Jean Cocteau 1889–1963
French director, poet, dramatist, novelist, scriptwriter, and painter.
Cocteau is a distinguished filmmaker noted for his blending of myth and reality in films of visual beauty. His involvement with the artistic avant-garde of his time is evidenced in innovative contributions to many artistic genres, many of which bore an influence on his filmmaking.
Born near Paris into a family of lawyers, Cocteau early showed literary and artistic promise, publishing his first volume of poetry, La Lampe d'Aladin, at the age of seventeen. His circle at that time included Marcel Proust and Léon Daudet. Through their influence, Cocteau became enthralled with the ballet, an interest which led to a friendship with Serge Diaghilev, Russian ballet impresario and director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was Diaghilev who inspired in Cocteau the philosophy he embraced throughout his artistic career: to shock and surprise his audience.
Towards the end of World War I, Cocteau entered the circle of the creative avant-garde, which included Pablo Picasso and composer Eric Satie, with whom Cocteau created the ballet Parade. Though a failure at the time of its creation, it is now regarded as one of the twentieth century's most innovative ballets. Another valuable influence on Cocteau's creative career was the young writer Raymond Radiguet. Radiguet steered Cocteau away from the avant-gardists and told him to "lean on nothing … and develop an attitude that consists of not appearing original." The death of Radiguet devastated Cocteau, and he turned to opium, an addiction that plagued him all of his life.
It was not until the early 1930s that Cocteau began working with cinema. His first film, Le Sang d'un poète (The Blood of a Poet), imitates Cocteau's ever-present image of the Poet and the Dream. Cocteau wanted his audience to pass through the celluloid barrier into his film world, and enjoy the experience of creator and dreamer.
Cocteau's films served as a sort of personal journey reflecting his obsessions and fantasies as well as his delight in cinematic devices. La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast) allowed Cocteau to unleash his fantasies of decorating cinema as an objet d'art. He employed classical legend in works such as Orphée (Orpheus), a film he made based on one of his own plays. While several of his films are adaptations of his plays, the three films which have established his filmmaking reputation are Le Sang d'un poète, Orphée, and Le Testament d'Orphée. Deeply original and personal, they are concerned with the role of the artist and his source of inspiration.
Cocteau found in the cinema a means superior to all other media in depicting his poetic view of death and the fantastic. Critics feel, however, that the intensity of his artistic vision sometimes makes his films difficult and obscure. However, Cocteau is regarded as a filmmaker of unique gifts, an artist striving to make real his original conception of film: "A film is not a dream that is told but one we all dream together." (See also CLC, Vols. 1 and 8, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, and Contemporary Authors Permanent, Vol. 2.)
Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poète is one of the authentic classics of the cinema, in the small group that includes Caligari, The Ten Days that Shook the World, some René Clair, and some Chaplin. It is perhaps Cocteau's own magnum opus, even if we compare it with Thomas L'Imposteur, La Machine Infernale, or Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde . And among the works of the '30's—a decade fairly arid in poetry and myth—it is one of...
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the few landmarks, likeMurder in the Cathedral and Finnegans Wake. I make these simple unanalytic statements of praise, because certain people at present disparage the poet Cocteau as a faker, a master of aesthetic sleight of hand and nothing more, and Le Sang d'un Poète itself as a pretty piece of legerdemain or at best as a myth purely private in its reference. (p. 24)
[That] I am right in calling [Le Sang d'un Poète] an allegory is evidenced extrinsically by Cocteau's preface, in which he tells the spectator that all poetry is a coat of arms whose symbols can be deciphered only after the expenditure of blood, and that he is dedicating the allegories of Le Sang d'un Poète to Pisanello, Paolo Uccello, Piera della Francesca, as painters of arms and blazons. Internal evidence is given by the prologue and epilogue of the falling tower, whose masonry has crumbled before the story proper commences yet whose collapse is completed only after the end of the story proper, so that the temporal expanse of the total action is comprised within the instant or brief interim elapsing between the two shots of the tower, that is to say, the total action is timeless or without duration and is therefore an allegory of eternal objects rather than a story of particular things. Furthermore, within the story proper the datelessness of the action is emphasized by the mixtures of period and costume, i.e., the studied anachronism in dress signifies that the action is not merely instantaneous or without duration but is not localized at any one point of time. Moreover, the machinery of events which obey laws other than those of the natural world, viz., the transsubstantiation of a charcoal mouth to a living, of a woman into a statue; the agility and levitation of bodies, in entering a mirror or flying to the ceiling; the disproportion between cause and effect, as the quick wasting away of the bronze statue beneath the snowballs; or the coexistence in one subject of contrary states, as life and death—all this serves to compose a world of miracles, that is to say, one where the system of causes transcends its phenomenal effects, or where the phenomena are merely the iconography for various relations among ideas. (pp. 25-6)
[Let] me make some cursory generalizations about the structure and content of the film—sticking fairly close to the literal level—before proceeding with a more detailed analysis. The falling tower serves formally as a symbol of a beginning and an end; and, in content, it introduces the theme of destruction in general and even, since the cause of the collapse of the tower is not shown, that of self-destruction. Now within the action proper, it should be noted that the relation of person to person or even thing to thing is usually that of victim to victor or agent to patient and that the crises in the action are often reversals of this relation…. [It] is evident that the separate incidents usually compose a unification of some or other contraries; and hence the whole film at first glance has a right to be considered, in the Coleridgean categories, as a work of the Imagination rather than of Fancy, even short of the exegesis of its iconography. (pp. 31-2)
[The film is divided, by subtitles, into four parts: La Main Blessée ou la Cicatrice de Poète, Les Murs Ont-Ils des Oreilles?, La Bataille des Boules de Neige, and La Carte Volée]. (p. 32)
The plot of La Main Blessée is essentially the destruction of an image or icon, viz., the erasure of the sketch, followed by the reception of a wound, viz., the mouth in the hand; and that of La Bataille des Boules de Neige is similar, viz., the crumbling away of the statue beneath the snowballs and the mortal blow sped from the hand of Dargelos…. The vivification of the statue by the wounding mouth in La Main Blessée, I do not count as a separate theme: for the original mouth is miraculous and unknown in its causation; consequently its appearances and transmutations will, in poetic probability, be many; while the mortal blow, as such, is one and final, and natural and determinate in origin. The plot of Les Murs Ont-Ils des Oreilles? is, I think, that of the journey through an unfamiliar medium, viz., the subterranean world behind the mirror, leading to a false suicide (at the instigation of a woman) and the false transformation of a man into a statue…. Similarly, in La Carte Volée the pilgrimage of the dead boy's guardian (he wears an apparatus for flying and swimming trunks and has a limp: hence walking on the earth is an unfamiliar mode of locomotion for him) leads to the true suicide of the hero, followed by the woman's turning into a mythical statue—which constitute a real glory as opposed to the false glory in Les Murs Ont-Ils des Oreilles? In brief, the theme of each might be epigrammatized as: the wound, the suicide, and the statue. (pp. 33-4)
