Poetry in Motion

Ara H. Merjian on Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy

Jean Cocteau, The Blood of a Poet, 1930, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 55 minutes.

IN THE AGE of CGI digital wizardry, the homespun effects of Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy appear quaint and sometimes clunky. But even (or especially) in their simplicity, numerous scenes remain seared on our collective cinematic imagination—whether Jean Marais locked in a narcissistic embrace with his own mirrored reflection, or Lee Miller as a talking, armless statue come to life. Of course, the thirty years that separate The Blood of a Poet (1930) from The Testament of Orpheus (1960) underscore a chasm between contexts: from the burgeoning realm of sound film to the technical advances of the postwar period (including a quick color sequence in Testament), in addition to the director’s own aesthetic vicissitudes. But Cocteau’s obsession with keyholes and doorways, mirrors and passages, transformation and nostalgia, remains steadfast. So too does his navel-gazing poetics of the self, and its nexus in the charismatic negotiation between modernity and myth.

That Orpheus was himself the most renowned of poets and musicians in Greek mythology suggests the unabashed self-absorption at the heart of Cocteau’s cinematics—characteristic, too, of his larger, prodigious oeuvre as a poet, artist, playwright, and tireless aesthete. Whether in a self-portrait made out of pipe cleaners, or a cast of his profile inserted into random scenes, the director’s likeness appears in numerous guises. Even when embodied by Marais or Enrique Rivero, Cocteau looms as his films’ thinly veiled protagonist. The themes of opium and frustrated romance saturate Blood of a Poet with allusions to Cocteau’s own addiction and unrequited loves. Still, these are couched in a seamless and mesmerizing alchemy of absurdity and classicizing grace. It was just that fluid mix that got Cocteau in trouble with the more radical strain of the French avant-garde, who accused him of popularizing their work as a mere passing fad, rendered effete and genteel. Cocteau’s vexed relationship to Surrealism is in full evidence in the fifty-five-minute Blood of a Poet (which was funded by the Vicomte de Noailles, who also bankrolled Dalí and Buñuel’s L’Age d’or of the same year). Cocteau’s film borrows certain tropes from the latter artists’ bag of tricks, such as the appearance of disembodied lips on his Poet’s hand. The film’s somewhat fragmented narrative appears more faithful to a set of tableaux vivants than to a narrative drive.

Though certainly elliptical, Orpheus (1949) proceeds in a comparatively linear fashion, transposing the myth of the eponymous figure’s descent onto the underworld into contemporary Paris. For Testament of Orpheus, Cocteau himself assumed the title role, playing an eighteenth-century poet suspended in a kind of temporal purgatory. Following a somewhat overwrought, baroque script—featuring cameos by Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso, as well as roles by Lucia Bosé and Charles Aznavour—the film fails to match real pathos to its overweening ambition. (In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther cruelly deemed it “a glorified home movie” by a Cocteau “who is no longer pretty.”) Still, perhaps more than any of his other films, Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy anticipates his influence on future generations of filmmakers, from Sergei Parajanov to Carmelo Bene. Even when Cocteau’s scenes fail to cohere, or to transcend their heavy-handed stylization, they evoke like few other contemporary films the plastic versatility of the cinematic medium as a nexus between the visual and the verbal, embodiment and cerebration, time and fixed image. At once disaffected and sensual, self-punishing and indulgent, Cocteau’s three “Orphic” films remain dedicated—as announced in the epigraph to his first full-length feature, Blood of a Poet—to the pursuit of enigma. That it is often an entirely personal enigma is, like Cocteau’s poetics in general, equal parts endearing and exasperating.

Screenings of Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy run at Anthology Film Archives Thursday, November 18–Sunday, November 21. For more details, click here.