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  Testament of Orpheus, The Poetry Corner
Year: 1960
Director: Jean Cocteau
Stars: Jean Cocteau, Edouard Dermithe, Henri Crémieux, Daniel Gélin, Jean Marais, María Casares, Charles Aznavour, Yul Brynner, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Brigitte Morisan, François Périer, Alice Heyliger, Pablo Picasso
Genre: FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The poet, Jean Cocteau, has discovered a way to travel through time, and sees this as a method of finding meaning in his life and art. He realises he must visit a Professor (Henri Crémieux) who is well aware of the facts and theories of existence and will understand this jumping through the centuries that the poet is playing out, but he has to find a way of settling on the Professor at the correct stage of his life, or else he won't be able to assist. Therefore it takes a lot of trial and error - one error being turning up at the man's infancy and scaring his nurse into dropping him, which has health repercussions - until they can have a proper conversation...

While France was becoming known on the international cinema scene for its groundbreaking New Wave of fresh talent, supposedly blowing away the past like a strong breeze scattering dry leaves, one of those artists of the old school made his valedictory film, a meditation on his life's work. It was pretty far from the likes of Jean-Luc Godard on the surface, with its spiralling fantasy world which spoke to nobody but those who followed Cocteau, and Cocteau himself of course, but in its own way it was as experimental as the new blood - it's just that it harkened back to old experiments.

So if you've seen the previous films he made, works such as Blood of a Poet (Cocteau here takes a similar journey through a "wonderland" of his own devising) or Orphée (characters from that film accompany him on his quest for meaning), then you're probably going to be in a more advantageous position to see this than those who have not. He doesn't make many allowances for non-believers, but why, the film seems to say, would you be watching this if you were not interested, fascinated even, in me in the first place? And if nothing else, you get an insight into the frame of mind of the creative soul.

As you can imagine, this was a very personal film, but Cocteau avoids becoming too stuffy. His tricks are overused, however, as for a while it seems not a minute will go by without the footage being played backwards or someone appearing or disappearing with a tasteful fade. Sometimes, however, even these simple effects can be quite captivating, as when the poet puts a flower back together from bits and pieces left in a pot and you can see the pleasure he took in the ability of cinema to pull off such images, apparently effortlessly.

The poet encounters figures from mythology as he goes about his search, and you can grow somewhat jaded with a feature which comes across as the work of a self-obsessive, but Cocteau acknowledges that the artist can only bring himself to his subjects, essentiallly making each of his creations a self-portrait of sorts. Yet from the start, which makes light humour from him, he is an endearing character and you can understand why he was regarded in such high esteem; you may not go with him on his theories, but he displays a keen mind even at this stage, and as a farewell to the world he hopes to live on in through his work even if his body is no longer with us, The Testament of Orpheus has value. And if you grow tired of Cocteau's navel-gazing, at least you can spot the celebrities he had assembled in bit parts. Music by Georges Auric and Martial Solal.

Aka: Le Testament d'Orphée.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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