The allegory of Le Sang d'un Poète (which Cocteau had once announced as La Vie d'un Poète) might be described, for the purposes of this essay, as "the pilgrimage of a poet." The linear story tells of a progress from being a Naive Poet, through various intermediate rôles, to being a depersonalized poet. La Main Blessée ou la Cicatrice de Poète tells of the progress from Naive Poetry to archaeology…. [The young man] is a Naive Poet because he is making a series of simple likenesses or improvisations. What, if any, relation there is between the mark of the wound and his gift as an artist, we do not know. His naiveté becomes sophisticated when he discovers that poetry is magical…. But the magical power of poetry is still limited by its nature as an imitation, and consequently it is an incomplete reality which it achieves, viz., a mouth and not a whole person or even face, that is to say, it is a monster. It is significant that he does not become conscious of this magical power, until there is a visitor or messenger from the outside world…. His discovery of the mouth in his hand is his recognition that, while the magical effect may reside in the poem, the magical power is in the poet himself. It becomes further evident that this power is in the poet himself. It becomes further evident that this power is daemonic, like another substance within him; for it is both rational, i.e., it talks to him, and erotic, i.e., it kisses. That is to say, the poet's pleasure in making poetry is both intellectual and symbolically sexual. For a short while he lives in communion with this power. But since he does not understand it (for its existence appears to him to be uncaused and miraculous) he still tries to deny it in some way. His transfer of the mouth to the pre-existent statue, I take to be a symbol of a compromise which he tries to effect, viz., he no longer tries to deny universally that poetry has daemonic and magical properties, but seeks to impute them to the art of the past, of which he becomes the interpreter or archaeologist himself. (pp. 34-6)
[The] poet in Les Murs Ont-Ils des Oreilles? finds himself a prisoner with the statue in a windowless, doorless room whose only aperture is a mirror. The mirror, let us say, signifies contemporary art (for art "holds the mirror up to life") as opposed to the art of the past, which was unrealistic (for the statue had no arms) and daemonic…. The allegory portrays only his relation to the theatre; for the four episodes in L'Hotel des Folies Dramatiques compose a comedy of the theatre in general and of the contemporary theatre in particular, at which he is a mere spectator as he peeps through the key-holes…. The four scenes through the key-holes signify four properties of dramatic poetry, represented comically or satirically, in respect to the contemporary drama: the first, viz., the fall, unfall, and fall again of the peon before the firing squad, signifies the reversal or peripety, which was the mainstay of the classical tragic plot but which in a debauched contemporary theatre is like a camera trick; the second, viz., the opium pipe and the Chinese eye, may signify seriously the property of mystery, which is inherent in all poetry, i.e., its inexhaustibility by rational analysis, so that the poem remains still looking back at reason, as the Chinese eye at the spectator; or comically, that the theatre is a spiritual opium, although as an imitation of life it may still be found to be looking back at you; third, viz., the flying lesson, the quality of sublimity, which in the contemporary theatre quickly passes into the ridiculous; and fourthly, the figure on the sofa and the false suicide, the confusion between a poetic imitation and reality—a confusion which may arise through the very nature of the theatre itself…. The moment of the suicide is the dilettante's attempt to imitate within his own life an artificial action; for it is at the command of the other figure that he aims the revolver and pulls the trigger; moreover, the semi-hypnotic and sudden manner in which he obeys also suggests that it is out of unreasoned imitativeness and not from reasoned choice that he commits the act. Furthermore, the generic act of imitating a stage drama is fabled as a suicide, because it is the imitation of an imitation and therefore the negation of his natural living. Hence the suicide must be a false suicide, because it is impossible to die a natural death merely by imitating an artificial action…. [In] attempting to persuade himself universally that the daemonic, magical power of poetry is non-existent and to deny the seat of this power in himself, he finds that he has transformed himself into something as lifeless and immobile as a conventional statue in a public square. This statue is really a false ego, which is formed out of the total suppression of the poetic daemon, and is consequently a statue within the soul of the poet, just as the partial inhibition of the poetic daemon, in transferring the living mouth from the hand to the plaster-of-Paris face, resulted in the daemonizing of an external object, our archaeological or poetic heritage.
Consequently La Bataille des Boules de Neige should be interpreted, I think, as a flashback: the recollection of the childhood incident in which the hero received his original wound—a wound in the heart which in his later forgetfulness appeared transformed into a scar on his shoulder. The wound was unrequited love—the death of the heart and of the child within himself…. This recollection of his childhood further destroys the statufaction of his ego which was caused by his ignorance of the relation between the developed daemonism of poetry and himself. In his imagination the figure of Dargelos has taken the place of the statue, because the ego is the repository of the privations of love. Consequently the loss of the love of Dargelos is the primary privation; and hence the ego-formation represented by the statue, which was caused by the final self-deprivation of poetic power (symbolized by smashing the statue of the woman) is dissolved on recognizing Dargelos, who returns a deadly snowball in answer to love, as the source of the primary wound. That is to say, as the smashed statue is to the statufied poet and as the slain child is to Dargelos, so is the daemonic power of poetizing to the poet manqué and the boyhood love to its unrequital. (pp. 36-9)
In La Carte Volée the hero is no longer statufied, i.e., he is no longer dominated by the false ego formed by his denial of the poetic daemon, but the possibilities of action still open to him are still limited by the ego formed by his original loss of love as a boy. He is now trying to be a man, viz., by making love to a woman—like all poets, before the eyes of a fashionable world which does not understand what is happening. But since the child in himself is lying there slain, his own heart dead, love can only be a game, conventional and nonspontaneous, played by means of mere symbols and outward forms…. [The] hero, as cut off from the sources of life represented by the boy, is himself nil in relation to the woman. Hence he can no longer be a complete man at all, but can only be man qua poet pure and simple, that is to say, his recognition of this reduction in humanity must be his symbolic suicide as a man. Similarly, the woman does not actually change into the statue, but her place is taken by the statue or muse …; for now the only possible fructifying relationship is between the poet and his muse or between the sculptor and his statue; the relation between man and woman has vanished…. The woman has now become transformed into the mythical formal schematism of a bust, and the temporally unfolded action is seen to lead to the idea of the "deathly boredom of immortality." The poet has attained his salvation; but it is the salvation of artifice, like Yeats's Byzantium, and neither natural nor divine, but constructed by a man after a laborious and heart-destroying discipline. (pp. 39-40)
Looking at Le Sang d'un Poète superficially, it is obvious that its aesthetic power resides in its special combination of simplicity of elements, enigma of intention, and a pervading sense of an underlying rationality. But as, in ethics, the principle of virtue may be formulated as: Act according as your maxim may be made universal; similarly in poetics, the principle of classicism might be stated as: Unify your content with such formalities as are universal in scope. For the actual plot of Le Sang d'un Poète is narrow in its significance. (In fact, it is paradoxical for a hero to be a poet. For a hero is some one who acts or suffers. But the poet as poet does not act or suffer but is the maker of fictions about those who act or suffer. Cocteau resolves this paradox by making poetizing the inevitable outcome of a sequence of actions and sufferings, like the death or calamity which was often the outcome of an ancient tragedy.) But the scope of the plot is universalized by defining its content in terms as powerful as the relation of victim to victor, of agent to patient (which is metaphysically the fundamental relation in all human action, whether the action be conceived as social or as occurring within the soul of one individual) and by unifying its plot-structure by the formal device of the reversal, which, as Aristotle argues, has a most powerful psychological effect, and which, as a mode of unifying poetic contraries in a time-scheme, distinguishes (in Coleridge's sense) a work of the Imagination from one of Fancy. (pp. 41-2)
C. G. Wallis, "'The Blood of a Poet'," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1944 by Kenyon College; reprinted by permission of The Kenyon Review), Vol. VI, No. 1, Winter, 1944, pp. 24-42.
