The Hell did I just watch? Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang D’un Poète and Le Testament D’Orphée (DVD Review)

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In my short but colourful life, I have experimented with some stuff. Not proud but there you go. Instead of experiencing a heightened reality or understanding the mysteries of the universe as the wizards tell you, everything became dreamlike, and I started freaking out because I thought I was this way forever and holy God the walls were melting.

Why do I bring this up, outside of an intervention? Because Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang D’un Poète (1932) and Le Testament D’Orphée (1960) gives the same experience, minus the disappointment of your parents.

Le Sang D’un Poète
Divided into four acts, the story follows an unnamed Artist (Enrique Riveros) as he brings an unfinished statue to life and goes on a journey into the emotional and imaginative experience of an artist. From a tortured mindscape of a hotel to the spectator watched suicide in the snow after a rigged card game, Poète gives a study of the condition of the artist.

Le Testament D’Orphée

A somewhat more cogent film but not by much. The Poet (Jean Cocteau) travels through time, space, and metaphor to examine his legacy and the place of the artist in the world. Journeying through a surreal landscape of half-prepared soundstages, ruined factories, stuck halfway between reality and fantasy, the Poet searches for divine wisdom while musing on the nature of the artist.

Okay, I’ve watched these films a couple of times, and I’m still not sure if I have a handle on them. They are drenched in symbolism, overloaded in it until you become lost altogether. Cocteau stated that film could show a realistic unreal fantasy, and as such, it is the perfect vehicle for poetry. To that extent, both films are something of a Rorschach test. We see what we pick up on. In Poète, we have an artist unable to die one moment. In the next forced to kill himself in front of an indifferent audience during a rigged card game. His work will live on after him yet while he is here, he can never please the audience. It’s Roland Barthes 30 years early. During one moment in Orphée, Cocteau repeatedly tries to draw a picture of flower but can only draw himself. Trapped by his past work, all he can do is recreate himself.      

Both films inhabit a liminal space between worlds. The realistic unreal fantasy again. The hotel in Poète is both a physical and metaphorical place of individual vignettes that together show the single mind of the poet. In Orphée, Cocteau is called a phenixologist, involved in the science of life and rebirth while trapped between the two. And this liminal space is just my reading of it. You spend that much time focusing on both films trying to find meaning when the horrible fact is that there might not be any meaning whatsoever. Which, in turn, can be seen as a statement on the human condition. Then before you know it you’re trapped! Stuck in a downward spiral of French deconstruction and semiotics until your family start speaking solely in Hungarian, so they have an excuse not to talk to you.

Given the subject matter, it is visually impressive. The use of forced perspective in Poète deserve mention, heightening the uncanny sensation of the film until it feels like you’re falling into the screen. There are some jumpy edits, but this is more of a tech issue that I’ll let slide given the period of the film. Orphée, meanwhile, uses reverse motion to go forward in the story and bring the dead back to life while it peers over, if not breaks, the fourth wall.

Both discs come with special features Jean Cocteau: Hallucinogenic Poetics and Jean Cocteau: The Last Pharaoh.

I’m still not sure if I enjoyed these films. I’m not even sure if you’re meant to enjoy them. Not in any film viewing way. Maybe they should be enjoyed as you would a poem or a piece of art. But you need to watch both. Not to understand the plot but to understand the artist.

Le Sang D’un Poète   

Dir: Jean Cocteau
Scr: Jean Cocteau
Cast: Enrique Riveros
Prd: Jean Cocteau
DOP: Georges Périnal
Music: Georges Auric
Country: France
Runtime: 55 minutes

Le Testament D’Orphée

Dir: Jean Cocteau
Scr: Jean Cocteau
Cast: Jean Cocteau
Prd: Jean Thuillier
Music: Georges Auric, George Frideric Handel, Martial Solal
Country: France
Runtime: 80 minutes

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