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'The Testament of Orpheus' Movie Review: Jean Cocteau Poem Display 'Some Spark of Creativity'

Jean Cocteau in The Testament of Orpheus
Jean Cocteau in The Testament of Orpheus

The third film in Jean Cocteau's “Orphic Trilogy,” Le Testament d'Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi! / The Testament of Orpheus, is also the third film in The Criterion Collection's box set release. While it's the best of the trio, it's nowhere near a good film.

True, The Testament of Orpheus does have perhaps the best score and its 80 minutes offer a dozen or so moments that have some spark of creativity, but Cocteau is much too narcissistic and his film much too self-indulgent. For instance, The Testament of Orpheus is replete with outdated special effects – such as Cocteau running film in reverse on numerous occasions – that are almost embarrassing to watch. Additionally, the previous two entries in the trilogy set the bar so low that Cocteau did not really have to do much to improve upon his previous failures.

Despite his claims to the contrary, Cocteau was no poet of stature. His lack of writing skills can be seen in this undeniably dreadful screenplay, loaded with the most clichéd claims about poetry and art, and the most banal and absurd imagery imaginable. Part of the odd charm of the film – and of its predecessors – is that Cocteau really does believe the crap he spews.

At one point in The Testament of Orpheus, he states: 'It is the unique power of the cinema to allow a great many people to dream the same dream together and to present illusion to us as if it were strict reality. It is, in short, an admirable vehicle for poetry.' Not only is the sentiment false and highfalutin', but it's read by Cocteau with such earnest inanity that one wonders whether he really could believe such tripe and not have to restrain a guffaw.

The Testament of Orpheus

Whereas someone like a Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman could have overt symbolism in their films – think Saraghina in 8 1/2 or the image of Death in The Seventh Seal – those directors used symbolism sparingly and only at moments where it had maximum impact. In addition, the narrative that fills the rest of their films is not awkwardly self-conscious like Cocteau's. By contrast, Cocteau's symbolism is so heavy-handed, so obvious, and so manifold that they have little real-world referents so they can be understood by the average viewer. As a result, they lose all symbolic impact, becoming detritus that fills up screen space.

The Testament of Orpheus, Cocteau's last film, was released in 1960 – about three decades after his first film, Le Sang d'un poète / The Blood of a Poet. One must admit – even if a Cocteauphile – that little advancement was made in the director's filmmaking techniques. In that sense, Cocteau reminded me of Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose film aesthetic was left stuck in the past when he released his final film, Gertrud, in 1964. The difference between Dreyer and Cocteau, however, was that Dreyer actually made some great films in his youth, while Cocteau was a bad filmmaker all throughout the thirty-year span of his career. Indeed, the fact that Cocteau went from atrocious to merely bad in The Testament of Orpheus is not enough to recommend it, or any of the other films in the trilogy.

The basic premise of The Testament of Orpheus is rather wan. The actors from Orphée / Orpheus, the 1949 middle film of the trilogy, reprise their putative roles – save that they now appear to Cocteau himself, who plays a time-traveling poet from the eighteenth century who, though lost in spacetime, haunts a scientist (Henri Crémieux) over the course of his life. For some reason, the professor has invented faster-than-light bullets in the future, so Cocteau brings them into the past so the professor can shoot him, thus sending him back in time. How all that works is left unexplained, and it does lend a sort of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians patina of scientism to the whole project.

The Testament of Orpheus is likewise filled with ridiculous and grandiose statements about poets having magical or superhuman prowess, fetishizing them as the greatest thinkers and all – even as Cocteau, the self-proclaimed poet, spouts drivel that would embarrass even Maya Angelou, the noted poet-cum-Hallmark greetings-card writer.

Edouard Dhermitte, Jean Cocteau in The Testament of Orpheus
Edouard Dhermitte, Jean Cocteau in The Testament of Orpheus

Oh my, how poets suffer! It seems that the Orpheus characters, Death (Maria Casarès – who did not age well; she actually resembles Vampira from Plan 9 from Outer Space) and Heurtebise (François Périer), resent being conjured by the magic of a poet, and want to try Cocteau for his sins. Of course, his sin is not sinning, and his sentence is being condemned to live – a wistful thought for the then seventy-year-old Cocteau, whose protege Edouard Dhermitte reprises his role as the poet Cégeste from Orpheus.

The whole trial scene plays out like a retarded 'lost' episode from the classic 1967 surreal British television series The Prisoner, though I longed for the giant white balloon Rover to bounce into frame and smother Cocteau and his dreadful cast. Naturally, Cocteau's acting is as atrocious as his writing. All he does is wander about in a stupor – and so do all the leftovers from Orpheus.

Rather than have characters say brilliant things offhandedly, Cocteau gives each of them ample opportunity to preen banalities as if they were insightful. Luckily, the one 'old trick' he used in earlier films – the mirror as a pool – is not used here. We are told that mirrors 'reflect too much,' though making actors appear and disappear seems to rival his penchant for reverse cinematography – such as reconstructing a flower, reassembling a burnt photo from a fire, or having the poet Cégeste leap up from the ocean to the cliffside where Cocteau stands.

In a sense, one might argue that this film has some deep points to make. It could do so, were it not so poorly presented. A dozen years later, the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five hit the big screen, with its hero, Billy Pilgrim, also 'unstuck in time' and going through similar adventures to Cocteau's. However, that film – while hardly great – is leagues above The Testament of Orpheus because it mixes naturalism and character development with absurdity and satire.