["Beauty and the Beast"] is an eminent model of cinema achievement in the realm of poetic fantasy.
This should be understood, however: the achievement is on a definitely adult plane and the beauties of Cocteau's conception will be most appreciated by sophisticated minds. It is not the sort of picture that will send the children into transports of delight, unless they are quite precocious youngsters of the new progressive school.
For Cocteau has taken the old story … and has used it as a pattern for weaving a priceless fabric of subtle images. In the style of his "Blood of a Poet," though less abstract and recondite, it is a fabric of gorgeous visual metaphors, of undulating movements and rhythmic pace, of hypnotic sounds and music, of casually congealing ideas.
Freudian or metaphysician, you can take from it what you will. The concepts are so ingenious that they're probably apt to any rationale. From the long corridor of candelabra, held out from the walls by living arms, through which the wondering visitor enters the palace of the Beast, to the glittering temple of Diana, wherein the mystery of the Beast is revealed, the visual progression of the fable into a dream-world casts its unpredictable spell.
The dialogue, in French, is spare and simple … and the music of Georges Auric accompanies the dreamy, fitful moods. The settings are likewise expressive….
Studied or not for philosophy, this is a sensuously fascinating film, a fanciful poem in movement given full articulation on the screen.
Bosley Crowther, "'Beauty and the Beast'," in The New York Times (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 24, 1947, p. 12.
It sometimes helps if a reviewer has a faint idea of what a film he is reviewing is supposed to be about. That is, at least, some information which he can pass along. But we can't even shoot you that knowledge on Jean Cocteau's "Eagle With Two Heads." Unfortunately, Mr. Cocteau neglected to make it clear.
Apparently his drama … has something to do with a romance between a melancholy queen and an initially rebellious subject who resembles her long-dead spouse. From the rapturous and reckless embracing … we gathered this general impression. Something is cooking. That is plain….
But how all these elements dovetail (if they do) and what they're supposed to prove are never transmitted to the audience in the excess of posturing and talk. Slightly intriguing situations which pop up along the way are lost in murky miasmas of fancy but pointless dialogue. And evident pretensions toward symbolism get all tangled up in wooden words.
Too bad—because plenty of money and taste have plainly been spent on a handsome physical production. Hapsburg splendor is in the regal sets and the costumes … are lovely and flattering. But they all add up to nothing.
Bosley Crowther, "'Eagle with Two Heads'," in The New York Times (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1948, p. 24.
As an artist who has been known to exercise a fertile imagination, Jean Cocteau is disappointingly unimaginative in "The Storm Within."…
M. Cocteau, who herein is inspecting the amours of a singularly unstable family, merely has come up with a series of tempestuous harangues, hysterical outbursts, nebulous soul-searchings and petty plots signifying nothing especially new about either sacred or profane love. And, despite a generally proficient cast, "The Storm Within" is, anomalously, a static drama, which talks a great deal about emotions while projecting little of same….
"The Storm Within" is only a tempest in a teapot.
A. H. Weiler, "'The Storm Within'," in The New York Times (© 1950 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 24, 1950, p. 21.
Perhaps the most tell-tale tip-off to the nature of the "Orpheus" of Jean Cocteau … is thoughtfully offered by the author in a signed statement in the program: "When I make a film," says M. Cocteau, "it is a slumber and I dream."
That is as fair a forewarning as any that we can provide to the curious conceits of fancy that you may expect in this film. For plainly the writer-director has let his imagination roam through a drama of images that resemble the vagrant phantasms of sleep. And while the famed legend of Orpheus provides the framework of a plot and the pictorial character is concrete, the context is utterly abstract.
Indeed, at one point in this crisscross of phantoms and images, which clearly defy interpretation along any logical line, the author permits one character to drop this significant remark: "You try too hard to understand and that is a mistake."
A mistake it is, beyond question—for, in telling a modern-dress tale of a young poet by the name of Orpheus who becomes strangely enamoured of Death and almost (but not quite) loses his pretty blond wife, Eurydice, M. Cocteau has so coagulated his picture with fantasies and stunts that a serious attempt to seek some meaning in all of them might drive one mad.
There is a chic and sophisticated lady who rides around in a Rolls-Royce car and ominously hangs over Orpheus. She seems quite simple. She is Death. Only she isn't all Death exactly. She is the Death of Orpheus. But she is also the personal Death of Cegeste, another poet. A little confused. There are also two mad motorcyclists who recklessly knock people down. They are quite clearly Death's agents. We can fathom them. But how about this fellow, Heurtebise, who drives the Rolls-Royce car? He is some sort of in-betweener. What is his place in Cocteau's realm?
And then there are all those mirrors through which people nonchalantly pass—that is, if they're properly departed or are wearing the magical rubber gloves. They are easy. As someone mentions, "Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes and goes." But what is the symbolism? And how about that stupid radio? Why does it drone monotonous numbers and speeches as though in code? You can say it again, M. Cocteau: "It is not necessary to understand; it is necessary to believe."
No doubt the true believers (whoever they are) will get much from this film, for it is produced with remarkable authority and photographed magnificently, thus enhancing the pictorial richness of its symbols and images….
But for this corner's taste, the style of Cocteau, while valid, perhaps, does not embrace sufficient intellectual comprehension to justify so much film, and the visual here lacks the fascination of the same author's "Beauty and the Beast." Somnambulistic symbolism may be art for art's sake. Maybe not. This writer finds it slightly tiresome. It's more Morpheus than Orpheus by us.
Bosley Crowther, "'Orpheus'," in The New York Times (© 1950 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 30, 1950, p. 42.
Orpheus simultaneously presents two aspects of the poetic process: that of the poet—Cocteau; and that of an ideal poetic instrument—the cinema….
The central theme of Orpheus is poetry's all-pervading power.
For Cocteau, as for every poet, poetry is the only truth, the only way of life, the only means of approaching essential reality. All else is the gross and perishable imaginings of earth-bound men. (p. 18)
Cocteau has poured into Orpheus all his obsessions; his preoccupation with mirrors (narcissism); his weakness for cruel and unmotivated practical jokes (poets cannot help being enfants terribles); his awe for the "holy"; his complete familiarity with all aspects of the dream, trance states and second sight (Cocteau experimented with almost every drug); and, finally, his penchant for mystification—an infantilism that has persisted to the threshold of old age.
To dazzle, to intimidate, to reveal marvels of all kinds, to invent new and unheard of universes, to evoke specters and phantoms, Prince Charmings or what have you—all this fascinates Cocteau. As he himself says, he wishes to appeal only to the child who lingers deep within each of us. For Cocteau, as for so many others like him, the lost paradise of childhood is the only kingdom over which every man may hope to reign. (p. 19)
Everything in Orpheus is symbolic. The principal symbols can be analyzed as follows:
- ORPHEUS. The poet is a man as other men, but feels an imperative need, unknown to ordinary men, to extend the horizons of human perception, to explore and illumine human destiny, and to possess himself of new, hitherto unimagined realities….
