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The Testament of Orpheus

A few thoughts on Jean Cocteau’s last feature film, the 1960 Testament of Orpheus (full title: Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!), which the poet/painter/director/playwright/novelist/muralist and all stops inbetween.

Cocteau was never wealthy, unlike his contemporary Pablo Picasso, though both shared the same level of artistic mastery (Picasso, a lifelong contemporary of Cocteau’s, has a cameo appearance in Testament), and so he turned to François Truffaut, as well as longtime patron Francine Weisweiller, to help him finance this, his final work.

The cast includes such luminaries as Charles Aznavour, Yul Brynner, Claudine Auger, María Casares and Jean Marais (who both appeared so memorably in Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus), Serge Lifar, Jean-Pierre Léaud and numerous others, but Cocteau dominates the film, as he looks back on his long and multifaceted career.

Written, directed and starring the poet, some have called Testament an indulgent work, and perhaps it is; Cocteau is unabashedly celebrating himself and his accomplishments, and simultaneously gathering about himself for one last time those whom he loved and cherished as fellow artists, for a final bow.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Testament is a film that should never have been made; I, for one, can’t imagine the world without it. Indeed, the luster of the film only increases with the passing of years. As Cocteau himself observed of the act of creation, “art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.”

Cocteau was sometimes fashionable, sometimes ahead of his time, but never afraid to trust his own instincts as an artist. As he often advised young artists, “listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work.  Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like – then cultivate it.  That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” Cocteau did just that.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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