Movie Madness: “The Testament of Orpheus”

“A film is a petrifying fountain of thought”


The full title of the film, The Testament of Orpheus, or, Do Not Ask Me Why (1959), is apt. Those who cannot bear the baffling opening scene would be best to choose something else. Three figures, two men and a woman, all silent, talk to each other. The woman cries, and the men look solemn.

Opening with the first spoken line: “It is the unique power of 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,” this film is an exploration into the subconscious and the symbiotic nature of artist and art; it is very experimental, and, like most experimental films, asks the viewer to be patient and open-minded, to go fully along on the journey.

Some films that are harder than others, not just to watch, but to understand. Sometimes you don’t understand them at all, and that might be the point. Directors like Jean Cocteau and David Lynch reward investment and challenge the audience to think outside the box, and to not expect answers to come easily.

There are many theatrical elements at play here. The introductory set is more like that of a theater, the backstage props and scenery all perfectly visible, leaving the audience to focus fully on the plot: the Poet (Jean Cocteau), a man outside time, needs help in returning, not necessarily to his own time, but to himself.

The Poet tells one character, the Professor, that it is ‘difficult to explain being timeless’, and even more difficult ‘to live in timelessness’. After the Poet leaves him behind in his laboratory, he moves in the outside world slowly, as if on the moon or in a dream; he passes a man-like horse walking upright, much like is done in real world productions, and its head is removed to reveal a young man. He walks into a camp, where the fire burns backwards, revealing a picture of Cégeste, one of the men from the silent opening shot; after throwing a torn up picture of him (backwards) into the sea, the man springs forth from the water, proclaimed ‘why, always why. You want to know too much’; in a way condemning the restless viewer, who squirms in their seat as they remain in the dark.

Cégeste asks the Poet if he is an expert in phoenixology, the art of repeatedly dying to be reborn. The characters have a penchant to appear then disappear in thin air, harkening back to the transitory shot of a bubble of smoke being burst in backward time, all the loose filaments coalescing back together into a cohesive shape; both ‘pheonixology’ and disappearing are recurring themes, both in the film and in Cocteau’s interpretation of artistic endeavors.

As they pass by a tapestry of Judith beheading Holofernes, the Poet notes that Judith herself has now become the repository of her own legend; not too long after a girl is questioned about the tapestry presented, and answers that its creator is Jean Cocteau, a musician who plays at being an artist (and makes wonderful puns). One of the things I enjoyed about the film was that it doesn’t allow you to get comfortable with its ideas; it is always presenting new puzzles and questions, and makes you look for the answers.

The Poet’s transition into other scenes are seamless and continuous, flowing as if he has just rounded a corner or exited a room, ushered to and fro by Cégeste, possibly his muse, possibly his creative inspiration, but certainly at the very least symbolic of his art. He warns the Poet that the artist always paints a portrait of himself, and that he will never ‘paint the flower’, a very interesting statement to make, as of course just as artists are invested in their art, they are invested also because it reflects some portion of themselves, and they can never hope to capture the true face of what it is they depict, because it has already been spoiled by their perception. Art is a continuous cycle of creation and destruction; the creation of a representation of beauty, truth, intellect, humanity, and the destruction of its basic form.

Cégeste leads the Poet to Minerva, telling him that he has no choice, and he must go, another veiled statement about the connectivity between art and intellect; art, its nature, has a direct correlation to creative intelligence, or has the ability to inspire it. Creation is an intelligent act, the coalescing of parceled forms and self-sustaining ideas into a conglomerate of the finished product.

In a tribunal hearing hosted by Minerva and Heurtebise (a character from Cocteau’s earlier Orpheus), the Poet is tried on two counts: is he innocent, and has he repeatedly attempted to trespass into another world? The Poet pleads guilty on both charges, with the Professor being brought up as a witness. Here, the line between dream and reality, conscious and subconscious, is brought up again, by Minerva telling the Professor that he is still asleep, and only dreaming, prompting more considerations of the nature of time and the unharnessed capability of dreams. The trial takes up a large portion of the movie, nearly a third, and ends in Minerva and Heurtebise sentencing the Poet ‘condemned to live’, while themselves being sentenced to judge others, to be judges. The Poet wonders on the will of the character that tries to destroy its creator, the artist.

Minerva and Heurtebise

They wander through more surreal scenes; a woman reads a mystery book not to be published for 70 years, accompanied by another half-man, half-animal, a dog who she commands with a whistle. The Poet and Cégeste enter a tomb in Villefranche, where they pass a double of the Poet, or possibly the Poet himself, whom he cannot kill because ‘there will be no one else who will die in your place’. They meet ‘the Key of Dreams’, Pelopennese; a pair of ‘intellectuals in love’; the statue of celebrity, who feeds on autographs and spits out poems and songs.

They reach a point where Cégeste must leave, and the Poet approaches the Court Usher (Yul Brenner), who guides him to an antechamber, where a mysterious masked figure awaits him. Stabbed through the chest, the Poet is then surrounded by various figures, from to Pablo Picasso, before he is lifted by two horse-men and taken away as the film becomes colorized for a moment, leaving behind a pool of red blood and a pink flower. His body is laid on a bier, joined by all of the figures he had passed by before in the camp as he rises from the dead, claiming ‘only poets pretend to die’, and walking away in that arrhythmic sleepwalk, leaving his flower behind in the dust.test 6

Speaking of experimental directors who love long, unedited shots, I cannot say for certain if David Lynch ever saw a Cocteau film, or even this one, but I must think that he has because there are striking similarities between Testament of Orpheus, and Cocteau’s surrealism in general, and Twin Peaks, specifically the Black Lodge. I won’t go into spoiler territory, but there are numerable parallels: doppelgangers; the way some characters speak, with the actor’s lines being read backwards then played forwards so it has an odd cadence; the atmosphere being one outside of time, where strange things happen that resonate with aspects of reality; everything might or might not be the product of a dream. The resemblance is strong, and reinforces the notion that art engenders itself; artists influence one another, and create or destroy appropriately.

This film is one of those that engenders more thought than answers. I won’t pretend that all my questions were answered, or even that I’m asking the right questions. As bizarre as the journey was, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.


Further Reading: Cocteau’s Essay

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