman who employed him and has been lost to Dom’s subconscious during the heist, Dom wakes up again, this time alongside his crew.
I like so much about this retelling. I like that Dom wakes up with people who have been transformed alongside him by their time in their underworld. I like how desperately Dom loves his wife. I like the way that nothing feels quite real enough when you watch this movie, but in that moment where Dom recognizes that he can’t recreate his wife in all of her brilliance, it somehow feels too real to bear.
There’s much more to consider about this way of watching the movie that I’ll leave you to mull over (the use of the word ‘shade’ in that line I shared; the question of if Eurydice is chasing Orpheus as much as the myth says she is following him; whether Saito is Hades in this version of the myth; the paradox-heavy architecture of the labyrinth), but for now I want to turn to another imagining.
I watched Spirited Away most recently in Fall of 2021. In it, Eurydice is reimagined in Haku, a spirit and servant in a bathhouse who takes it upon himself to guide Chihiro, a human girl (and our reimagined Orpheus), who stumbles into the spirit realm while trying to save her parents, who have been taken.
All of the little elements of the myth are there. The crossing into the spirit world is, again, over water. The descent is, again, disorienting and frightening. Chihiro meets Yubaba, a witch and owner of the bathhouse who serves neatly as a Hades casting, and signs away her name to Yubaba for protection. There is an ascent, during which Haku barters for Chihiro’s family’s liberation, and Chihiro saves Haku from an injury. Near the end, Chihiro recalls Haku’s lost true name, recognizing him as the spirit of a river who protected her in her childhood. In the last scene there’s a moment when Chihiro must cross the water again, freed parents in tow, and exit the spirit realm. Haku promises to see her again. On the other side of the tunnel, while walking to their unusually moss-covered and dusty family car, Chihiro looks back at the world where Haku lives one last time.
I love the concept of Eurydice and Orpheus saving each other, even if they aren’t together in the end, and the idea that they don’t have to be romantically in love for the story to work. It’s so lovely to me that Chihiro is not a divinely talented Orpheus, but that she’s blessed with a kind of earnestness that usually doesn’t survive adolescence. I even like Haku’s bittersweet promise to see Chihiro again which, in this interpretation, probably can’t happen until Chihiro dies because mortals can’t enter and exit the underworld twice in the myth.
If you’ll allow me one more short ramble, I’d like to look at Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’ll avoid dissecting the elements of the plot because this retelling is more explicitly based on the myth, but the gist is that Marianne (the Orpheus) is a gifted painter who appears on an island on the coast of France to paint a portrait of a reclusive noblewoman named Heloise (the Eurydice) in advance of her wedding. They fall in love for a short time before the circumstances of gender and class drive them apart.
When Marianne, Heloise, and their young maid discuss the myth around their kitchen table, Marianne suggests that Orpheus chooses the memory of Eurydice over Eurydice herself in turning back to look at her. “He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s,” she says. Heloise offers another interpretation. She says that Eurydice asks Orpheus to turn back and look at her, releasing him from the obligation of carrying a dead woman into the living world. In the end, when Marianne leaves the island and Heloise begins preparations to be married to a man she has never met, Heloise asks her to turn around at the threshold. When Marianne turns, Heloise is wearing her wedding dress.
I don’t entirely know what to make of the fact that this particular myth lingers with me, that I hold these three retellings so close to me and so tightly.
Part of it is that they give me hope that we can sink into the chasm that is grief (for a wife, for an ending childhood, for a lover) and still exit the depths intact as long as we’re meeting someone on the other side of the water— our friends, our parents, our students. Or maybe, in all my arrogance, I like the chance to bargain with death and emerge. Not necessarily victorious, but emerging all the same.
A big part of it is the look-back moment, the single moment in which Orpheus knows and perceives Eurydice with complete clarity. Dom sees Mal for the figment that she is. Chihiro sees the Kohaku River Spirit. Marianne sees Heloise in her wedding dress. I like the humility that this requires. I like that knowing someone so completely—or bravely inviting them to know you— requires real surrender, a willingness to give up all of our carefully constructed notions of who they are (or who they might think you are). I like that lifting this veil is a sacred experience and a terrifying one.
Even beyond that, I think I fixate on these stories because I am sick to death of soulmates and other halves and strings that lead us from our pinky fingers to just One Other Special Person For The Rest Of Time and No On Else. I don’t know if that makes me sound like a horrible cynic. I am, unfortunately, persistently romantic. I am clichéd to the bone. I am overflowing with so much longing that I am scrambling for places to hide it.
I just take solace in knowing that our relationships with people can be fleeting and eternal all at once. I am increasingly suspicious of longevity as a metric for joy or success or quality (in romance and in life). I am thinking of Marianne and Connell in Normal People by Sally Rooney. I am thinking of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. I am thinking “It’ll pass.” I am thinking of Arrival. I am thinking about two men I read about in Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who promised each other 20 happy years of partnership and not a moment more, because they’d hate to spoil a beautiful thing by letting it sit out too long. I am thinking of how cherry blossoms only flower for two precious, pale-pink weeks a year. I wonder if I can hold love without burning my palms on grief.
In these retellings of the myth, Orpheus and Eurydice are happily “married” for only a little while before her untimely death. Still, neither figure escapes their marriage unscathed. Their love for each other undoes them and remakes them anew. It makes me think that all good love does, in the end.
You're so right about Arrival. Adams' character can handle the simultaneity. It's clear the Renner character cannot, and I thought that was really interesting.