Jean Cocteau in The Testament of OrpheusHad it a modicum of humor, The Testament of Orpheus could have mined similar veins, but Cocteau is so self-important that the opportunity withers away. He would rather sprinkle his film with pointless cameos by his famous friends, including Pablo Picasso, Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim, Charles Aznavour, and – and then come up with an alibi for their presence at film's end by stating, 'You may notice many well-known people have appeared in this film. They were chosen not because they are famous but because they suited the part and because they are my friends.' Well, that may explain their equally dreadful acting, but it does not cleanse the artistic sin.

Interestingly, The Testament of Orpheus did come out the same year as Plan 9 from Outer Space, Ed Wood's infamous production that was so atrocious it was actually funny. Ironically, having seen a handful of Wood films, I would have to say that Cocteau is actually the worse filmmaker precisely because his films are so pompous and dry. One need only look at the scene where Cocteau – who was gay – has two buff young men in one-piece bathing suits, play the two halves of a dog, with one man holding the other's rump close enough so he could sniff it. It's an absurd and pointless scene conjured up only so Cocteau could yank himself during editing. But it could have been played for laughs, and to good effect, with a better director.

Cocteau was a huge influence on the Warhol Factory films that were just kicking into gear, but let it be known that Andy Warhol was far closer to Ed Wood than to Jean Cocteau in his sensibilities. There is also one moment of color in the black-and-white The Testament of Orpheus: a red flower and blood – a scene that obviously inspired Steven Spielberg's horrid Schindler's List and its brutally heavyhanded symbolism of the young girl's red coat.

The DVD, like the two others in the trilogy, has no commentary track. It only offers an overlong (35 minutes) and mostly silent 1952 home movie (in color) called La Villa Santo Sospir, in which Cocteau shows off his life and home. Also included are a few short essays and a poem in the insert, and a longer essay on the disc. But, given Criterion's high reputation in the DVD field, at least a commentary track should have been offered.

Jean Cocteau in The Testament of OrpheusThe Testament of Orpheus is the least embarrassing of the Orphic Trilogy films, but it still does not rise above the sci-fi schlock of the 1950s flicks that often had bold premises, but failed in the technical and acting areas. In fact, The Testament of Orpheus is not even bold. It's puerile and trite, while Cocteau is an embarrassment to all real poets.

Roland Pontoizeau's cinematography is framed poorly, while Georges Auric's music is often woefully inappropriate. Had Cocteau actually been a real artist, this film, and perhaps the whole trilogy and all of his canon might have become intriguing glimpses into meta-film, decades before the twin banes of Abstract Expressionism and Postmodernism dulled contemporary painting and literature. In terms of depth, narrative twists, and real characterizations, even Charlie Kaufman's often repetitive screenplays are leagues ahead of Cocteau's garbage.

Cocteau was a jack of all arts and a master of none. He was a narcissistic walking cliché. I tire of apologists for this sort of bad art, always trying to claim that a terrible work of art is simply 'too deep' to be properly critiqued. While truly great art has often been dismissed by bad critics, that is not the case with The Testament of Orpheus. Its premises and claims are easily seen through, for they are shallow. And that is what kills it as a film. One can only wonder what part they had in Cocteau's own demise.

© Dan Schneider

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

Le Testament d'Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi! / The Testament of Orpheus (1960).
Dir. / Scr.: Jean Cocteau.
Cast: Jean Cocteau, María Casares, François Périer, Henri Crémieux, Edouard Dhermitte, Alice Heyliger, Jean Marais, Françoise Christophe, Claudine Auger, Charles Aznavour, Lucia Bosé. Yul Brynner, Luis Miguel Dominguín, Daniel Gélin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jean-Claude Petit, Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline Roque, Françoise Sagan, Annette Vadim, Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim, Françoise Arnoul.

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2 Comments to 'The Testament of Orpheus' Movie Review: Jean Cocteau Poem Display 'Some Spark of Creativity'

  1. Yves

    Jean Cocteau was a genius.
    The Testament of Orpheus was one of the best, most poetic movies of the era.

  2. James Conahan

    I wish to take issue with this writer's somewhat knee-jerk reaction to 'The Testament of Orpheus.'

    I really don't understand the writer's venom towards Cocteau. His influence on other filmmakers and artists has been well-established. I think good evidence of this is actually when Cocteau was running out of funds to finish 'Testament,' Francois Truffaut gave him some of the profits from 'The 400 Blows.'

    It is clear that the writer has strong doubts about Cocteau's merit as either poet or filmmaker. However, the examples which he uses to support his critique seem vague at best.

    Barring the fact that these films were all made after 'Testament,' I fail to see how 'The Prisoner', '8 1/2', and 'Slaughterhouse Five' can be held up as superior examples of filmmaking technique or thematic maturity when the writer seems to merely compare plot points rather than form a cohesive argument about why they are.

    I'm also somewhat confused about the writer's consistant citing of 1950's science fiction. What exactly does Ed Wood have to do with any of this? I'm sure that Cocteau, being an avid cinephile, would probably have liked 'Plan 9 From Outer Space!'

    The writer also criticizes 'Testament' for its leaden and overt symbolism as well as out-dated special-effects. I don't think there is such a thing as inverted symbolism in film; every image contains many obvious symbols designed to point an audience in the right direction. The chess match between the Knight and Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal is hardly a subtle image. As far as special effects are concerned, what constitutes an effect as out-dated? Reverse photography is the only 'effect' used extensively in the film and that's been a device used throughout the history of cinema.

    I have always thought 'The Testament of Orpheus' to be a vastly underrated film. Cocteau's world is distinctly his own and the film has many startling cinematic moments. I think to say it is an artistic sin is equally presumptuous.

    Ne me demandez pas pourquoi!