- EURYDICE. She is our literal, earthy, day-to-day life—that humdrum daily life men must continuously strive to enrich and extend, and which the poet must abandon ruthlessly from time to time so that he may be free to run after even the wildest chimeras.
- THE PRINCESS. According to Cocteau, each of us has in our secret hearts an image of Death, of our Princess, who irresistibly allures and fascinates us. In the film the Princess is a double symbol—of Death, and of this truism: each man must die many times (within himself) before he can know himself truly and before he can become his true, un-self-deceived self….
- THE MIRRORS. Although mirrors, as symbols, belong to Cocteau's private mythology, they are, of course, part of that folk-lore of psychology which is universal. In a mirror one perceives one's own decay. Hence, in the depths of a mirror slumber the riddles of life and death….
- THE RADIOPHONIC MESSAGES. These phenomena constitute a somewhat puerile symbol for creative intuition. Cocteau believes there are certain human beings who possess a genius for pure invention, such as the poet and the mathematician. They bring to the rest of us news of realities which they have discovered and we did not suspect, and upon which mankind builds its future. (p. 20)
- THE "ZONE". It is the region in which the Princess (Death) has her dwelling, from which she emerges to abduct her victims, and to which she carries them. It is a no-man's land, a hideous limbo strewn with rubble and garbage, and resembles the weird, distressful areas that encircle every city. (p. 21)
In Orpheus Cocteau has used the cinema to create a poetic, supernatural universe. The cinema can triumph over both space and time, can ignore our normal chronology, can dispense with distance, disregard the limitations of mere human beings. What is more, it can transform our world before our very eyes, can alter the appearance of reality, create fanciful realities, and make us believe in all of these metamorphoses. (pp. 21-2)
[There] can be no doubt that for two hours this universe of Cocteau's does exist for us and that we leave it with the feeling of having been there.
In order to materialize his imaginary world, which has its own laws and its own ways of coordinating the unrelated, Cocteau uses many subtle and amusing cinematic tricks, among which the following are the most outstanding:
- SLOW MOTION. When Orpheus and Death's chauffeur, Heurtebise, cross over the "zone" which leads to the world "beyond," their gestures and movements are slowed down so that they appear to be moving in a dream. They glide along, moved only by invisible winds, like ectoplasmic emanations from a spiritist medium. The effect suggests the disintegration of personality that takes place in trance states and day dreams.
- REVERSED OR CONTRARY MOTION. When Death, after transporting the mortal remains of Cégeste to her villa and depositing them there, wishes to awaken him to the reality of his new existence, she causes him to raise himself miraculously from the ground and resume a vertical position without the slightest effort. (pp. 22-3)
- NEGATIVE IMAGES WITH REVERSED LIGHTS AND SHADOWS. When Death's limousine reaches the world "beyond," the landscape takes on a strange and mysterious coloring—the sky is black, the trees white….
- THE MIRROR. Passing through mirrors is done either by double exposure, or by means of horizontal shots taken with a foreground of water.
Today few films utilize these tricks….
But at the same time we must reproach Cocteau for failing to create a more satisfying and convincing film. However much Orpheus may excite our admiration by the beauty and nobility of its theme, by its expansion of our mental horizons, and by its cinematic techniques, it is a disappointment because of weaknesses and obscurities in its plot. Although the story Cocteau unfolds, in an atmosphere of supernaturalism tinctured with gangster-film vulgarity, is dedicated to the exaltation of the poet and his mission, it is unconvincing, puerile, without motivation, frequently ridiculous, and sometimes incomprehensible. Its outmoded surrealism belongs to a past decade.
Poetry today demands new and different forms and symbols. It can find them in a new art of the cinema. (p. 23)
Jean R. Debrix, "Cocteau's 'Orpheus' Analyzed: Its Chief Virtue Is What It Tried to Do," translated by Edith Morgan King, in Films in Review (copyright © 1951 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 6, June-July, 1951, pp. 18-23.
I cannot pretend to know what [Orpheus] all means, and I have a lurking suspicion that Cocteau doesn't know either, but I do know that it sent me out of the theatre quivering with excitement, and more provocatively engaged than I have been by any film for seasons. Cocteau, of course, has two prevailing ideas, that run like coloured thread through all his work: the idea of a poet as an extra-sensory medium, and the idea of a hungry marriage between life and death. He twists these two ideas together in Orpheus, as he did in a tentative way in L'Aigle a Deux Têtes, and has produced a picture that is bewildering, stimulating, sometimes touching and sometimes quite hateful, but always a provocation to the mind and eye. (pp. 185-86)
Since the author believes that all flights of high fantasy must be touched off from a firm earthhold, his film, astonishing in its camera tricks and devices of pure cinema magic, is grounded here and there in moments of contemporary realism. The ferryman Charon becomes a smart chauffeur: the messengers of death are goggled motor-cyclists: code messages are tapped out by a secret radio: a trial in the shades is conducted along the lines of a war crimes tribunal.
All these things, plus the fact that it is hardly possible to act Death, Death's servants, or Death's victims,… make Orpheus a trifle confusing to the spectator. But it is an experience that is very well worth trying. I am not quite sure, in my own heart, whether the film is healthy: some tiny thing suggests to me that it is a work less inspired by wisdom than by the splendid, fleeting, unco-ordinated ideas that flash across one's mind in a moment of perilous exhilaration. Nevertheless, exhilaration is such a rare quality in the cinema that I cannot help but welcome it, and entreat that you will look at this thing openheartedly, with a mind and eye equally alert. (p. 186)
C. A. Lejeune, in her review of "Orphée," in Shots in the Dark: A Collection of Reviewers' Opinions of Some of the Leading Films Released between January 1949 and February 1951, Edgar Ansley, General Editor, Allan Wingate Ltd, 1951, pp. 185-86.
What Cocteau has attempted to do in his films is to convey, through the cinematic medium, the conception of poetry which exists in his purely literary works. Let me begin then by briefly characterizing this conception of poetry.
For Cocteau poetry is not primarily a dramatic representation of experience as in Racine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. He is definitely in the tradition of "pure" poets for whom poetry is an end in itself and for whom morality is essentially an esthetic function. He insists in his poetry on purely verbal and syntactical manipulations. (p. 14)
Cocteau is not fundamentally interested in dramatic action; nor is he interested in ideas. His concern is less philosophical than that of other pure poets such as Mallarmé, Valéry or Giraudoux. He manipulates language like a kaleidoscope, creating new and surprising combinations, enjoying the illusion that poetry can change the face of reality.
Poetry has also a self-revelatory role for Cocteau, but it is a limited one. He reveals shifting states of consciousness rather than some fundamental human drama expressed in symbolic polarities. The drama is only revealed implicitly, by what the poetry leaves out, and by a study of the dramatis personae of his plays and novels. These characters are distinguished by their lack of involvement and for their ability to use language as a means of resisting any form of concrete solicitation to a course of action. The great human drama of Cocteau's plays and novels is never expressed. It is a drama of flight and negation, brilliantly disguised, yet masking a tragic human failure.
