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TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHEE, OU NE ME DEMANDEZ PAS POURQUOI!) (director/writer: Jean Cocteau; cinematographer: Roland Pontoiseau; editor: Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte; music: Georges Auric/ Martial Solal; cast: Jean Cocteau (Poet), Françoise Arnoul, Claudine Auger (Minerva), Edouard Dermithe (Cégeste), Henri Crémieux (Scientist), Jean Marais (Oedipus), Maria Casarès (Princess), Yul Brynner (Doorman), François Périer (Heurtebise), Jean-Pierre Léaud (Boy),Pablo Picasso (A friend of Orphée), Lucia Bosè (Orphée’s Friend), Charles Aznavour (The Curious Man), Françoise Sagan (A friend of Orphée), Roger Vadim (Himself), Daniel Gélin (Assistant), Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte (Gypsy); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jean Thuillier;Janus Films; 1960-France-in French with English subtitles)
The 70-year-old Cocteau plays himself as the eternal poet looking back through his films at himself.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The last film of Jean Cocteau (“The Blood of a Poet”/”Beauty and the Beast”/”Orpheus”), the poet/writer/musician/artist/playwright/philosopher and filmmaker, who lived from 1889-1963 and was at the forefront in modernism in such movements as the New Wave, surrealism and dadaism. The pic is in black-and-white, completed on a shoestring budget, and is a bizarre and allusive personal film, whose major fault is that it lacks zeal. The 70-year-old Cocteau plays himself as the eternal poet looking back through his films at himself and tries to explain how a poet thinks and also to evaluate his lifetime accomplishment and his shortcomings. It’s an arty, moody and provocative film that should mostly appeal to his aficionados. It’s at times narcissistic and at other times self-defacing, and always self-indulgent. It features an ensemble cast of mostly friends of the poet, who help him live out his dreams and help him see through his art obsession to find the truth in his work and life. It’s strangely affecting but not endearing, as the somewhat pessimistic poet ironically wonders what the future holds as he willingly passes on the baton to the younger generation of artists to come up with their own conclusions. The artist lets us know that all artists must rebel against convention to be relevant, that must likely they will not be recognized in their time, and that he fought the good fight and has nothing to be ashamed of in his efforts to live a life of the imagination in the real world.

Cocteau is the 18th century artist who dies and emerges as the errant weightless poet lost in space-time, and when revived seeks to discover his identity through his friends, the images presented and through the classical myths he previously filmed. The most impressive characters to aid the poet are his real-life longtime lover Jean Marais, who plays Oedipus; the underworld judges at his tribunal are played by The Princess (Maria Casarès) and Heurtebise (François Périer), with the kindly Heurtebise sentenced by the fates “to condemn others;” at the poet’s trial for the crime of “repeatedly attempting to trespass into another world,” he is condemned to live out the remaining years of his life; and there’s also Cocteau’s fictional time-traveler companion Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe), a creation from the 1950 film Orpheus, who gives the poet a flower to draw and discovers the poet makes it into a self-portrait.

The aging poet recognizes his real-life trip is almost over but acknowledges that art is immortal, and therein lies his hope that more than a few will understand the importance of the artist’s life lessons. It’s the kind of curious pic that should appeal to those who can relate unreality to reality (what Cocteau claims is necessary for making films) and are not intimidated by those striving to live an intellectual life.

The film also goes by its alternative title of ‘Don’t Ask Me Why.’


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”