Where else can you see Pablo Picasso and Yul Brynner in the same movie?

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Cocteau, wearing false eyes and standing next to a statue
  • Cocteau, wearing false eyes and standing next to a statue
When writing about Leos Carax, Reader emeritus film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has often compared the director to Jean Cocteau, another French artist who approached filmmaking as a vehicle for autobiographical poetry. Cocteau, of course, did much more than make movies: he wrote poems, novels, essays, and plays, choreographed ballets, and worked in a variety of visual arts. In all of these forms, he advanced a symbolist aesthetic that drew from classical mythology as well as his own dreams. His films, like Carax's current release Holy Motors, can be narcissistic and stubbornly inscrutable, though they're seldom ever boring. (It's worth noting that some of his straightforward melodramas, like The Eagle With Two Heads and Les Parents Terribles, are masterpieces of the form.) No Cocteau film proves this better than his last, The Testament of Orpheus (1960), which the artist describes at the start as "a striptease act, [which] gradually peel[s] away my body to reveal my naked soul."

Cocteau stars as an 18th-century poet who materializes in the 20th century after walking through a fold in time. As a metaphor for the artist's experience, it's as odd yet as pointed as Carax, in Motors, opening a secret door with a key growing out of his finger. Great artists are often praised as being timeless, and Cocteau imagines what that would be like if it were literally true. In addition to visiting 1950s France, the poet interacts with figures from Greek mythology and ventures into the underworld. It all seems a little exhausting, truth be told.

There's a constant sense of wonder, however, as the movie's rich with fantastic sets and camera tricks. Cocteau employed special effects in movies like he did metaphors in his poetry, as tools to transform his inner life into the stuff of spectacle. In Testament of Orpheus, the most spectacular effects are often the simplest. Cocteau manages to evoke supernatural phenomena simply by running the film backward: in one scene the poet appears to "put together" a flower that had been pulled to pieces. This demonstrates his skill at "phoenixology," which the character describes elsewhere as "the art of constantly dying in order to be reborn."

For Cocteau, this power is linked with the unique art of cinema. "A film is a petrifying fountain of thought," he says at one point. "It revives lifeless deeds." At the same time—and as the movie's title reminds us—a film freezes actions in time, so they may be preserved for future generations. Testament shows Cocteau having fun with this intrinsic contradiction and with his own artistic legacy. When defending Cocteau in front of an underworld tribunal, his professor friend (Henri Crémieux) says, "He is a poet and therefore indispensable . . . though to what, I'm not sure."

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