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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Testament of Orpheus
Testament of Orpheus
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Review by Jeremy Kleinman | posted August 16, 2000 | E-mail the Author
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The Film
Completed ten years after "Orpheus" and 29 years after "The Blood of A Poet," Cocteau finishes off the Orphic trilogy and his feature filmmaking career, not by adding a final chapter on the life of Orpheus, the Poet, but rather on the life of Cocteau, the Poet. Taking a somewhat deconstructionist approach, two generations before such a film style would emerge in popular film, Cocteau knocks down a wall which had remained in place during Orpheus. It is not the wall between filmmaker and audience, however, it is the wall between the poet and his work. Just as in The Blood of A Poet, Cocteau examined the artist's relationship to his creation, Cocteau takes the viewer back inside specific scenes from "Orpheus" and is forced to face a tribunal consisting of some of the characters in "Orpheus" to be judged for his transgressions in demonstrating role of death in the endeavors of a poet.

Such a premise is extremely intriguing and enjoyable to watch. While Cocteau's presence in the film as the poet filmmaker suggests a dramatic break from the style and conventions of the other two films in the trilogy, the critical view which the film takes to the poet's relationship to Orpheus brings into focus several themes prevalent in the first two films. A few scenes are striking, and one scene involving a subtle splash of color in the otherwise black and white film is especially impressive.

In the final chapter, Cocteau avoids the persistent use of mirrors which had such a central role in the first two films as reflections of and paths to death, simply stating that mirrors "reflect too much." Testament of Orpheus involves a relationship between Cocteau and a Professor, whom Cocteau seems to travel through time to visit at many different points in the professor's life, altering it at childhood by his presence and later helping him to bring his future within his grasp. Cocteau's presence in the film as the Poet is enjoyable and his interaction with characters from Testament of Orpheus, as well as those from Orpheus is a pleasure. Though the films were released ten years apart, it is often difficult to discern if such scenes were filmed at the time of Orpheus or ten years later. Cocteau also often resorts to the use of backwards film and employs it well. The film also features small cameos from the likes of Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso.

All in all, the deconstructionist look at Cocteau's creation of what many consider his best and most poetic work is well-conceived and a creative enjoyable end to the trilogy.
The Picture
Although the film was made in 1959, when most films were made in color, Cocteau stays true to Black and White film. The clarity of the print is quite good and the English subtitles accompanying the French language track are always clear and easy to read. The film clearly benefits from a fresh digital transfer by Criterion and is an enjoyable viewing experience.

The Sound
Again, Testament of Orpheus is presented in Monaural Dolby Digital Sound. The film contains a French language track, and, as a result, the sound quality becomes less important to those without any french language training. Even to those with "an ear for French," the sound quality is definitely sufficient, given the limitations of its monaural sound track, to allow the viewer to enjoy the sound of the film. At all times those sound effects which are present in the film are easily perceptible and no adjustments in the volume of the sound are necessary to enjoy the film.
Bonus Materials
Testament of Orpheus contains the bibliofilmography present on the other two DVDs and has a couple of added gems which are quite enjoyable. The DVD contains "Villa Santo Sospir", a 16 mm film shot by Cocteau in brilliant Technicolor, showcasing Cocteau's drawings which practically cover the interior of the house at Santo Sospir, and Cocteau's beloved image of the rebuilding of the flower (the destruction of a flower run backwards to make it look as if an artist is creating the flower instead of destroying it). While the somewhat lengthy film, featuring a number of the locations used for Testament of Orpheus does get a bit less interesting as the film goes on, it is a treat to see an extended look at the many varied drawings of Cocteau, and to see Cocteau work with color after creating his most revered masterpieces, The Orphic Trilogy and Beauty and the Beast on black and white film.

The DVD also contains the text of one of Cocteau's writings about the film. Like the writing included with The Blood of A Poet, Cocteau's writings are beautifully worded and provide phenomenal insight on layers of the film and themes that were a bit more difficult to identify on one's own. Cocteau eloquently provides the viewer with his take on the film and more generally on the art of poets and can be inspiring for one to seek out further writings on the films by Cocteau. It is imperative that one watches the movie prior to reading such comments, although after reading Cocteau's musings, one may very likely wish to watch the film once more. The inclusion of Cocteau's writings with the first and third films of the trilogy makes the lack of writings beyond those on the insert of the DVD case for Orpheus to be all the more lamentable. Cocteau does provide an additional essay in the insert for Testament of Orpheus, but it is his writings which may be viewed on screen which are the most enjoyable and enlightening.

Final Thoughts
As I have stated earlier, The Orphic Trilogy is not for everyone. It attempts to tackle the highly complex and amorphous notion of the relationship between a poet and his creation and the interplay of death therein. That being said, Cocteau does this artfully and masterfully, looking from many different directions and going through such an exploration in a manner which is extremely aesthetically enjoyable. The Trilogy should likely be watched in close succession, especially Orpheus and Testament of Orpheus, but for those up to the challenge, Testament of Orpheus and the Orphic trilogy as a whole are each wildly rewarding.

Once again, Criterion has lived up to its statement of purpose in bring an important classic film series to a new generation of viewers. This film and the trilogy are strongly recommended to those who feel they may be susceptible to Cocteau's artisting musings, and recommended for those who aren't sure about the film but are willing to take a risk in the hopes of finding an enjoyable trilogy of films.

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