DVD Review Of Testament Of Orpheus
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/6/07
The third film in the so-called Orphic Trilogy of Jean Cocteau, Testament Of Orpheus (Le Testament D’Orphée, Ou Ne Me Demandez Pas Pourquoi!), is also the third film in The Criterion Collection release boxed set, and while it’s the best of the trio it’s nowhere near a good film. It does have perhaps the best scoring, and a dozen or so moments in its eighty minutes that have some spark of creativity, but Cocteau is so narcissistic and the film so self-indulgent and replete with outdated special effects, such as Cocteau running film in reverse on numerous occasions, that one feels almost embarrassed for him. Also, the previous two entries in the trilogy set the bar so low that Cocteau did not really have to do much to improve upon their failures, and he didn’t do much.
Despite his claims to the contrary, Cocteau was certainly no poet of any stature, and his lack of writing skill 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- even as Cocteau believes it is deep. Part of the odd charm of the film, and its predecessors, is that Cocteau really does believe the crap he spews. At one point in the film he even states, ‘It is the unique power of the 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.’ Not only is the sentiment false and highfalutin’, but it’s read by Cocteau with such earnest inanity that one wonders whether he really could believe such tripe and not have to restrain a guffaw.
Whereas someone like a Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman could have overt symbolism in their films- think Saraghina in 8½ or the image of Death in The Seventh Seal, it is used sparingly by them and only at moments where it has maximum impact. Plus, the narrative that fills the rest of those films is not so awkwardly self-conscious as Cocteau’s. Cocteau’s symbolism, by contrast, is so heavy-handed, so obvious, and so manifold that they have little real world referents to cling in a typical viewer’s mind, thus they lose all symbolic impact, and just become detritus that fills up screen space. This film, Cocteau’s last, was released in 1959, nearly three decades after his first film, The Blood Of A Poet, and one has to admit- even if a Cocteauphile, that little advancement was made in any aspect of the filmmaking, especially the technical end. In that sense, Cocteau reminds one of Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose film aesthetic seemed to pass him by when he released his final film, Gertrud, in 1964. The difference between Dreyer and Cocteau, however, was that Dreyer actually made some great films in his youth, while Cocteau was bad over the whole thirty year span of his career. That he ameliorated from atrocious to merely bad in this film is not enough to recommend this nor any of the other films in the trilogy.
The basic premise of Testament Of Orpheus is rather wan. The actors from Orpheus, the 1949 middle film of the trilogy, reprise their putative roles, save that they now appear to Cocteau himself, who plays a time traveling poet from the Eighteenth Century who haunts a scientist (Henri Cremieux) over the course of his life, even though he is lost in spacetime. For some reason, the professor has invented faster than light bullets in his future, and Cocteau brings them into his past so the professor can shoot him and stick him back in time. How this works is not explained, and it does lend a sort of Santa Claus Conquers The Martians patina of scientism to the whole project.
The film is likewise filled with ridiculous and grandiose statements about poets having magical or superhuman prowess, fetishizing them as the greatest thinkers and all, even as Cocteau- the claimed poet, spouts drivel that would embarrass even Maya Angelou, the noted poet-cum-Hallmark greetings card writer. Oh my, poets suffer! It seems that the Orpheus characters, Death (Maria Casares- who did not age well, and unwittingly resembles Vampira from Plan 9 From Outer Space) and Heurtebise (Francois Perier), resent being conjured by the magic of a poet, and want to try Cocteau for his sins. Of course, his sin is not sinning, and his sentence is being condemned to live- a wistful thought for the then seventy year old Cocteau, whose own real life son Edouard Dermithe reprises his role as Cegeste the poet from Orpheus. The whole trial scene plays out like a retarded ‘lost’ episode from the classic 1967 surreal British television series The Prisoner, although one longs for the giant white balloon Rover to bounce into frame and smother Cocteau and his dreadful cast.
