Orpheus in Sunglasses
We’re panning around a slick music studio as a willowy twenty-something brunette is about to sing. Two men have their eyes glued on her, one dark and mysterious as he hangs back in a doorway, the other draped petulantly over a sofa in the sound booth. We flash back to an alcohol-fueled argument between the Singer and Doorway Man in a high-design kitchen. They gesture dramatically in the direction of Soundbooth Man, who is mingling with guests out on the terrace. Their conflict seemingly concerns a love triangle, or perhaps it’s about her involvement in the music industry. Then we’re back in the booth and oscillating around the Singer as she leans into the studio microphone. The music is moody alt-rock and the lyrics are fittingly vague:
Nowhere to hide
Where are you gonna run this time?
Another flashback to an argument at a swimming pool at night high in the hills. A vodka bottle shatters, then back to the studio where the evocative song is ending. Soundbooth Man is satisfied, while Doorway Man leaves the studio in a huff. Outside, a cloud of debris slowly ascends into the L.A. sunset.
What is going on in Los Angeles? And what does this highly stylized short film have to do with Greek mythology and designer sunglasses? Bret Easton Ellis, whose credits as a screenwriter (The Canyons (2013), The Informers (2008), etc.) and film producer have been overtaking his literary output of late, stepped behind the camera to direct Orpheus, a nine minute-long commercial for Persol Sunglasses that debuted this past summer. Yes, Persol: as in the glamorous sunglasses anyone who’s anyone in the mainstream entertainment industry wears when they’re in L.A. to take meetings.
In a similar vein to his first novel, Less Than Zero, the Los Angeles of Orpheus is portrayed as a burning hellscape, although with much less dialogue. This burning hellscape is more literal than metaphorical; images of L.A. on fire play nonchalantly in the background in key scenes. Nonetheless, the characters in Orpheus exhibit an apathetic disinterest to the apocalypse on screen, just as Rip, Clay, Blair, and Trent do to their own apocalypse in Less Than Zero. The film’s focus is maintained on its three impeccably beautiful actors as they interpret aspects of the timeless myth of Orpheus and Eurydice without messing up their hair.
The mythological aspects of the film animate its loosely representative plotline and could easily stay hidden to the unsuspecting eye. The two male cast members (Brian Byrnes as Doorway Man/Orpheus and Skyler Hart as Soundbooth Man/the Devil) are nearly identical and are treated similarly when shot, whether it be gazing shirtless at the swaying palms or driving a red vintage Mercedes through an alarmingly traffic-less L.A. This confusing homogeneity is reminiscent of Clay’s teenage sisters in Less Than Zero, who are virtually indistinguishable as they chatter on about cocaine, thievery, and parties. Ellis’s treatment and selected specificity of the internal social landscape between Orpheus, Eurydice, and the Devil contrasts drastically with the surrounding ambiguity and the distanced treatment of outsiders and peripheral dismay. The overwhelmingly crisp, attractive aesthetic creates another layer of distance between the viewer and the film’s characters.
In the original version of the myth, Orpheus’ music on the lyre is so amazing that it can charm anyone, alter nature, and even soften Hades, King of the Underworld. Upon losing his love, Eurydice, Orpheus decides to try to retrieve her from the underworld. His music softens Hades and Persephone, an unheard of feat, and Orpheus is given the opportunity to return to the mortal world with Eurydice again. There is one catch, however: Orpheus has to lead her out of the underworld and cannot look at her until he’s emerged again. If he turns to see Eurydice with his own eyes, he will lose her forever. Orpheus nearly makes it. At the last moment, he turns to make sure that she’s really there–a loss of faith that causes him to lose her irrevocably. The myth of Orpheus has the potential to relate to modernity, commodification, and anxiety about the future–all themes that Ellis explored in Less Than Zero in the middle of the 1980s.
The weight of trust, impulsivity, judgement, and consequence are all brought into play in how Orpheus pursues and then handles the challenge he is given to retrieve Eurydice. These are the same themes Clay grapples with in his surreal interactions with the drugged out characters back at home in L.A. The despondency, malaise, misogyny, addiction, and menace of the hills are mythic in their power. Ellis’ film re-interprets the Orpheus myth by making Byrnes (Orpheus) an alcoholic, which seems to drive him and Leslie Coutterand (Eurydice) apart, making it impossible for Byrnes to liberate her from a burning L.A. (Hell). In the final moments of the film, Byrnes turns to see if Coutterand is following him and, instead, she chooses the rock-solid arms of Skylar Hart (the Devil, i.e. the music industry). Thus Eurydice chooses the temptations of the Industry over Orpheus, who is then shown leaving L.A. in a cloud of melancholy.