Testament of Orpheus is a poet's film, which is to say it is indispensable, though I don't know to what. (1) But then again I do know: indispensible to our French cinema, which wants not for talented men at the moment, but which wants for this sort of default or lack that is precisely poetry. What is poetry? That which is never out of style, which is linked to neither fashion onr style, but to a poverty turned to riches, a limping turned to dance, in short, to a happy destitution. The poet, above all, must reinvent simplicity, realism, and Cocteau reinvented the documentary, just as Georges Franju, working with Fritz Lang, reinvented the set shot.
Reverse shots, slow motion, apparitions and disappearances with a turn of the crank, recourse to special effects only when necessary for an unforgettable effect: thus is born the art of inventing lasting images.
In a well-known paragraph of "L'essai de critique indirecte," Cocteau once compared the painter-poet and the poet-painter, Picasso and De Chirico. Filmmaker and poet ever since L'Aigle á deux têtes, elegance obliged him, for his own testament, finally to remake himself into the poet and filmmaker of The Blood of a Poet, exclusively and unsuccessfully preoccupied with trying to paint roses that are not his self-portrait. But always this Orpheus, always this Oedipus, on the blackboard or the screen, return to flout a false blind man with painted lids, brother of this mask with living eyes that Franju has just unleashed among us.
The artist anxious and reconciled in the same moment. You're quite free to scoff at a treatise on poetic morality, which is to say an analytical and methodical description of the trials, temptations, and resources of the poet, and of why he must always take the word "mortification" in its strictest sense. This desperate effort of men to give meaning to the absurd, which is art, permeates the work of a Ray or a Mizoguchi. Cocteau and Franju seek to storm absurdity in its stronghold, but only to rediscover man behind it all. "Take this flower... But this flower is dead," strange sort of hopscotch, but it causes us to jump suddenly, with both feet -- "One cannot always bring back to life the thing that one loves" -- into the bull's-eye. For this film is beautiful, in the last analysis, because it is the film of a man who knows that he is going to die and yet is unable, no matter how much he might wish to, to take death seriously. Absurdity and grace are head and tail of the same coin, which he tosses into his night and which falls into our own darkness.
Translated by Rene Gilson
Coceau has said: "Poetry is indispensable. To what, I don't know..." (Ed.)
Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema No. 106, April 1960, p. 47-8. English translation from Jean Cocteau by Rene Gilson (Crown, 1969), 164-5.