Naturally, Cocteau’s acting is as atrocious as his writing- as all he does is wander about in a stupor, as is the acting of all the leftovers from Orpheus. Rather than having characters say brilliant things offhandedly, Cocteau gives each of them ample opportunity to preen banalities as if they were insightful. Luckily, the one ‘old trick’ he used in earlier films- the mirror as pool, is not used here. We are told that mirrors ‘reflect too much,’ although making actors appear and disappear seems to rival his penchant for reverse cinematography- such as reconstructing a flower, reassembling a burnt photo from a fire, or the poet Cegeste leaping up from the ocean to the cliffside where Cocteau stands.
In a sense, one might argue that this film has some deep points to make. It could do so, were it not so poorly presented. A dozen years later the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five hit the big screen, and its hero, Billy Pilgrim- also ‘unstuck in time’, goes through many similar adventures to Cocteau’s. However, that film- while not great, is leagues above this one because it mixes naturalism and character development with the absurdity and satire. This film, had it a dram of humor, could have mined similar veins, but Cocteau is so damned humorless and self-important that the opportunity withers away. Cocteau would rather sprinkle his film with pointless cameos by his famous friends, such as Pablo Picasso, Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim, Charles Aznavour, and Yul Brynner, then alibi for their presence at film’s end by stating, ‘You may notice many well known people have appeared in this film. They were chosen not because they were are famous but because they suited the part and because they are my friends.’ Well, that may explain their equally dreadful acting, but it does not cleanse the artistic sin.
Interestingly, this film did come out the same year as Plan 9 From Outer Space, the infamously bad film by Ed Wood that was so atrocious, if taken seriously, that it was actually funny. Ironically, having seen a handful of Wood films, I would have to say that Cocteau is actually the worse filmmaker precisely because his films are so ridiculously pompous and dry. One need only look at the scene where Cocteau- a homosexual, had two buff young men in one piece bathing suits, play the two halves of a dog, with one man holding the others’ rump close enough so he could sniff it. It’s an absurd and pointless scene conjured up only so Cocteau could yank himself during editing. But, it could have been played for laughs, and to good effect, with a better director. Manifestly, Cocteau was a huge influence on the Warhol Factory films that were just kicking into gear, but let it be known that Andy Warhol was far closer to Ed Wood than Jean Cocteau in his sensibilities. There is also one moment of color in the film- a red flower and blood, in one scene that obviously inspired Steven Spielberg’s horrid Schindler’s List and its brutally heavyhanded symbolism of the red coat in that black and white film.
The DVD, like the two others in the trilogy, has no commentary track, and only an overly long- thirty-five minute, and mostly silent, 1952 home movie in color called La Villa Santo Sospir, wherein Cocteau shows off his life and home. There are a few short essays and a poem in the insert, and a longer essay on the disk. But, given Criterion’s high reputation in the DVD field, at least a commentary track should have been offered.
Testament Of Orpheus is the least embarrassing of the so-called Orphic Trilogy, but it still does not rise above the sci fi schlock of the 1950s, films which often had bold premises, but failed merely in technical and acting aspects. This film is not even bold. It’s puerile and trite, and Cocteau is an embarrassment to all real poets. The cinematography by Roland Pontoizeau is often framed poorly, and the music by Georges Auric is woefully inappropriate in many places. Had Cocteau actually been a real artist, this film, and perhaps the whole trilogy and his canon, may have been intriguing glimpses into meta-film, decades before the twin banes of Abstract Expressionism and Postmodernism dulled contemporary painting and literature. Even the often repetitive Charlie Kaufman scripted films of recent years are leagues ahead of this garbage, in terms of narrative twists, depth, and real characterization. Instead, Cocteau was a jack of all arts, and a master of none, a narcissistic unwitting walking cliché in the flesh. I tire of apologists for this sort of manifestly bad art who always try to claim that a work of art that is so terrible is simply ‘too deep’, or any other such nonsense, to be properly critiqued. While truly great art has often been dismissed in this manner by bad critics, Testament Of Orpheus is not only not great art, but manifestly bad art. Its premises and claims are easily seen through, for they are so shallow, and that is what kills it as a film. One can only wonder what part they had in Cocteau’s demise. One can dream, can’t one?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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