The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental  |   Sub-Genres - Surrealist Film  |   Run Time - 79 min.  |   Countries - France  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Wheeler Winston Dixon

The third film in Jean Cocteau's Orphic trilogy, The Testament of Orpheus followed The Blood of a Poet (1932) and Orphée (1949) as a fitting tribute to Cocteau's lifelong obsession with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as well as the continual presence of Death (moving about the world of the living through mirrors), personified in Orphée and Le Testament d'Orphée by the incomparable Maria Casarés.

The provenance of Le Testament d'Orphée is unusual; desperately wishing to make a film in his last years but unable to find the backing, Cocteau turned to the younger generation of filmmakers who had always admired his work and found a willing participant in François Truffaut, whose first feature film, Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) won Best Director at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, with Cocteau's adroit political maneuvering giving the film an added boost. Truffaut signed on as co-producer of the film, putting up 100,000 dollars toward the project, and brought on Jean Thuillier, who had produced a number of key New Wave films, as his associate. Truffaut also worked as informal assistant director on the project, for Cocteau's health, never robust, made him relatively uninsurable for such an ambitious project, and ambitious it certainly was.

Although he had made cameo appearances in some of his films and provided his mellifluous voice as a narrator for others, in Le Testament d'Orphée, for the first and last time, Cocteau took over the leading role in one of his films, essentially playing an idealized version of himself. Some have suggested that this was immodest, but Cocteau was never one to let his presence go unnoticed, and here, gathering his friends about him for the last time, he creates a world of fantasy, wonder, and enchantment, assisted by a truly stellar group of co-conspirators. Georges Auric's music is dreamy and appropriately ethereal; Martial Solal provides some jazz for the soundtrack. The immense cast includes Cocteau, Françoise Arnoul, Claudine Auger, Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Maria Casarés, Edouard Dermit as Cégeste (Dermit would become the executor of Cocteau's estate after the writer's death in 1963), Daniel Gélin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Serge Lifar, Pablo Picasso, Francoise Sagan, Annette Vadim, Roger Vadim, and Cocteau's longtime patron, Francine Weisweiler. The film's structure is episodic; as the poet, Cocteau wanders from one location to another, lost in his daydreams and reveries, meditating upon his past and his legacy as an artist, and relies upon a grab bag of special effects, particularly reverse motion (as in the scene in which Cocteau "reconstructs" a flower from its petals). Some of Cocteau's staunchest and most perceptive admirers, such as Cocteau's most astute biographer, Francis Steegmuller, have suggested that the film is so self-indulgent that it should not have been made; this seems to be missing the point entirely. Cocteau spent his entire life creating a world of make-believe and escapism in which the artist and the poet could move about freely without being bound by the constraints of society. As his final bow before the camera, it seems more than fitting that the artist himself should take center stage, and regale his audience one last time with the undeniable evidence of his cinematic mastery. Le Testament d'Orphée is a gentle, deeply felt film which serves as a fitting tribute to a life spent in the arts, and for all lovers of cinema, it is absolutely essential viewing.