The movies offered Cocteau an ideal medium. To begin with, of course, he was not only a writer but also a pictorial artist. His sense of caricature and his feeling for the literary rather than the more painterly aspects of art were ideal equipment for a cinéaste….
This is partly due to the fact that Cocteau thinks in images more directly than in words….
Cocteau seems to feel freer in attributing sexuality to the actors in his films than to the characters of his books. It is his own emotions that he must inject into the characters of a book or play; working directly with the actor he seems to feel less fear that he will be held responsible for the emotions represented.
These observations are, I believe, sustained by the strong sexual overtones of all his films and primarily by Le Sang d'un poète.
There have been innumerable and contradictory exegeses of this film, including one which sees it as the history of Christianity. Cocteau himself has repeatedly refused to explain the film. (p. 15)
Le Sang d'un poète has no more unity than Cocteau's verse. Unity in the sense in which Mr. Wallis would find it in Cocteau [see excerpt above] is something that this poet is not especially concerned with. Instead of the traditional unity of an unfolding plot he achieves a kind of unity through the use of parallel themes….
These themes run all the way through the film but the form of the film is such that a truly dramatic development is impossible. We pass from image to image in a kind of "qualitative progression" which does not attempt to produce anything like the classical dramatic structure of Purpose, Passion and Perception. What we are given is a series of astonishing and unforgettable images which to a large extent justify the conception of poetry here implied.
Cocteau has generously insisted on the role played by his technicians in the making of a film. They provide him with the mechanical resources that he modifies in his own ingenious way…. (p. 16)
The images of Cocteau's films defy the laws of nature. Props are always used suggestively with a hint that they themselves are part of the intimate life of the actors. The camera always finds the unexpected angle from which the event is illuminated in a new and true perspective. The image does not merely pass across the screen; it unfolds, using the full space of the screen, living organically with its background and every other object represented, painted in the infinite range of colors from white to black….
Yet, in his later films, Cocteau has specifically chosen to dramatize a myth or to tell a story. In what sense then does this theory of "discontinuous poetry" still hold true for La Belle et la Bête [Beauty and the Beast] and for Orphée?
La Belle et la Bête is a fairy-tale fantasy. What is more natural than that it should be told in a fantastic way? This is a point which has unfortunately not occurred to the producers of most of our films. How can the Bible stories or the wanderings of Ulysses or Moby Dick be filmed as if they had been written by Ibsen? Each image of La Belle et la Bête is framed for the viewer as the fable itself is framed in enchantment and wonder and lore. The camera-work in this beautiful film situates it in that area of imagination where we half believe the impossible, where metaphor is normal speech and miracle is a deeper truth than nature. (p. 17)
What exactly is the nature of the fantasy which is dramatized in La Belle et la Bête? A monster of abnormality wins a beautiful maiden. Cocteau's work is full of such monsters who eventually discover their own monstrosity. Self-knowledge he considers the height of moral beauty; hence it is not surprising that the monster, at the close of the film, becomes physically beautiful. Real beauty, in other words, is moral beauty and moral beauty is self-knowledge. This psychological process must of course be dramatized on the screen by a symbolic outward transformation.
This fable suggests to us, I think, the yearning of a man who has always secretly felt himself an exile from society and dramatizes his triumphant acceptance by society. At the same time it places this triumph in the impossible realm of fantasy. That is, Cocteau does not believe that the world will ever accept his personal morality; and perhaps he is right, for the world equates morality less with knowledge than with right action. (It might also be pointed out that the kind of self-knowledge that Cocteau proposes has a definitely Gidean ring—discovery and acceptance of one's total psychological diversity through the undifferentiated experience of life.)
The poetry of discontinuous images in this film is a product of a theory of lyric poetry which, as I have said, uses poetry as a means of evasion of responsibility. Poetry is a flight from and a substitute for action. But the theme of the film is itself an evasion of the real world and the facts of existence. It shows us the realization of a child's fantasy of reality. (p. 18)
Orphée, which is Cocteau's third poetic film, revives once more the theme of Le Sang d'un poète. Again we have a poet searching for the meaning of his vocation in the midst of love and death. The poet is more in love with Death … than with his wife, Eurydice; again it is implied that poetry brings us into contact with another world and that this other world is somehow more significant than the routine and responsibility of everyday life. (pp. 18-19)
Because Orphée is based explicitly on a myth it has more dramatic unity than Le Sang d'un poète; it is less of a poem and more of a plot. The question to be raised in regard to Orphée is this: does the story of Orpheus require such a special and distorted vision? Granted that we want to see this story as myth, are all the concomitants of motorcycles, mirrors, radios, etc., necessary to the mythic perspective?
Orphée is the poet and we have seen what Cocteau's special conception of the poet involves. The poet is a man who frees himself from the world by making images, by entering into an oneiric world where the freedom of language is equivalent to the freedom of action.
Most of the images of Le Sang d'un poète suggest confinement and enclosure—a room, a hotel corridor or the confinement of death. There is confinement in Orphée too, but there is also freedom. There are many more exterior shots, more movement. The poetry has become oriented, it has orchestrated itself upon a theme. That theme is, paradoxically, the absence of theme in life, the recognition of the dangers of involvement and the determination to flee them in the hall of mirrors which is pure poetry. The difference in the two films, the principle difference, is this recognition, this undoubtedly unconscious orientation by Cocteau towards his ultimate principle. We can call it "freedom" or "purity" as he does or by one of the less flattering terms used by his critics—"bad faith" or "sleight of hand" or "mystification." But here again, as in La Belle et la Bête, it must be conceded that the technique of the film is essential to its truth. Mirrors and motorcycles are its version of pure poetry. (p. 19)
The ultimate assessment of Cocteau's work is extremely difficult; perhaps it is enough that his films give a sharp and special pleasure, they can be and are seen over and over again. For they are poetry and that they be the ultimate in poetry is too much to ask. There have been few artists able to adapt the films to the expression of their own most intimate vision; and fewer still are able to narrow the gap between the profound intellectual concerns of literature and the filmy world of the screen. (pp. 19-20)
Neal Oxenhandler, "Poetry in Three Films of Jean Cocteau," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1956), No. 17, 1956, pp. 14-20.
Cocteau has been an innovator, a fashionable one, whose artificialities have always made him open to ridicule; and now that he's getting on, abuse yaps at his heels. But that's not to say that he has not been truly a poet and also that less definable thing a fascinator. His understanding of poetry has always had more than a touch of Chan Canasta. He dazzles with a few absurd props; he brings it off; how does he do it? We have been lured as by some perfect sleight of hand or feat on the high wire. An impossible lightness, a transparent charm, together with the situation to curdle one's blood, have set him apart from contemporaries: and so far as publicity goes, he has no more dined off it than Epstein. His last film, then, should ideally have completed the flourish from Sang d'un Poète to the present; and that includes at least two masterpieces, Les Parents Terribles and Orphée. The fact that it does not, that it's rather a postscript, an entertainment of galvanic old age, is the more pity. Peter Pan's black-sheep brother must spin odd fantasies about death and immortality.
