Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy (Part I)


The Orphic Trilogy, which includes The Blood of a Poet (1930); Orpheus (1949); and The Testament of Orpheus (1959), is a fascinating set of films. After watching them earlier this summer and inhaling the essays and bonus features attached to the Criterion editions of the films, I began writing the following 1,000 words immediately. My goal was a) to organize my thoughts, b) to practice the process of watching, researching, and writing through one filmmaker’s films (though I don’t touch on all of them), and/or c) to present a somewhat introductory glimpse of a truly original filmmaker worth taking note of.

Plenty has been written about Cocteau in the 86 years since his arrival on the film scene. I didn’t necessarily need to add to it, but I did. (Some of that writing was helpful in my research; I’ve listed those sources below.) My focus wasn’t on concocting some new way of seeing Cocteau’s oeuvre so much as it was on succinctly summarizing the history and ideas of the trilogy which took him his whole career to complete. I decided to split the writing into two parts: Part I is primarily about Cocteau’s cinematic debut, The Blood of a Poet, and the circumstances of its release in 1930. Part II covers the other two films, one of which I believe is Cocteau’s best. Part II is written and coming soon.

Jean Cocteau finished production on his film The Blood of a Poet in September 1930. The film would make its public debut two years later after a long struggle against those who interpreted the film’s avant-garde surrealism as symbolism opposing Christianity. Such audiences were correct in assuming that there was an ideology guiding the dreamlike events, but they were wrong in criticizing the film as a statement against any institution. At this time, Cocteau cared little for making a statement on religion or politics. His was an artistic statement.

Cocteau was well versed in the arts long before he arrived on the then newly exciting film scene. He was the son of an amateur painter, published a book of poems at age nineteen, and became a close companion of Pablo Picasso and other prominent figures of the Parisian avant-garde during the 1910s. He became involved with the Russian Ballets Russe, wrote a few ballets and operas, and then he finally published a novel. By the time that the hosts of a dinner party proposed they would give him a million francs to make a film, Cocteau undoubtedly saw one more corner of the arts which was his to explore. His attraction to film was based on its ability to disguise the subjective as the objective. He saw potential in film “as a poetic vehicle to show things (he) couldn’t say.” In film, the mass medium which utilizes all of the arts (painting, theatre, literature, photography), Cocteau dreamed, as so many others had, that new ways of artistic expression could be realized through cinema.

Once Cocteau completed the film and rumors began to spread Paris that The Blood of a Poet included anti-Christian layers of meaning, the dinner party hosts, Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, sought to salvage their reputations and forbade Cocteau from releasing the film for over a year. Cocteau has consistently denied the allegations against his film “The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols,” Cocteau wrote and it is now clear that The Blood of a Poet aspires to something more ambiguous and subjective than subtly critiquing religious institutions. Cocteau crafted his 50-minute depiction of an artist’s dreamlike journey as a half-reality, a kind of fantasy film in which the poet is constantly puzzled by the illusory nature of the present.

For a film commonly categorized as avant-garde and surrealist, The Blood of a Poet seems surprisingly interested in holding audience attention and maintaining narrative continuity. Cocteau’s voiceover narration clarifies and links the film’s four episodes into a unified story. When the protagonist walks through a mirror into a spacelike black void, Cocteau explains that the mirror led to a hotel before even showing us the halls of the hotel. In this way, Cocteau has taken care to inject logic in the illogical and to make the inaccessible art of surrealism accessible in a way that fellow surrealist Luis Bunuel refused audiences in Un Chien Andalou only a year earlier (that film also was the victim of many malicious rumors). Between the popular reactions to the two films, Cocteau’s and Bunuel’s, we see why both filmmakers viewed their art as something revolutionary and truly new.

According to Cocteau, The Blood of a Poet was not intended to be a surrealist film; in fact, he has denied that such a film existed before 1930. He was wrong. Bunuel’s film (which came first) was one of a few films (Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and Delay’s The Seashell and the Clergyman) which established the movement of surrealism during the 1920s. Though Cocteau was always a boldly idiosyncratic filmmaker and icon of Wellesian proportions, there is no denying that he was a part of Bunuel and Dali’s band of revolutionaries. It is intriguing to note that the revolutionary, anarchic spirit of the surrealist movement could be found outside of the cinema in the works of artists Cocteau called friends. Composers like Stravinsky, whose Ballets Russe production of “The Rite of Spring” nearly provoked a riot, and artists like Picasso and Dali, who would become pioneers and icons of cubist and surrealist art respectively, created work which inspired Cocteau (and Bunuel too: Dali was a cowriter of Un Chien Andalou).

So if The Blood of a Poet appears to be off its rocker, let the bit of history above assure you, it is not. The film was born into a context that was fiercely creative, in which artists were rebelling from old expectations and daring to produce works which confronted their audience and forced them to pick a side. Often an audience would be offended and protest, but for Stravinsky, Picasso, Dali, Bunuel, and Cocteau, that was the signal to keep pushing the issue. And they did. The Blood of a Poet was the result of Cocteau translating his incredible imagination, his artistic versatility, and Stravinsky and Dali’s principle of “rejecting habits” to celluloid.

How does it play today? The film can be best regarded as a foundation to Cocteau’s entire oeuvre and be worst regarded as a non-sensical, self-indulgent experiment; Cocteau would not be surprised by either response. Nonetheless, what is best and most idiosyncratic about his filmmaking can be found throughout his debut: His imagination, often visualized through refreshingly creative mechanical effects, is the audience’s delight in any Cocteau film. His obsession with fantasy and the immortality of the poet (to which he dedicated himself to capturing in the Orphic trilogy: The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, and Testament of Orpheus) is in plain sight from his first film to his last. Even though the films are clearly outdated technically, they remain technically impressive, or at least, they have retained their magic. A modern remake of, let’s say, Orpheus using CGI would lose every ounce of the film’s archaic poeticism; the black and white dates the celluloid but not the story or the work itself, which truly seems to stand outside of time just as Cocteau intended.

To be continued

For Further Reading:


One response to “Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy (Part II) | Cinema Train·

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