Testament of Orpheus (1960)

“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 always found support.”

‘Testament of Orpheus’, directed by Jean Cocteau in 1960, is the third in a trilogy of movies that riff on the Greek myth that also includes ‘Blood of a Poet’ and ‘Orphée’. The film is highly self-referential and features Cocteau as the central character, journeying into the underworld and encountering actors and characters from his previous film and the same mythic imagery. It features the traditional Cocteau visual camera effects: slow motion, reversed footage, trick sets and makeup, but is less linear than ‘Orphée’ and less avant-garde than ‘Blood of a Poet’. It’s self-indulgent, Cocteau is clearly engaging in a solipsistic mediation on his career and on the nature of film itself, but the self-indulgence is both earned and, in a way, a part of the driving theme of the film. Cocteau is presented as a time-traveller, his predicament, a man doomed to hop chronologically around his own fictional world, is set up in a particularly witty opening scene with a scientist who has invented faster-the-light bullets. As with ‘Russian Ark’, this blending of personal history, memory, nostalgia and time-travel creates an uncanny atmosphere, but here, with Cocteau’s unique manipulation with visual reality, it also becomes a metaphor for the act of viewing a movie. The director is a surprisingly charismatic actor, we watch him frailly stepping from one surreal vignette to another, at times exuding bewilderment and at others a knowing control. Perhaps this is the key to his direction, simultaneously improvised and rigorously prepared for, intellectually precise but open to sudden emotional digressions. In short, this film is about the tension between the technology and the artistry of film, the former requiring meticulous control, the latter requiring inspiration and adaptability. It is the balance between these two poles of cinema that ‘Testament of Orpheus’ focuses on and Cocteau shows himself to be a master of maintaining that balance.

Would I recommend it? Yes – watching the trilogy in order makes a sort of sense of what Cocteau is attempting, but I’d also bear ‘Black Orpheus’ in mind as an alternative adaptation with more music and colour.

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