There are in Le Testament d'Orphée … some inspired moments and for the first time, thinking no doubt of posterity and of Picasso's personal appearances, the Master himself plays the leading role of the Poet. He is out of time, appears, disappears, gets killed more than once, and lopes away on his young-old shanks to another day. Distinguished figure, but little more. Is he arraigned before Minerva and another, condemned of innocence and of battering his head against the world's walls? Does an adopted son lure him among gipsies? Does he stalk about quays and the crypts of Les Baux, where black horseheaded guards await him? The twists and turns, under the shadowing of death, are ingenious, disturbing. A torn-up flower is brought back to wholeness; but too many such reversal tricks have made us languid. In a notable scene the spear pierces him through: we know, only too well, he will prance again. It is Cocteau doing his act, even if it is his last act.
William Whitebait, "Aftermaths," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIX, No. 1523, May 21, 1960, p. 753.∗
[The early scene between the old man and the black centaur] from Le Testament d'Orphée … communicates something of the sense of purpose and finality underlying the whole film. It is, in fact, Cocteau's swan-song, and completes a thirty-year-long obsessional cycle, from the manifesto of Le Sang d'un Poète and the actual execution of Orphée to the explication of Le Testament d'Orphée, with a shape and symmetry unique in the cinema….
Though this labyrinth of dream associations, latent memories, myth and materialism (Cocteau's paintings and his film Orphée, as well as many of his friends, make appearances) is closest to Le Sang d'un Poète in pattern, it is considerably more successful. Familiarity and time have lent clarity to some of the symbols; others are disarmingly obvious—as Cocteau approaches Minerva, the disembodied voice of an air stewardess instructs him to fasten his safety-belt, and when a few seconds later he "dies", we hear the roar of jets. The stylistic problems involved in the use of the same subjective approach as the earlier film have also been largely by-passed. The material has been shaped into a considerable degree of dramatic unity …; and though the spiritual strip-tease method of revelation remains very much a matter of personal taste and sympathy (not everyone, after all, longs to meet an homme-cheval on a lonely road), Cocteau now displays his fetishes with a wit and candour and darts of self-parody which are positively enchanting. (p. 143)
[The] impression one carries away from Le Testament d'Orphée is one of generosity, gaiety and lightness: the lightness of autumn leaves, the gaiety of an absurdly youthful old man, and the generosity of an artist who has at last found peace and contentment in the company of those who love him. (p. 144)
Peter John Dyer, "Film Reviews: 'Le Testament d'Orphée'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1960 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1960, pp. 143-44.
[In Le Testament d'Orphee Cocteau] observes the continuity of a dream and not the logical pattern of a drama. [The film] therefore proceeds broadly from image to image and from symbol to symbol in its presentation of Cocteau's poetic concept of existence, and like his other personal films it is a most powerful demonstration of the cinema's technical capacity to project the world of the image created by the fluent but captive imagination of a poet, who claims to be pressing passionately against the cell-walls of the mind for the release his spirit demands.
Cocteau the poet confronts the creatures of his personal mythology in settings which occur not because they exist solidly in time and space (the bare studio stage, the cliff path above the sea, the crumbling but still colossal ruins), but because the atmosphere they successively create is appropriate to the symbolic action taking place within them. "The secret of poetry," says Cocteau, "is to take things from the places in which habit has set them and reveal them from a different angle as though we see them for the first time." He also states that the film itself is not a projection of a dream; it is "realist in so far as it depicts, with exactitude, the personal world of the artist." It gives, as he said once of Orphee, reality to the unreal….
Cocteau's own work as a painter appears now and then in the background, and, as witnesses of friendship, Cocteau's more famous admirers, including Picasso and Yul Brynner, appear momentarily in the film. There is always the touch of showmanship in Cocteau's work, but, as he says, he resorts to the cinema in order to make contact with the world.
Whether Cocteau's images and symbols seem valid or not is a matter for each individual who sees the film to decide; for those to whom mythology no longer embodies imagery which remains relevant to mankind, Le Testament d'Orphee will no doubt appear little but dream-like decorations created in a mood of human decadence. But Cocteau's eye and ear are so well tuned to realising images corresponding to psychological states that he has in this and his other personal films revealed a form which extends the cinema still further into the virtually unexplored field of imagery and symbolism.
Roger Manvell, "New Films: 'Le Testament d'Orphee'" (© copyright Roger Manvell 1960; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 6, No. 10, July, 1960, p. 21.
It is hard to think of anybody (with the evident exception of Jean Cocteau) who, however egotistical he might be, would have the nerve to make a full-length film about himself. But M. Cocteau has done it. He has made a film all about Jean Cocteau in his "Testament of Orpheus"….
That is to say, he has made a picture about his own spiritual-esthetic search through a surrealist world of phantoms and symbols for the favor of the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athene….
[This] remarkable old show-off, who has done enough good things in his time to excuse a splurge of arrant narcissism in his declining years, has made a film that, for all its high pretension to being a symbolization of the poet's quest …, is really just a glorified home movie that should appeal mainly to the poet's admirers and friends.
Indeed, it is almost essential that one not only admire M. Cocteau but also be thoroughly familiar with his "Orpheus" … in order to get the least glimmer of what goes. For this "Testament of Orpheus" is in the nature of an explanation of (or possibly an excuse for) that previous film, constructed with so many references to it, as well as to various paintings and murals of the versatile artist, that one would be lost coming into it cold….
This is all the clarification of the picture you are going to get from this critical source. M. Cocteau is much too far-out for our figuring.
[The] total "testament" is so completely and complexly intellectualized that its meaning is totally clear, we'll warrant, only to M. Cocteau. Nor does the graphic content of the picture so stimulate and fascinate the mind that it generates an emotional reaction….
Bosley Crowther, "'Testament of Orpheus'," in The New York Times (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 10, 1962, p. 48.
