Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!
“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown
FEATURING: Jean Cocteau,
PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.
- Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
- Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
- Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
- The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
- Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.
Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus
COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of evidence (in this case, of Cocteau’s aesthetics) and a final gift (in his introduction to the film he declares it his “legacy of a poet to the youth in which he has always found support.”) The aging Cocteau conceived of it from the beginning as his final testament on film, and the subject is, shamelessly, Cocteau himself. “My film is nothing other than a striptease act, gradually peeling away my body to reveal my naked soul,” he narrates, while his unseen hand sketches as self-portrait. When Cégeste orders him to sketch a flower, he again creates a line-sketch of himself, unable to draw any other subject. Rather than using a matinee idol to stand in for the archetypal Poet, as he had done in the past, he himself takes the lead role here. The film prominently displays Cocteau’s artworks, including a tapestry and scenes set in the Chappelle de St. Pierre he designed. But despite the inherent egoism of the project, Cocteau can be likeably self-deprecating. He argues in-film with the characters he created, who show a distressing lack of respect for his authorial authority. In the film, French children are taught about this “great man” as part of their curriculum, but one schoolgirl describes him as a “musician” who plays “the buffoon.” (Her interlocutor corrects her: “he plays at being an artist.”) And the film ends with a conditional apology: “I will be sad if you did not like it, because I gave it my all.”
Testament is not the film for Cocteau neophytes. If nothing else, familiarity with Orpheus is necessary to get a grip on large parts of the already nebulous plot. It is, rather, a film aimed at his friends and admirers; a movie in which Cocteau lets down his guard and is not afraid to appear ridiculous by being overly sincere. And while Testament is not his greatest film, it is packed with enough signature moments of wit and bizarre whimsy to make it worthwhile. The film is a testament to the poetic journey: not to sonnets and iambic pentameter and such, but poetry as Cocteau defines it—a liminal trance state where the poet intuits ineffable truths, encounters free-floating archetypes, and channels dream visions and beauty beyond rational explanation. Thus, we have the amusing conceit of the “timelessness” of poetry enacted in the poet being a literal time-traveler. The poet goes on a journey with no rules but those of the waking dream. Unfazed by strange sights, he passes by a bipedal horse walking down a mountain pass without a second glance. (In contrast, he will later be startled when passing his own double silently wandering the underground chambers of his personal villa.) He is tried by his own characters for the offense of “repeatedly attempting to trespass into another world.” There’s a funny throwaway joke about “intellectuals in love” among the many digressions, and a scene with a Countess who is also lost in time that could almost have fit into, except for the bare-torsoed pony boys who would be more at home in a leather bar. The climax of strangeness occurs with the eldritch figure of Pallas Athena, with her unclosing painted eyes, flanked by her horse-man servants. The Goddess of Wisdom ignores the poet’s offering of a resurrected rose and slays him with her javelin (which whooshes like a rocket as it impales him). Slain by reason, Cocteau stages his own (suitably bizarre) funeral, a ceremony few of us are privileged to plan and observe.
Because the myth of Orpheus is its starting point, death lurks everywhere in the Orphic trilogy. In the first two films, death is not to be feared, but, like the Tarot card that bears its name, symbolizes transformation. Specifically, Cocteau is fascinated by his conception of Orpheus: the poet who symbolically dies by voluntarily entering Hades, but is reborn anew. I don’t think Cocteau understands or would care to articulate an intellectual theory of the symbolic relationship between poetry and symbolic death; rather, he is fascinated by the mystery suggested by the mythological connection, and explores it in modernized, transfigurative, and ironic ways (in Orpheus, Hell has its own radio station). Here, with Cocteau now old and frail and deliberately producing his swan song, death haunts the film in a more immediate context. There is still the idea of poetry as resurrection—the dead flower Cocteau is tasked with re-animating—and Cégeste calls the Poet an expert in “phoenixology, repeatedly dying to be reborn.” But when we see Cocteau die, twice, in the film, it is hard not to think that soon the man we see before us is soon to die for real, and not come back. Despite his fantasies of immortality through his art, Cocteau does not shy away from the reality of death. When, at the conclusion of his trial, his character Heurtebise condemns the guilty party to life, he consoles him with a grim joke: “a minimum sentence, at your age.”
