“I would say he was a poet and therefore indispensible.”
Testament of Orpheus is Jean Cocteau’s farewell to film. Instead of making a film about someone or something he made it about himself and his life as a poet and artist. He mixes the real, unreal, and surreal to tell his story.
A Poet (Cocteau) from around the time of the French Revolution keeps appearing and disappearing in front of people from the modern past and present. The Poet is looking for a professor. He first stumbles upon the man as a boy, then as a baby being held and then dropped by his surprised mother, as an old man in a wheelchair suffering from the affects of his mother dropping him and holding bullets that the Poet needs, and finally he meets the professor in the present. The bullets were created by the professor. They are made to travel at the speed of light. The Poet needs one of those bullets to shoot him and bring him fully into the present. The Professor shoots the Poet who quickly comes back up dressed in modern clothing.
The Poet walks out of the building. As he is walking down a road he passes a man wearing the mask of a horse and a tail. The Poet follows the man back to a gypsy camp among ruins of a building. At the camp he notices a woman handling a photograph of Cégeste his poet character from his film Orpheus. The woman tears the photograph up and the Poet walks up to her takes the pieces. The Poet walks to a cliff near the sea and throws the photograph into the sea. Cégeste then comes up out of the water with a flower in his hand. The Poet notices his character looks different to which the young man replies that he was what the Poet had made him in his film.
Cégeste lead the Poet to a greenhouse where a canvas is. The Poet tries to draw the dying flower but winds up drawing his self-portrait. Cégeste points out that artists always wind up drawing themselves. In frustration the Poet crushes the flower. Cégeste picks up the flower and places it in a flower pot. Outside the greenhouse Cégeste gives the flower to a “doctor” (a different version of the Poet) in a cap and gown and the “doctor” puts it back together. Cegeste wants the Poet to give the flower to the goddess Athena. The Poet refuses but Cegeste makes him because the Poet left him in the middle of the mirrors where there is no life and there is no death. He takes the Poet to a room. In the room is the Princess and Heurtebise from Orpheus. They are there to judge the Poet with the charge of innocence and for going into different worlds. He is being judged by two characters he had created they have become more than he had imagined. The Princess and Heurtebise summon the Professor. The Professor had just fallen asleep, he still is he has been brought to them through his dreams. The Professor give evidence of the Poet being a good man and how he is indispensible to the world and the arts. The Princess and Heurtebise condemn the Poet to live out the remainder of his years on earth.
Cegeste tells the Poet that the flower is alive with his blood and it is his destiny. The character brings the Poet back to the ruins. They hear the voices of the Princess and Heurtebise. Cegeste has to leave the Poet at this point. He has to return to where he was left in Orpheus.
The Poet comes upon a man at a desk (Yul Brenner). The man tells him to wait for the one in charge. The Poet waits and waits a long time. Finally he is allowed to see the person he has been waiting for. The flower reappears in the Poet’s hand before he enters the room. He comes to a woman dressed as a gladiator and two men dressed as the horses he saw at the beginning on either side of the gladiator. The Poet goes to walk away from the gladiator but the woman throws her spear and it pierces the Poet through the back. The Poet seems to have died. He is laid on a funeral pyre and looked over by friends including the artist Picasso and his family. The blood and the flower on the ground where the Poet was killed turn to red symbolizing their link to one another.
The voice of the Poet tells the audience that “poets only pretend to be die.” The Poet stands up off of his pyre and sleeps wakes down a road. He awakens when he comes to a road on a hill. He hears two motorcycles like the ones from Orpheus that signal impending death. The police officers stop and ask to see his papers because he is just walking along a major road. At this moment Cégeste reappears telling the Poet that he is not of this earth and takes him away before the police notice he is gone.
I thought Testament of Orpheus was brilliant. Cocteau had lived so many lives as a poet, an artist, and a filmmaker. He explores these lives and his place in the universe through this film. His exploration of the universe is shown and told in the way he saw it: real, unreal, and surreal. I loved how he brought back his characters of Cégeste, The Princess, and Heurtebise from Orpheus. I believe they are his personifications of life and death and judgment. They are his creations judging him as a person compared to how they have been written to live their lives.
As an art historian I always like learning about an artist’s motivation behind their works. To understand an artist’s work is to understand their time periods, their beliefs, and what influenced them to create their works. Jean Cocteau explains and expresses his motivations and beliefs in all three of his films in his Orphic Trilogy. Mirrors have always been symbol for death and other worlds. They play significant roles in Cocteau’s films along with mythological characters in the modern world. Testament of Orpheus is art, poetry, and wonderfully beautiful filmmaking all in one. It is a film I absolutely suggest seeing.