The Testament of Orpheus (Le Testament d’Orphée)

1960, Dir. Jean Cocteau

52-week film challenge, film 13

Now this here is perhaps the ultimate example of what most “normal” people think of when they think of “art-house cinema snob” highbrow movies: a B&W (mostly) film made by some furriner where you have to read subtitles, starring some old dude who says things that sound weighty but are incomprehensible to “normal” people; long, slow-paced shots of people walking around things in odd ways; very little action; obvious erotic overtones without any of “the good stuff”; obscure back-references to other films or Greek tragedies nobody saw; self-directed and pretentious, and of course no attempt at a linear, relatable plot. 🙂

Cocteau’s final film (and almost his final anything: he would die just three years later) seems — at least to me — like an attempt to fuse the ideas of The Blood of a Poet and Orpheus into one final statement, weighted by the additional weight of mortality that increases as we grow older. It is 100 percent guilty of everything I mentioned in the paragraph above, but as I watched it for the first time Cocteau still managed to work his ingenious magic on me: couldn’t take my eyes off the thing because I literally could not guess what was going to happen next.

Even though the film does indeed strike a self-assessing tone, there is playful humour sprinked throughout — some of Cocteau’s answers to questions or dialogue from his characters to him are quite witty. As usual, the film puts layers on layers, and slathers on the symbolism. This time around, though, Cocteau himself is the star, though viewers of his 1950 film Orpheus may be surprised and certainly delighted to see several cast members not that classic in key roles in this one — though Cocteau did not credit any of the players for fear of misleading his audience.

This is also your chance to see cameos from Pablo Picasso and Charles Aznevore, and a small but important role for Yul Brynner, who helped finance the film, among other notable names of the time. This one is also in black and white, which by 1960 was all but gone from cinema screens, but like Orpheus is utterly gorgeous.

Cocteau plays … well, at some points he is clearly playing himself (billed as The Poet), and at some points (particularly early on), he is playing a character … a mysterious poet and scientist dressed as a 17th-century dandy who appears like a ghost to a colleague (Henri Crémieux, the first of many from Orpheus to be in this, albeit in a slightly different role) to release him from the error of his time-travel experiment by shooting him, whereupon he “snaps back” to the present day and becomes “himself,” i.e. the “real” Cocteau — though he does occasionally catch a glimpse of doppelgängers of himself still moving through this faux-dreamscape, like reflections in a mirror.

I found it particularly interesting that these scenes (and others later) are obviously filmed in a small portion of a bare, empty film studio … no sets or any form of artifice to set the scene, just basic walls and plain tables and chairs, and no attempt to “fool” the viewer as to where they are, or even to create a “void” space. This is a film, we’re in a small studio with minimal resources, and you can see all of that. As the film progresses, it relies more heavily on location filming, which is (as always with Cocteau) mostly ruins or symbolic sets placed in the ruins, symbols for the messiness of life but also for those moments where something meaningful is achieved.

As for what it all means, Cocteau later wrote about this in the most art-y way possible: “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.” There, that clears it up!

Cocteau plays extensively with the “mythology” he created for Orpheus, and in effect some of this is a — kind of? — sequel to that film, in that Cégeste (his real-life adopted son, Edouard Dermit) , The Princess of Death (María Casares), and Huertebise (François Périer) have substantive roles to show what happened to them. Cégeste, sometimes reminding Cocteau that that’s only his character name, is his guide to the underworld; and true to the ending of Orpheus, The Princess and Huertebise have indeed been “sentenced” to become judges of the newly-dead, and now they are subjecting their creator, Cocteau, to an inquisition.

Cocteau mounts a “defense” by defending his need to create, to review his life, and to put his inner discoveries into visual language on screen or in writing for others to hopefully gain some enlightenment. After an inconclusive end to the “court” case, Cocteau wanders through mysterious ruins, occasionally running into men dressed as horses, until finally a Greek warrior of some sort kills him again. His friends rally to resurrect him yet again — the sort of immortality Cocteau hoped for — and he resumes his wanderings.

And in case you are wondering, as a sort of joke, Jean Marais (who played Orpheus in that film) briefly appears here — as another classic Greek figure, Oedipus (post eye-gouging). Eurydice (although played by a different actor, Alice Heyliger) is also seen briefly. Some others from Orpheus are likely in there too, but those are the ones I spotted.

A lengthy section of the film, with the motif repeated a few times, is that of Cocteau destroying a flower and then rebuilding it. In the decade between Orpheus and this final film, the French New Wave of cinema has bloomed, in no small part thanks to Cocteau’s influence — just as surrealist filmmaking became a thing after his first film (and the first film in this “trilogy”), The Blood of a Poet (1930).

Cocteau made a number of other films between that first one and this last one, but he clearly intended this one to be his last statement to the general public. I have to borrow a bit from Ken Phipps’ review of Testament for the AV Club, since he has summed up the film’s meaning about as well as it can be: “In the end, Cocteau takes comfort in the immortality of art, and therefore his own immortality, a sentiment that would seem far less moving and far more egotistical if it weren’t true.”

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, Yul Brynner.