In 1959, just four years before his death from a heart attack, Jean Cocteau knew that his time was running out after years of ill health, opium addiction, and a vagabond life that depended on the kindness of strangers, to quote Tennessee Williams’ memorable phrase. He also knew that he wanted to make one final film to sum up his life’s work, a film that would emerge the next year as Le testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960).
But to do this, as always, Cocteau needed money to create a film even on a limited budget, and so he turned to his friend and patron, Francine Weisweiller, in whose home, the Villa Santo-Sospir, Cocteau had been a guest for a number of years. Weisweiller put up some of the production budget, and also allowed Cocteau to shoot on the premises, but a significant portion of the funding came from none other than François Truffaut, whose debut film, Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), won Truffaut the Best Director Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. .1 Cocteau, who always loved working behind the scenes, had been instrumental in ensuring Truffaut’s victory at the festival, and Truffaut promptly returned the favour by giving Cocteau all of his prize money towards Le testament d’Orphée’s meagre budget.
But that was just the beginning of Cocteau’s remarkable last film. For his actors, he gathered up a stellar group of friends and colleagues to participate in film, including Claudine Auger, Charles Azanvour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Jean Marais, María Casares, (reprising her role as the Princess of Death from Cocteau’s Orphée [Orpheus, 1950]), Serge Lifar, the young Jean-Pierre Léaud, Pablo Picasso, Annette Stroyberg and Roger Vadim. But most crucially, Cocteau cast himself in the lead role, as a dreamily frustrated poet still trying to create work of value, though he knows the end is near.
The plot of the film is really a series of incidents, rather than a cohesive narrative, which harkens back to Cocteau’s first film, Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930), a feature-length Surrealist film in which a young poet (Enrique Rivero) seeks his destiny in a hall of mirrors, and eventually commits ritual suicide (not once, but twice), only to be resurrected to continue his work. Here, Cocteau takes over the role of the poet, who now looks back on his life’s work, and catalogues the paintings, sculptures, murals, and films he’s created throughout his long career.
As Cocteau noted in an essay upon the film’s initial release, “Le testament d’Orphée is simply a machine for creating meanings [. . .] This film has nothing to do with dreams except that it borrows the rigorous illogicality of dreams, their way of giving during the night, a kind of freshness to the falsehoods of the day that is dulled by routine. In addition, it is realistic, if realism means a detailed painting of the intrigues of a universe that is personal to every artist and is totally unrelated to what we are used to accepting as reality.” .”2
To document the production of the film, Cocteau hired the still photographer Lucien Clergue, telling him “you are free to do as you please. I look forward to being surprised by your photos. They will reveal something different from my film.” As Clergue watched the film being shot, he noted that “half the filming was done in the quarries and the rocky hills surrounding [Les Baux de Provence]. The other half was done in the movie studio La Victorine on the outskirts of Nice, the little city of Villefranche-sur-Mer [and Francine Weisweiller’s villa] . . . Cocteau’s vitality was exceptional: first up, last to bed, charming, courteous, generous to all. He considered stars and simple grips as equals. His secret was to nap for a few minutes while the crew prepared the next setup.”3
Thus, the film is free to do whatever it wants, unfettered by conventional modes of narrative discourse. As the film opens, Cocteau, a time-travelling poet clad in the garb of an 18th century nobleman, startles a young schoolboy (Léaud) when he appears without warning in the present, and then abruptly vanishes, drifting through time in a series of encounters with phantoms from his past (including, in one instance, Cocteau himself as a mysterious “double”). He is murdered at the end of the film with a spear thrown by a Minotaur, only to rise again from the dead, aided by his companion, Cégeste (played by Cocteau’s real-life lover, Edouard Dermithe). “Only pretend to weep,” Cocteau admonishes the viewer on the soundtrack — his off-screen narration is a constant throughout the film — “for poets only pretend to die.”
Still, much of the film documents Cocteau’s continued frustration, as he seeks to create new work of daring originality, only to find that everything he does is autobiographical. “It’s no use. An artist always paints his own portrait,” Cégeste warns him, and with the film, Cocteau does precisely that. It’s a tour of all the work he’s created in a myriad of mediums, and while has certain persistent themes (the legend of Orpheus; and the idea of continual rebirth, or “phoenixology,” which requires artists to repeatedly die in order to be reborn), the overall effect is dazzling. From murals to films to poems to plays to sculptures to paintings and much more, Cocteau mastered every medium he touched.
Though Le testament d’Orphée received little in the way of critical praise when it was first released, it has grown in stature over the passing decades as the final work of an artist whose influence has only increased over time. Cocteau died on October 11, 1963, and is buried in the village of Milly-la-Forêt, in a small chapel whose walls Cocteau decorated with beautifully intricate murals. His tomb, a simple slab in the centre of the chapel floor, bears only these words: “Je reste avec vous” (“I stay with you”). And so he does, and in this film, he comes alive once again, for all of us to see and marvel at his stunning legacy as an artist.
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Le testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960 France 79 min)
Prod. Co: Cinédis, Les Editions Cinégraphiques Prod: Jean Thuillier, François Truffaut, Francine Weisweiller Dir: Jean Cocteau Scr: Jean Cocteau Phot: Roland Pontoizeau Ed: Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte Prod Des: Pierre Guffroy Mus: Georges Auric, Martial Solal
Cast: Jean Cocteau, Françoise Arnoul, Claudine Auger, Charles Aznavour, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, María Casares, Eduoard Dermithe, Serge Lifar, Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot, Jean Marais, Jean-Pierre Léaud, François Périer
- Francis Steegmuller, Cocteau (New York: Little, Brown, 1970): pp. 494-495. ↩
- Jean Cocteau, “Le testament d’Orphée,” 1959, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/14-testament-of-orpheus ↩
- Lucien Clergue, Jean Cocteau and The Testament of Orpheus (New York: Viking Studio, 2001): pp. 14-15. ↩