March 26, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Jean Genet’s A Song of Love and Jean Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus
Testament of Orpheus. 1960. France. Directed by Jean Cocteau

Testament of Orpheus. 1960. France. Directed by Jean Cocteau

These notes accompany screenings of Jean Genet’s A Song of Love and Claude Chabrol’s Testament of Orpheus on March 27, 28, and 29 in Theater 2.

Jean Genet’s (1910–1986) association with the cinema was peripheral. One of the leading French writers of the second half of the 20th century—he wrote the plays The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Maids, and novels like Querelle, The Thief’s Journal, and Our Lady of the Flowers—he essentially made only the short film Un Chant d’amour (A Song of Love). (Just before his death he played himself in a short German documentary for television, Am Anfang war der Dieb, for which he received co-director credit, and a number of his literary works were adapted for films, most famously Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle [1982].) For a novice, Genet seems quite confident in his use of rather striking imagery. In spite of its provocative subject matter, the eroticism comes across as rather chaste and innocent. Genet, of course, had had a rough life, from the time of his birth to a young prostitute. In and out of many prisons, and kicked out of the Foreign Legion for homosexual acts, Genet was actually rescued by Jean Cocteau, who got Genet’s first novel published and prevented him from being sentenced to prison for life. Thus, by middle-age, Genet’s outlaw status had become more of a literary conceit than a reality.

Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) holds a unique status as a crossover artist among filmmakers, in that he had concurrent careers as a poet, playwright, novelist, actor, librettist, painter, sculptor, choreographer, and graphic artist. His main occupation seemed to be playing Jean Cocteau. Although he only directed about a half-dozen films, he wrote or appeared in some 30 others. I once asked my late colleague Gary Carey whom he thought was the cinema’s greatest artist, and he chose Cocteau. Gary was an aesthete, in the best sense of the word, but I still cannot accept Cocteau’s apparent dilettantism when it came to the movies. His Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orpheus (1950) would hold their own as anonymous works of cinema (albeit with certain Cocteau-esque stylistic flourishes, like the liquid mirrors in Orpheus), but most of Cocteau’s output is too self-absorbed and introspective for me. So, perhaps I contradict myself by congratulating a filmmaker for making a personal work of art, but criticizing a Cocteau or an Ingmar Bergman for films that seem to me overly and self-indulgently entangled in their own intimacies. My response to this may seem a bit murky, but I would make two points. First, movies originated as a popular medium with a broad appeal to a general audience, not a select cult of academics or religionists who might share the artist’s (filmmaker’s) esoteric proclivities. Second, I would contend that the ultimate measure of a film’s success is its ability to emotionally move the spectator, something increasingly unlikely with the obscurity of the filmmaker’s concerns.

Cocteau had great imagination, intermittent playfulness, and a willingness to use cinematic camera tricks. Testament of Orpheus was intended as his final film, a journey through the classical world. Too often, I think, it tends to get bogged down in lengthy sequences where Cocteau is showing off his erudition. Cocteau referred to The Blood of a Poet (his first film) as “a realistic documentary of unreal events,” and, as Roy Armes has suggested, this could be applied to his other major works. However, as Armes also points out, before we view Cocteau’s work as something too precious or pretentious, Testament of Orpheus was produced by Francois Truffaut at the same time he was directing such fundamentally proletarian, nitty-gritty works as The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player.

Indeed, Cocteau was something of an inspiration to the French New Wave. There is a certain irony in this since Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and the others were ostensibly rebelling against the stuffiness of the recent French cinema, the so-called “tradition of quality,” represented by directors like Marcel Carné, Jean Delannoy, Claude Autant-Lara, André Cayatte, Yves Allégret, etc. Somehow these filmmakers were lumped together as being too literary, especially by contrast with Hollywood “primitives” like Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, and Sam Fuller, but, somehow, Cocteau, the man of culture, the ultimate Renaissance man, escaped the communal wrath of the rebels.