The Testament of Orpheus, or Don’t Ask Me Why! (1960)

Article 1948 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-15-2006
Posting Date: 12-12-2006
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Featuring Jean Cocteau, Edouard Demithe, Francois Perier

A poet, floating through time, is shot with faster-than-light bullets so he can be resurrected and undertake his journey through a world where he is haunted by his own creations.

This is the fourth movie I’ve seen from Jean Cocteau. The earliest of his movies I’ve seen was BLOOD OF A POET, which I found fascinating if near impenetrable. Since then I’ve watched the relatively straighforward movies BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ORPHEUS. I bought this movie as part of set of Cocteau movies referred to as the Orphic trilogy, which included both ORPHEUS and BLOOD OF A POET. Classifying ORPHEUS and BLOOD OF A POET as two parts of trilogy did have me scratching my head; they didn’t seem to be separate chapters of a trilogy. It was only after having seen this one that I stopped scratching my head.

THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS was Cocteau’s last movie, and in it he returned to the symbol-filled approach to movie-making that he had used for BLOOD OF A POET. He spends much of his time musing on how his own creations take on a life of their own and search for the meaning of their existence; at least two of the characters from ORPHEUS reappear here. He also muses on the nature of celebrity, the ability of cinema to give the poet the ability to allow a large group of people to dream the same dream at the same time, and to engage in some of those fascinating special effects that mark his work. I find it fitting that the filmmaker most interested in the poetic use of special effects would come from the same country as Melies, who pioneered cinematic special effects. IMDB classifies the movie as a biography, but that word is singularly useless in conjuring up the almost giddy fantasy of this movie, in which Cocteau, playing himself, dies twice and then asks the viewer to only pretend to cry, since he himself is only pretending to die. And, like many deaths in Cocteau films, he dies only to be resurrected; in fact, he is referred to as an expert on Phoenixology at one point in the proceedings. The movie is fascinating for one willing to delve into Cocteau’s world, and it has certainly piqued my interest into rewatching his earlier films, particularly BLOOD OF A POET, which, armed with what I’ve learned of his work, may not prove to be not quite so impenetrable. On top of that, the movie is witty; I laughed out loud at some of the revelations. The movie is loaded with cameos of well-known people, including Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Jean Marais, Roger Vadim and Pablo Picasso.

At the end of the movie, Cocteau announces that this is his last movie, and hopes that we enjoyed it. I can assure him that, for myself at least, I did. Very much so.


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