Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy (Part II)


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 Orpheus, which I believe is Cocteau’s best film, and The Testament of Orpheus.

Orpheus, the centerpiece and the masterpiece of the Orphic trilogy, was released in 1949. Nineteen years separated the making of The Blood of a Poet and the unveiling of Orpheus, yet the connection is clear. The Beauty and the Beast (1946) remains his most famous film, but Cocteau’s revision of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice is a much more revealing, personal work. “Interpret it as you wish,” Cocteau states at the beginning of the film. But before you do, consider what he would later write: “…through a wealth of detail similar to that which we find in dreams, (Orpheus) summarizes my way of living and my conception of life.”

A major component of that conception of life (which is consistently the focus of all three films of his trilogy) is what the filmmaker called phoenixology, the first of the three themes which Cocteau attributed to Orpheus in his essay on the film. Reportedly inherited from Dali, pheonixology was once described by Cocteau as “the science of people’s death and rebirth” (not usually literal and not a real, physically observable science). The concept of pheonixology becomes no less ambiguous upon further investigation, but however intractable, the idea is essential to understanding Cocteau’s intentions. The Orphic trilogy concerns the lives and deaths of the Poet (again, not necessarily literal life or death and not a particular poet, but a Poet). The poet in The Blood of a Poet commits suicide before coming back to life. The poet, Orpheus, makes the journey through Death’s world and lives on in Orpheus. There is even a glimpse of phoenixology in a man’s transformation from human to beast to human in The Beauty and the Beast.

You could dismiss Cocteau’s intentions and ignore phoenixology. After all, Cocteau gave us permission to think what we want about his film (which was either his way of saying not to ask for an explanation or misguiding us to think that there was not one). However, Cocteau’s notion of “the successive deaths through which a poet must pass” explains why Orpheus feels so densely packed with ideas. And surprisingly for Cocteau, those major themes which typically lend themselves to La Belle e le Bete-like fantasy or Blood of a Poet-esque surrealism are depicted with a natural and classical realism. His obsession with crafting stories of the Poet as a hero who breaks the barrier between life and death is most accessible and most effectively captured here. “A poet is more than a man,” Heurtebise the limo driver says in typical Cocteau fashion. Such lines are just as likely to be heard from the writer-director in a press interview as by one of his characters.

Cocteau’s voice always lingered just in the background of his films: He would introduce his films via voiceover. In Beauty and the Beast, he writes the opening credits on a chalkboard. More and more, his characters (especially his poets) became an obvious vehicle for his relentless lecturing on art and phoenixology. In Orpheus, he discovered a fascinating way of balancing his own voice with his beloved Greek mythology, his poetic eye for visual wizardry and straightforward realist storytelling. The Beauty and the Beast offers similar virtues, but without half as much narrative or philosophical daring.

In his final film, the bookend to the Orphic trilogy, Cocteau the public figure and Cocteau the filmmaker became one as he wandered onscreen as the main exhibition. The Testament of Orpheus (1959) is Cocteau at his most self-indulgent, but he did admit that he never considered its commercial prospects. After all, he had no reason to compromise for box-office success: he was quitting cinema. Cocteau, an artist to the end, had become excited by the new medium in 1930. The Blood of a Poet was made to explore the possibilities of what he believed was a new art form. Somewhere between 1949 and 1959, the poet realized that the movies were moving in a different direction. He surrendered the film world with the words “the original sin of art is that it wanted to convince and to please.” His swan song would make no such effort. The film makes little sense (no logical sense without prior knowledge of the director’s fascination with phoenixology). He wrote that even he did not understand all of it. It reminds us of the value of those “commercial concerns” which Cocteau rejected. So often in film history, the tension between the business of film and the artists of cinema are forced into a compromise and the audience is saved from films like The Testament of Orpheus, which are intriguing and occasionally sublime, but too often incomprehensible and limited to an individual’s far-reaching impulses.

For Further Reading:

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