Cocteau’s explicit embrace of his own imminent death in his final film adds a layer of poignancy that ennobles an otherwise meandering treatise on the personal mythologies that motivated his life. Among these are his love for cinema, which he defines as a shared dream, and more poetically as “a petrifying fountain of thought.” The eternal art-death-art-rebirth-art cycle is, perhaps, the most obvious of Cocteau’s obsessions. But digging deeper, we see here Cocteau’s exploration of his concept of the self-within-the-self, the interior muse that is a mystery to the artist. “We are pawns of a force that lives inside us,” he explains to Death at his trial. The documentary portrait Autobiography of an Unknown includes an interview with Cocteau made some time after Testament in which he says “the underlying man is not well-known to us: our true self. He is hidden in the shadows, he orders us around. I have decided to sink into myself, into this terrible hole, the unknown mine…” I think by the “true self” Cocteau means the Surrealist unconscious, the source of his dream inspirations: but he ascribes a higher degree of existence and an almost mystical power to this self-within-the-self, the “naked soul” he references in his introduction. In this light, the meaning of his conversation with Cégeste after Cocteau meets himself in the catacombs of the villa becomes clearer. The version of Cocteau who stars in the film is the internal poet, and the doppelganger who passes him without a glance is the real world, mundane Jean Cocteau. This is why Cégeste reminds the poet that his double has “suffered mockery intended for you” and “will die in your place.” I doubt Cocteau would identify this internal poet, the “true man,” with the immortal Christian soul. Even though he designed a chapel and created religious artwork, it’s unclear how much of a believing Catholic Cocteau remained; references to pagan classical beliefs vastly outnumber Christian ones in his work. I suspect that Cocteau regarded this “true man” as a mystery and a division he felt within himself, one he felt driven to pursue. He was not the type to pin such enigmas down with dogma and nomenclature, preferring the more elastic technique of myth.
Overall, I find Testament the weakest of the Orphic trilogy, and perhaps Cocteau’s weakest directorial effort. It is mainly a love-letter to Cocteau fans and completists, and a love letter from Cocteau to himself. At times, it is pretentious and obvious. But this Cocteauian summary offers plenty to enjoy for devotees of the weird aesthetic, delivered by one of its most forceful proponents and founding fathers. Testament is Cocteau’s bequest to us, and it’s bad form to badmouth a dead man’s final, sincerely intended gift. A ceaseless worker in the fields of writing, drawing, design, and especially cinema, if anyone earned the right to eulogize himself, it’s Jean Cocteau. His epitaph reads “Je reste avec vous” (“I stay with you.”) Ne me demandez pas pourquoi.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… this is, even in the most charitable interpretation of the term, a massively self-indulging cinematic exercise… 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.”–David Blakeslee, Criterion Reflections (DVD)
“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.”–Dan Schenider, Alt Film Guide (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Testament of Orpheus (1960)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Testament of Orpheus – Some of Cocteau’s own thoughts on the film, courtesy of The Criterion Collection
Cocteau & The Testament of Orpheus – Video essay on the film focusing on mythological references and choice of actors (probably created as a project for a film studies class)
Two Screenplays: The Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus – Cocteau’s original screenplays, with supplementary essays and stills
The Art of Cinema – This collection of Cocteau essays includes reflections on each of his films (including Testament) and on movies from other directors he admired ( , )
Jean Cocteau and The Testament of Orpheus – A pictorial essay by photographer Lucien Clergue, the still photographer on set
HOME VIDEO INFO: The story behind The Testament of Orpheus on home video is similar to that of Blood of a Poet, except that Testament is an even rarer find by virtue of not being a public domain film. The Criterion Collection released Blood, Orpheus and Testament in a fabled “Orphic Trilogy” triple DVD set (buy) that has since gone out of print (hint: Netflix’s DVD.com still rents the original discs individually). Used copies can sometimes be found on secondary markets. The Criterion Testament disc has a “bibliofilmography” of the artist, another delightful essay by Cocteau (excerpted from “The Art of Cinema”) and the 1952 short Villa Santa Sospir, a color tour of a villa Cocteau designed and painted (Criterion ported this featurette over to its Orpheus Blu-ray). It’s not clear who has the rights to Testament after Criterion lost them (Studio Canal?), but whoever it is, it appears that they don’t believe the English-speaking world is interested in seeing the film. International editions pop up on DVD from time to time, but it’s not clear if they are subtitled in English, or if they are legitimate at all. You can always search Amazon and see what pops up, but if you’re not buying a used copy of the Criterion edition, we can’t vouch for the quality.