The legend [dramatized in La Belle et la Bête] is handled in a variety of styles. The home life of Belle's family is parodied and is often broadly farcical in tone (as, for instance, in the use of cackling ducks to accompany the shots of Belle's two sisters). By contrast, the departure of Belle for the Beast's castle and her entry there are stylised, Cocteau employing slow motion photography to obtain a dreamlike effect. The fairytale world of the Beast's castle is given great solidity for Cocteau aimed at giving a "realism of the unreal" and it is arguable that in fact the setting has been given too much weight: there is a degree of ponderousness about the film which Georges Auric's music serves only to emphasise. In evoking the magical qualities of the castle Cocteau has made strangely little use of the film's trick shot possibilities; the living faces of the statuary and the disembodied human arms that act as the Beast's servants are essentially theatrical devices. One of the great difficulties facing Cocteau was that of making the oversimplified and unpersonalised figures of a fairytale into characters capable of sustaining interest in a film lasting some ninety minutes. The solution found for the minor characters was caricature and an often humorous approach. As far as the two principal characters are concerned, the make-up of … the Beast emphasises his bestial nature in a number of ways, as do such scenes as that of the Beast drinking and that where he scents game. But Belle remains a rather dull figure…. The film does, however, constantly open up odd perspectives—particularly through the ambiguities of Belle's attitude to the Beast…. (pp. 59-60)
[Les Parents Terribles] is a tragi-comedy of tangled family relationships, filled with melodramatic confrontations, incorporating deliberately shocking elements (incest and suicide) and a plot of vaudeville complexity. Cocteau has himself admirably defined his objectives in this film: "I had set out to do three things: firstly, record the acting of an incomparable cast; secondly, walk among them and look them straight in the face, instead of contemplating them at a distance on the stage; thirdly, peep through the keyhole and catch my wild beasts unawares with my tele-lens." (pp. 60-1)
Realising that his characters are monsters, inconceivable outside the closed walls of their apartment, Cocteau has limited himself to just two settings—the family home and Madeleine's flat. The combination of close-ups and non-naturalistic acting emphasises the intense theatricality which is so essential to the work. The exact sequence of speeches (with only a few tiny cuts) and the three act structure are also preserved from the play and nothing is done to make the plot more realistic. The film opens with a shot of a curtain rising to reveal the actors, and the plot follows a highly artificial pattern, opening and closing in the family apartment, beginning with a fake suicide and ending with a real one, and containing a succession of dramatic revelations and "coups de théâtre". (p. 61)
Orphée is a film set apart from the works of its time and inevitably its production involved numerous difficulties. It is an intensely personal work and its creator has described it as the orchestration of a theme which twenty years before, in Le Sang d'un Poète, he had played with one finger. The poet Orphée reflects Cocteau himself in many ways, adored by the public and hated by his fellow poets, even being admonished with the words: "Etonnez-Nous." Cocteau claims to have avoided symbolism and as with Resnais's L'Année Dernière à Marienbad it is doubtless naive to seek too exact an interpretation. The film embodies Cocteau's personal mythology and conception of the poet as an exceptional being who has a unique and intimate relationship with death. Eternally self-preoccupied, Cocteau regarded the myth of Orpheus as his myth, for he felt himself to be a man with one foot in life and the other in death. For him the conflict of life and death is not a contrast of light and darkness but a matter of degrees of greyness and twilight merging into one another. The boundaries between the two are never drawn with exactitude—the Princess comes to watch Orphée asleep and the poet moves from this world to the next without pain or anguish. For a work dealing so largely with death Orphée is remarkably idyllic in tone. There is no sense of terror here, for death is a beautiful princess who can return the poet's love. There is no sign of physical struggle or decay, for Orphée remains handsome in death and his love for the Princess is never expressed on a physical level. Nor has death any irrevocability or awesomeness: the dead can be revived and the servants of death are often bungling and inefficient.
It is on the level of its mythology that Orphée must be judged. In his handling of the film medium Cocteau remains an amateur in the best sense of the word. The film is not without its defects: the transitions of mood are not always adequately handled (the farcical comedy of Eurydice's return from the Zone sits oddly in the film), the integration of Aglaonice and the Bacchantes into the modernisation of the myth is poor, and the whole handling of Eurydice's pregnancy is very weak in its use of dialogue clichés and facile symbolism. But despite these blemishes Orphée is a most remarkable and independent work…. (p. 63)
[La Testament d'Orphée] is in many ways a summing up of [Cocteau's] whole career…. [He reveals in this film] to the greatest extent his delight in the conjuring possibilities of the cinema, the ability to move freely through time and space, or to perform (by means of reverse projection) such impossible feats as making a picture appear by rubbing it out or reassembling a shattered flower or creating a photograph from the flames. While the mythology of the film is sometimes obscure, there is no mistaking the poet's serenity and good nature, here emphasised by his own slightly awkward performance. (pp. 64-5)
Characteristic of Jean Cocteau's work, in the film and in the theatre, is the fusion of contrasting, even opposing elements. We find in his films a unique combination of the real and the unreal, seriousness and farce, personal obsession and antique myth. One of the reasons why Cocteau succeeded in creating an acceptable and absorbing fantasy world was his ability to make myth and reality intermingle. (p. 66)
Contrast and change are the recurring features of Cocteau's films. Never is one allowed to adopt a single way of looking or remain in one mood. In La Belle et la Bête, for instance, he adds farce and beauty, tragedy and trickery to the original ingredients of bestiality and love. Cocteau followed the same principle in his treatment of the music Georges Auric has composed for his films. He rejects the conventional approach: "Nothing seems to me more vulgar than musical synchronisation in films. It is a further pleonasm…. The only synchronisation that I like is accidental synchronisation, the effectiveness of which has been proved to me by innumerable examples." (p. 67)
It is doubtless futile to attempt a rational interpretation of the symbolism in Cocteau's films. His whole approach defies logical analysis and much of his imagery is based on personal symbolism and private associations. This is a closed world to which one must surrender totally or not at all. If one is not to regard his whole work as a mere charade one must accept Cocteau's conception of the poet as a supreme being, living outside time and in proximity to death. To be moved one must accept too Cocteau's eternal self-preoccupation and his idyllic conception of life. Though death is the central theme of all his major films there is no sense of conflict or suffering…. Death in Cocteau's world has no finality: the poet in Le Sang d'un Poète commits suicide twice, Orphée is returned to life and humdrum happiness after being shot, Cocteau in Le Testament d'Orphée is raised from the dead after being slain by Minerva. All this is possible because the world of Cocteau is that of the dream. He has spoken of the importance of dreams in his life: "I begin to live intensely only when asleep and dreaming. My dreams are detailed and terribly realistic." Cocteau's films, for all their unevenness and reticence, are the cinema's most sustained attempt at capturing the reality of this unreal world. (pp. 67-8)
Roy Armes, "Jean Cocteau," in his French Cinema since 1946: The Great Tradition, Vol. I (copyright © 1966 by Roy Armes), A. S. Barnes & Co., 1966, pp. 58-68.
Though unadmitted, The Testament of Orpheus has far greater ambitions and implications than its modest format indicates. And in this resides its particular significance. (p. 23)
Testament is too deliberate and lucid a work to be dismissed as an old man's self-indulgent gratification—as many critics chose to do. Wanting or capricious though it may be, Testament is neither pointless nor irrational and, least of all, senile. To the extent that this controversial film fails, as it ultimately does, it is for nobler reasons than pretentiousness, incompetence or declining power….
[It] is not only one of the great confessional documents of our time but probably the most original and audacious. The question remains, however, whether it has a chance to survive on its inherent merit, with the answer depending on the position one adopts toward the film as primarily a work of art or a poet's self-portrait. Of course, it is both at once, with the aesthetic and the private, the subjective and the objective so intimately intermingled that the poet himself got caught in the trap of ambivalences. In the Preface to the book edition of The Testament of Orpheus, Cocteau remarks that the filmis "possibly the first attempt of a transmutation of verbs into actions; of an organization of actions in the place of an organization of words, in a poem; of a syntax of images instead of a story accompanied by language."… Why does the poet, from the vantage point of his advanced age, make the claim of novelty for his last work rather than for Orpheus, the prototype of the poetic film and the model of an "organization of actions?" Why does the creator of Blood of a Poet consider this retrospective and nostalgic treatment of his favorite subject a first attempt, whereas it is so obviously intended to be the last and final one? Why does he disregard The Eternal Return and Beauty and the Beast, two films that are respectively visual embodiments of the poetic myth and the poetic fable rather than "stories accompanied by language?" If Testament is taken as lightly as it appears or pretends to be, these questions are confounding. There is good reason to believe, though, that Cocteau is guilty of a canny deception in that this seemingly slender work actually masks a confessional document of great personal import.
