‘Testament of Orpheus’: Best ‘Orphic Trilogy’ entry – but ‘nowhere near a good film’
The third film in Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy,” Testament of Orpheus / Le Testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi! (1960), is also the third film in The Criterion Collection’s box set release. While Testament of Orpheus is the best of the trio, it’s nowhere near a good film.
True, 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For instance, Testament of Orpheus is replete with outdated special effects – such as Cocteau running film in reverse on numerous occasions – that are almost embarrassing to watch.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 two preceding entries in the trilogy – The Blood of a Poet / Le Sang d’un poète (1932) and Orpheus / Orphée (1950) – set the bar so low that Cocteau did not really have to do much to improve upon his previous failures.
Jean Cocteau: ‘No poet of stature’
Despite his claims to the contrary, Jean 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 Testament of Orpheus – and of its predecessors – is that Cocteau really does believe the crap he spews.
At one point in the film, 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.
Whereas someone like Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman could have overt symbolism in their films – think Saraghina in 8½ 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, whose symbolisms are so heavy-handed, so obvious, and so manifold that they have little real-world referents for them to be understood by the average viewer. As a result, they lose all symbolic impact, becoming detritus that fills up screen space.
‘From atrocious to merely bad’
Jean Cocteau’s last film, Testament of Orpheus was released in 1960 – nearly three decades after his first film, 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 effort, 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 30-year span of his career.
Indeed, the fact that Cocteau went from atrocious to merely bad in Testament of Orpheus is not enough to recommend it.
The basic premise of Testament of Orpheus is rather wan. Some of the actors from 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 18th century who, though lost in space-time, haunts a scientist (Henri Crémieux; the Editor in Orpheus) over the course of his life.
For some reason, the scientist, known as The Professor, has invented faster-than-light bullets that Cocteau takes into the past so the Professor can shoot him, thus sending him back in time. How all that works is left unexplained, lending a sort of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians patina of scientism to the whole project.
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 Jean Cocteau, the self-proclaimed poet, spouts drivel that would embarrass even Maya Angelou, the noted poet-cum-Hallmark greetings-card writer.
Oh my, how poets suffer! It seems that the Orpheus characters, Heurtebise (François Périer) and Death (Maria Casarès, who did not age well; she actually resembles Vampira from Plan 9 from Outer Space), 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 70-year-old Cocteau, whose protégé, Edouard Dermithe, 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, Jean 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.
Overuse of reverse cinematography
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,” but making actors appear and disappear seems to rival his penchant for reverse cinematography. Examples include 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 Testament of Orpheus has some deep points to make. It could do so, were it not so poorly presented.
‘Slaughterhouse Five’ comparison & pointless cameos
A dozen years later, Kurt Vonnegut’s 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 Testament of Orpheus because it mixes naturalism and character development with absurdity and satire.
Had it a modicum of humor, the film could have mined similar veins, but the writer-director Jean Cocteau is so self-important that the opportunity withers away.
Cocteau would rather sprinkle his film with pointless cameos by his famous friends, including Pablo Picasso, Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim, Charles Aznavour, and Yul Brynner – 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.
Jean Cocteau vs. Ed Wood & Andy Warhol
Interestingly, 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 Testament of Orpheus: a red flower and blood – a scene that obviously inspired Steven Spielberg’s horrid Schindler’s List and its brutally heavy-handed symbolism of the young girl’s red coat.
‘Puerile and trite’
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, Testament of Orpheus is not even bold; it’s puerile and trite, while Jean 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.
‘Testament of Orpheus’: Shallow premises and claims
Jean 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 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 Jean Cocteau’s own demise.
Review text © Dan Schneider. Image captions © Alt Film Guide.
Note: This review of Jean Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text, which can be read in its original form at cosmoetica.com.
The views expressed in the review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Testament of Orpheus / Le Testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi! (1960).
Dir. / Scr.: Jean Cocteau.
Cast: Jean Cocteau. Jean Marais. Alice Heyliger. Claudine Auger. Edouard Dermithe. Lucia Bosé. François Périer. Charles Aznavour.
Maria Casarès. Françoise Christophe. Yul Brynner. Nicole Courcel. Henri Crémieux. Luis Miguel Dominguín. Daniel Gélin.
Jean-Pierre Léaud. Brigitte Morisan. Pablo Picasso. Jean-Claude Petit. Françoise Sagan. Annette Vadim (a.k.a. Annette Stroyberg).
Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte. Jacqueline Roque. Alice Sapritch. Henri Torrès. Brigitte Bardot. Roger Vadim. Françoise Arnoul.
Testament of Orpheus cast info via the IMDb.
Jean Marais and Jean Cocteau Testament of Orpheus images: The Criterion Collection / Cinédis.
“Testament of Orpheus: Jean Cocteau Ends Heavy-Handed ‘Orphic Trilogy’” last updated in March 2018.