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Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus Trilogy

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus Trilogy
Anubhav Chakraborty

June 14, 2021 3 min read

Jean Cocteau was born in 1889 France and was a writer, designer, playwright artist and filmmaker, often criticised for jumping between mediums. His work on Greek Mythology has created worldwide sensation over all. This article tries to explore Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus trilogy that contains movies named as – The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960). In testament of Orpheus, Cocteau himself plays the protagonist playing the character of the famous Greek poet. The New York Times has labelled this film as “self serving”!

 In Greek mythology, Orpheus is a poet, prophet and musician who has specialised in Lyre by the help of the god Apollo. He has tried to portray the character of Orpheus through 3 of his films where the last part of the trilogy has gained the highest popularity. Cocteau used the classical myth of the Orpheus journey to the underworld in order to express his own preoccupation with life and death, the importance of art in the power of poetry. It seems that Cocteau was constantly drawn to the myth of Orpheus and the underworld from classical mythology through his work in the Orphic trilogy. The Testament of Orpheus can be seen as a revisiting retelling of the classical myth as it uses the archetypal characters and scenarios to explore themes such as artistic inspiration, sexual obsession and sacrifice. 

Instead of simply translating the Greek myth of the story, Cocteau decided to make it more layered and complex with the idea of obsession and how art can consume and can take over the life of an artist and their human priorities. Testament of Orpheus brings full circle the journey Cocteau began in The Blood of a Poet in exploration of the torturous relationship between the artist and their creation. Through the trilogy, in order to add an intertextual relationship, the choice of cast being the director’s close friends and family adds an extra dimension to the work. 

As the last part of the trilogy shows, Cocteau’s own creations have somehow turned against him and sentenced him to trial for being too innocent and irresponsible as an artist. Realising he is not from this world, Cocteau travels through time in search of divine wisdom and entering a mysterious wasteland he has some enigmatic and surreal encounters with iconic phantoms with whom he muses about the nature of art in his own career. Anyway the poet tries to achieve his own rebirth as an immortal celestial being. The film contains cameo appearances of symbolic personalities like Pablo Picasso and Jean Marais. The cameo of such personalities has made the film go beyond its limit and it broke through the range of its audiences’ expectations. 

While Orpheus clearly can be focused as a standalone film, the testament of orpheus not only requires some familiarity with its predecessor, but also is best understood by those who have come to appreciate the artistry and career that it celebrates, mainly that of John Cocteau himself. All of the three parts of the trilogy has gained worldwide remarks and cinematic discussion while also being criticised in some cases. Greek mythology being one of the most ancient and significant mythology of the world, it has been the hot cake among its fans while being played in such artistic visuals. Nonetheless, Jean Cocteau, along with his personal linkage to the mythical characters, has contributed to the entire world, showing Greek ancient arts through such presentations.

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