Testament is ostensibly nothing but a candid and informal autobiography, composed of loosely connected incidents literally referring to the author's past, his work, his friends and associates, as well as to things and places remembered. He wants his readers and viewers to believe that he produced the film as an unpremeditated venture, "without expecting anything else from it but the deep pleasure derived from making it."… The ease and candor he professes, however, only thinly disguise the urgency of his true endeavor, which is to establish the authentic public image by which he hopes to be remembered. That, essentially, is the legacy contained in this cinematic treatment, its "resurrectional" message and purpose, which is furthermore confirmed by the "phenixological" poem that precedes the printed scenario. Cocteau might well have proclaimed, with Camus' Caligula, "I do not have to make a work of art; I live it." Only, in this case, it implies less hubris than total self-obsession. (p. 24)
In 1932, Cocteau delivered an address in which he opens up new vistas of the poetic cinema: "With the film, death is killed, literature is killed, poetry is made to live a direct life. Imagine what the cinema of the future might be." At this point, it is important to appreciate that Testament is not a poetic film in any conventional sense, its subject notwithstanding. More accurately, it amounts almost to a lecture-demonstration, with the poet candidly explaining what it means to be a poet, why he is perennially on trial and "condemned to live," why he is fated to die "invisibly" as well as assured to be resurrected. Even more specifically, Testament tells us not only what it means to be a poet but what it means to be the poet Jean Cocteau. As a source of information, the film is probably more self-revealing than any other of his literary or cinematic works, and quite possibly beyond its author's actual intentions. While portraying the poet Cocteau, the film author Cocteau refrains, even more rigorously than in Orpheus, from dwelling on lyrical mood or evocative imagery. No sooner has he created a poetic atmosphere, or established a fictional illusion, than he destroys or subverts it…. If Pirandello created characters in search of an author, Cocteau may be said to have created an author in search of a character…. Cocteau's own method … consists in exposing one illusion as a deception while simultaneously authenticating another, equally artificial one. He resembles a prestidigitator pretending to reveal his trick in order to divert the spectator's attention from the decisive one he wants to bring off. In Orpheus, the realistic and illusory spheres are clearly separated, each one representing its own valid realm of existence; in Testament, they are so inextricably interwoven that the poet loses control and, consequently, the viewer loses his rational bearings. (p. 25)
There would be no doubt in Cocteau's own mind that Testament is a poetic film, by the same token as Blood of a Poet, which he claimed to be "completely indifferent to what the world considers poetic." Cocteau, it must be remembered, conceived of poetry not so much as a medium of spontaneous or intuitive expression than as of a means of revealing "the design and detail of images emerging from the profound night of the human body." They are called upon to represent at once internal and external reality, neither of which admits or recognizes its limitations. These poetic images, the poet insists, "have no recourses to either dreams or symbols"; rather, they represent different stages of consciousness, an assumption the poet would presumably refute. It is evident again that poetry, for Cocteau, is functional and instrumental. Testament, like Blood of a Poet thirty years previously, provides "a vehicle for poetry which may or may not serve its purpose." This reservation exonerates the poet conveniently of all poetic conventions and obligations, allowing him ample leeway for alternating freely between extremes: exact realism or pure fantasy, direct representation or allegorical transformation. "Still, this contempt for the rules does not go without a contempt for the danger that excites a great many souls." Surely the poet is aware that he is skating on perilously thin premises…. [The] two films are not only thematically related; they also pursue similar ends. But while premises and objectives are identical, the execution is radically dissimilar. It is not a facile play of words, but relevant to the nature of the works, to suggest that Cocteau's description of Blood of a Poet, as "a realistic documentary of unreal events," may be reversed to read an unrealistic documentary of real events for Testament. The distinctive quality of Blood of a Poet resided in the discovery of visual equivalents for traditional verbal poetry. It unwinds on the screen "like a band of allegories." The unique quality of Testament is neither cine-poetry nor, certainly, its consciously manipulated artistry (which tends to be precious), but its implicit self-revelation which is genuine—in fact intense and anxious….
In Testament it is virtually impossible to distinguish between symbols, allegories and metaphors because of their constant interaction. There is, however, the unmistakable symbol of the Hibiscus flower which the poet carries through the whole film, which he calls the film's "true star"…. As is so often the case, and consistent with Cocteau's stated principles, his treatment is rather too literal and explicit to be called symbolic. His pictorial style, in spite of its imagination and elaboration, is essentially descriptive. For instance, when Cocteau encounters himself in one of Testament's key episodes, he observes uneasily that the other self pretends not to see him, while his companion comments that "he probably goes whence you came and you go whence he comes." He is seeking himself, finding himself and disavowing himself all at once in one brief scene which is both admirably suggestive and thoroughly cinematic. At this instant it becomes evident that the film itself, the tangible image on the screen, is the point of encounter, of the meeting or the clash of illusion with illusion as well as of illusion with reality. It is noteworthy that the encounter does not occur in either a conceptual or a metaphysical point, as it might in verbal poetry, but in a concrete point in time and space….
Cocteau submits that "The Testament of Orpheus is nothing but a machine to fabricate meanings [significations]." Does he mean to suggest that nothing is to be taken literally, in fact that nothing is what it seems to be? If so, it would follow that Cocteau does not signify Cocteau, or Picasso not Picasso, which is patently absurd and surely not what the author has in mind. The assumption is, of course, that he is in complete control of the machine, hence also of the meanings he intends to fabricate. Testament proves his thesis wrong. As an artist, a maker of images, Cocteau relies on the fact that every image, including his own, is other than the original to which it refers. And yet, while every object is physically changed when transformed from one mode of existence into another, it becomes not automatically endowed with transcendent meaning, or indeed any meaning. This is Cocteau's error and the origin of a critical ambiguity in the film's concept. Minerva, the Idol, the Sphinx function on one level of meaning; the Princess and Heurtebise on another; Cégeste on yet another; Oedipus intrudes from the dramatic stage; Picasso and Aznavour are private visitors, while Cocteau himself remains altogether himself. The result is not a new poetic order but confusion and disorientation. (p. 26)
We should be wary, though, of judging anything in Testament as arbitrary or irrelevant, since the object and intent of the work are not lost out of Cocteau's sight for one single instant…. In Cocteau On Film, he confesses that "a film, whatever it may be, is always its director's portrait." That this portrait is not a metaphorical term for personal style, but a likeness of its creator, is affirmed in Testament. As Cocteau attempts to draw the Hibiscus flower, it keeps assuming the traits of his own face…. It is fitting to quote a statement from Blood of the Poet …: "I shall not conceal from you the fact that I have used tricks to make poetry visible and audible." In spite of this assertion, however, it is not so much poetry he makes visible as himself. His posthumous concern is blatantly evident. Lest there remain any doubt whatever, he even makes us, and his personal friends, witness his death and resurrection. He states, and elaborately stages, what Yeats put simply: "The tree must die before it can be made into a cross." All the evidence points to one inescapable conclusion: if everything we witness and observe contributes to the emerging self-portrait, the meaning of Testament becomes unequivocally clear. It fits the words of Jean Genet—"a true image born of a false spectacle." (pp. 26-7)
George Amberg, "The Testament of Jean Cocteau," in Film Comment (copyright © 1971 Film Comment Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved), Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 23-7.