A culmination of sorts of an artistic life, and the most deeply personal and revealing film that Jean Cocteau ever made. Testament of Orpheus is the final film in his Orphic trilogy, only this time Cocteau is Orpheus and the underworld is his own mind as we examine both the birthplace of his creativity and his memories. It’s nearly impossible to discuss the film on its own as so much of it depends on a familiarity not only with Orpheus, but with Cocteau’s entire body of work, including the films and paintings.
Testament of Orpheus begins with the concluding scenes of Orpheus, where death (Maria Casares) and Heurtebise (Francois Perier) carted off while Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe) watches on helplessly. Right after this, Cocteau appears and begins speaking directly through the camera to the audience. This will be the primary mode of the film, hallucinatory images surrounded by Cocteau’s musings about his life, art, and the reflexive introspection. Some may find this self-indulgent and precocious, but I found his collage of surreal images, poetic musings, and the ethereal score by an enthralling, entertaining cinematic hodge-podge.
But Orpheus isn’t the lone film that Cocteau cannibalizes here. His short documentary, La Villa Santo Sospir, gets threaded back through this tone poem. Not only do we glimpse many of the paintings he displayed there, but a section of the film uses that villa as a shooting location. Once again Cocteau destroys and reassembles a flower, and the effect is not diluted here. If anything, given the context of the film, the artist-as-God symbolism of that image hits just a bit harder. Eventually the flower will become a reoccurring motif throughout the film, but that first sequence is still powerful for the pureness of Cocteau’s aesthetic it displays.
As a self-made elegy, Cocteau could have not conjured up a better farewell. A few years after making this Cocteau would die from a heart-attack, and he frequently wanders the frame with a placid face, one that reads as a man making peace with the life he’s about to leave. Cocteau seems possessed with death and decay, with where our legacies will leave us, and how art grants its creator immortality. That last point would seem irksome from another artist, but Cocteau blessed the world a small number of films, many of them among the greatest works of cinematic art, and the point seems valid.
There’s also the behind-the-scenes drama where Cocteau was desperate to make a final grand artistic statement and he had trouble finding the funds. The younger generation of film-makers that named him as an influence came to his rescue, primarily Francois Truffaut who donated money earned from The 400 Blows to this project as a thank you. Cocteau also brought along his longtime muse/lover Jean Marais for a brief cameo, close friends like Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso show up, and his current lover, Dermithe, guides him through a vast chunk of the film, working as both soothing spirit guide and the luscious personification of death.
Do I know exactly what all of these elusive images and epigrammatic phrases mean? No, but the film functions as a dizzying series of moving hieroglyphics that one will either groove along with or keep at an arm’s length. I found it absorbing for what it reveals about Cocteau as a human, his deep belief in these musings and the transportive power of art and ideas, his confrontations with his creators and how they rebel against their creator, and his personal style of painting and drawing.
If you chose to merely look at Testament on a surface level, there’s plenty of off kilter beauty to keep you engaged. But I suggest trying to dig through the rubble, as there’s plenty of meanings to be mined from this material. Cocteau clearly doesn’t want to lead you to any one solid conclusion, but present a wide platter of ideas and loaded symbolism for you to wrestle with. This last will functions as much as a mirror to Cocteau as it does for the audience. Cocteau’s particular brand of whimsy would disappear with his passing in 1963, but we’ll always have his essential films to return to.
I love getting lost in Cocteau’s world of make-believe, of smoke and mirrors, of grand pronouncements and sumptuous imagery. To dub Testament of Orpheus as self-indulgent would not be an incorrect assessment, but it somehow feels like it’s missing the mark. The logical progression of Cocteau’s work would lead us to the artist himself taking the center stage at some point, and there’s no more fitting a moment than his final work. It’s a surreal film, a chance for Cocteau to enthrall us once more, and a fitting tribute to a landmark career all at once. Even with all of its faults, I cannot deem Testament of Orpheus as anything less than an essential viewing experience.