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Retro Cinema – Testament Of Orpheus

Retro Cinema – Testament Of Orpheus
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Jean Genet directed only A Song of Love/Un chant d’amour. In that 1950 “realistic documentary of unreal events,” the ex-prisoner and playwright wordlessly pictures homo-eroticism between two prisoners (Coco Le Martiniquais, Lucien Senemaud) who cannot see each other in their adjoining cells but pleasure themselves, exchange cigarette smoke through a straw, embrace clothed and naked in dream sequence in the woods, and are spied upon and belt-whipped by a voyeuristic guard (Java).

At the Museum of Modern Art, that twenty-three minutes screens in front of, and is rational compared to, Jean Cocteau’s three-and-a-half-times-longer The Testament of Orpheus/Le testament d’Orphee, ou ne me demandez pas porquoi [Don’t Ask Me Why]. This last film ever directed by the poet-novelist-essayist-painter-playwright-director-screenwriter-set designer-actor also concludes his intimately subjective trilogy begun with Blood of a Poet and Orpheus. In line with its own “an artist always paints his own portrait,” it is self-referential and spouts bombastic pretentiousness spoken by thin characters or in narrational English voiceover. In the print shown, subtitle translations from the French dialogue are unreadable against white backgrounds, but that makes no difference. A collection of vignettes, the disjointed whole is aesthetically satisfying to some while so much egotistic hot air to a goodly number of scoffers.

All of them uncredited, this “active poem” is peopled with actors he had used before, notably friend and favorite Jean Marias (as Oedipus), and viewers may find fun in picking out other famous Les Baux resort cronies in cameos—Yul Brynner, Charles Aznavour, Pablo Picasso and second wife Jacqueline Roque, Luis Miguel Dominguín and wife Lucia Bose, Francoise Sagan, Claudine Auger and, according to one outsider, Brigitte Bardot.

Scenes are often purposely artificial, in cases actual movie or stage sets shown as such, while others are unconnected and free-flow out of left field such as science laboratories, gypsy campsites, formal gardens, classical temple-structures of crumbling monolithic stones, or an ordinary table serving “tribunal” judges imported from Orpheus a decade earlier. Time as well is disconnected and then reassembled, reverse-motioned, as the protagonist travels ahead and backwards in the space-time continuum about which he comments or mouths gobbledygook.

Incarnated by Cocteau himself, that central character first enters as a nameless fop of an eighteenth century poet who is in essence a willing and unwilling time traveler running though the stages of his life and existence in general in search of his own place or of meaning, or of nothing.

As usual in the work of “this frivolous prince,” there is obsession with death—his alter ego’s as well as his own—showy erudition, and a fascination with some vague underground, with Greek legend loosely centered on but not confined to Orpheus, and chintzy part-man-part-animal beings. The Poet is guided by Cégeste/Edouard (Edouard Dermithe, Cocteau’s lover at the time), who stiffly flies up from the Mediterranean and at times seems to be orchestrating things while at others remaining passive or dissolving into the immaterial in his high-water trousers.

Individually the film’s parts are incomprehensible, visually arresting or ludicrous, and strung together, if at all, by the dapper Poet who journeys obliquely from perambulator to death-by-spear to blind pie-eyed resurrection. In this surreal dream thirty and more years after Bunuel and Dali had had their fun, flowers are reverse-reconstructed, men are half-horses or –dogs, statues of deformed gods spit rolls of paper, characters criticize the director-screenwriter for “creating” them, and people are unstuck in time.

So it goes.

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