The pending re-release (next Tuesday, as of this writing) of Jean Cocteau's Orpheus in upgraded DVD and Blu-ray editions makes this as good a time as I could hope for to review Testament of Orpheus, the last film he ever made, a sequel to his work of ten years earlier. Criterion lost the rights to both Testament and the first installment of his long-in-the-making Orphic Trilogy, The Blood of a Poet, in early 2010, making the original box set containing those three films something of a collector's item. However, they retained the rights to Orpheus, easily the most marketable and relatively conventional film of that trio, and are now on the brink of issuing what looks to be like a very nice upgrade of their initial offering. So having already reviewed the previous installments on this blog, I will do my part to draw a bit of attention to what is in a very real sense Cocteau's concluding statement regarding his artistic life and legacy.
Though it never makes any sense to watch the last part of a trilogy without first viewing the others, that rule applies even more heavily to Testament of Orpheus than usual. It opens with a scene from Orpheus' conclusion, one presumably intended as return the viewer to the mindset generated by the earlier film. While Orpheus clearly can function as a stand-alone film (The Blood of a Poet being so singular and discontinuous with the other two), Testament of Orpheus not only requires some familiarity with its immediate predecessor, it's also best consumed by those who have come to appreciate the artistry and career that it celebrates, namely that of Jean Cocteau himself. For this is, even in the most charitable interpretation of the term, a massively self-indulging cinematic exercise. Cocteau plays a version, or better yet, several versions of himself, speaking directly to the camera in the first person and through voice-overs, a practice that links all the Orphic Trilogy but is taken to new heights here. He conducts himself with an air of reflexive importance that, if taken too seriously, makes him insufferable to novices and contemptible to those who've decided they don't like his routine. There are numerous reviews of Testament of Orpheus one can easily find that fall into this category, and I'm far from making a broad recommendation or defense of this film to those who find it difficult to accompany Cocteau on the journey he invites us to take.
However, if one sees his apparent grandiosity and willingness to toss out epigrammatic platitudes as evidence of a playful and creative spirit, as I do, then I think Testament of Orpheus holds immense value as both entertainment and food for thought. Cocteau himself, through the voice of a young child in the film, admits to "playing the buffoon," a clear enough indication for my taste that he doesn't intend for his film to be regarded as a profound dissertation on the significance and value of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, except wherever one may happen to find those qualities amidst the scattered mix of gems and rubble he presents in his Testament. As he puts it in a written preface, included with the DVD, "The Testament of Orpheus is simply a machine for creating meanings. The film offers the viewer hieroglyphics that he can interpret as he pleases so as to quench his inquisitive thirst for Cartesianism."
Or, as he elaborates at the beginning of this film:
It is the unique power of 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. My film is nothing other than a striptease act, gradually peeling away my body to reveal my naked soul. For there is a considerable audience eager for this truth beyond truth which will one day become the sign of our times. This is the legacy of a poet to the youth in which he has always found support.I suppose those statements themselves can serve as a valid litmus test to determine whether or not Cocteau's personal brand of aesthetic whimsy works for you or not.
As with his more universally hailed masterpiece, Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau shows an indisputable talent for conjuring up mythic images and archetypes, transferring his well-practiced skills in the realm of painting and illustration to the cinematic format through a full panoply of set designs, costumes, choreographed movements, contemporary celebrities (some of whom are still recognizable today, others who wind up as irretrievably dated inside jokes) and, most strikingly, camera tricks. There are more slow-motion sequences, appearing/disappearing acts and film loops run backwards than I could begin to count, again to the point where they may become annoying to some while endearing to others. Ashes rise from the flames to become whole objects, bodies pop up from the floor or out of the water, torn and mangled flowers appear to be mended through the careful caress of deft fingers.
At one point, a character even has his spoken words played in reverse. On top of all that, we have an absurd injection of pseudo-science fiction as Cocteau opens the film with a half-baked time travel scheme that requires either close attention or multiple viewings to make much sense of. Along the way he meets centaurs, the goddess Athena and the tragic figure of Oedipus Rex, endures a fairly lengthy interrogation and trial by the characters he inadvertently prosecuted himself (as director) in Orpheus, and even stages his own death (by a hurled javelin) and resurrection before setting out for one last walk through the rugged and myth-infused Mediterranean coastline that he called home for most of his adult life. Fending off portents of doom, accompanied by his guardian Cegeste (played by real-life adopted son and protege Edouard Dermithe,) Cocteau/Orpheus winds up facing what he thinks is his final judgment when he's accosted on a winding road by jackbooted motorcycle cops - but they turn out to merely be local police working their mundane beat, and they allow him the chance to disappear into invisible immortality while they go chasing after more important and relevant quarry, like a speeding convertible filled with teenagers listening to rock'n'roll - Cocteau's not-too-subtle acknowledgement that his time has passed and it's the turn of a new generation to carry the torch of artistic emancipation. (And it's fair to conclude that the always forward thinking Cocteau sensed the impending revolution of the Nouvelle Vague about to splash down hard with the next film I'll review here, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.)
Is there an obvious reason for all this visual goofing around? Sometimes it's just to revel in the unusual sights, to convey a sense of child-like astonishment, but for the most part, I think Cocteau simply wanted to capture for perpetuity a vivid image that impressed itself on his imagination, without thinking all that much or deeply about how it would fit like clockwork into an ingeniously constructed narrative. This is the essence of surrealism, as pompous and pretentious as can be if wielded as some kind of higher authority or secret wisdom, but also capable of wreaking subversive havoc on the strongholds of those who both assume and act as if they have a commanding part to play in the story of the universe, or human society, whichever domain you choose to take more seriously.
As essential as it may be to first watch Orpheus before venturing into Testament of Orpheus, even more important to appreciating the final film, in my opinion, is a short home movie that Cocteau made in 1952 titled Villa Santo Sospir. Shot on 16mm Kodachrome, it brings us even more clearly into the presence of Cocteau the man and artist, as he lived in the day-to-day, apart from the inevitable conceits of his Testament. In addition to seeing Cocteau's beautiful paintings and interior designs in color (slightly faded though it may be), the footage provides ample evidence that he was quite successful in creating a most amazing life for himself, in a most gorgeous landscape and geographic setting on top of it all. It's a real gem of a supplement for anyone who wants to know more about Cocteau and the interior vision that came to fruition not only in these films, but also in a rich repository of written and visual works that he left behind. I've embedded the middle section of Villa Santo Sospir just to focus on the art itself, though you can find the whole film in three sections on YouTube:
Just as The Blood of the Poet is situated between the visual bookends of an imploding industrial chimney stack falling to the ground (implying that all the action in that film took place in an instant of time), so Testament of Orpheus is framed by first, smoke coalescing to form a bubble at the tip of a dagger, and finally by that dagger intersecting with the bubble and re-releasing all the smoke it originally captured. Though Cocteau's name continues to appear in writing credits on films even as recently as 2010, for him, this film really is a supremely fitting...
Jean Cocteau, je vous salue.