Criterion Sunday 66: Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy

Spine number 66 sees something new for the Criterion Collection, which is to say, it’s a spine number which is not linked to a particular film, but rather to a box set. Therefore this Criterion Sunday entry will be a little thin as there’s no single film (I will deal with those over the next three entries). So perhaps I should talk about what the three films share, or indeed maybe it will be easier to say what they are not. They are not a developing story in the modern sense of a trilogy, setting out characters which are built upon in subsequent instalments. Jean Cocteau is a multi-hyphenate artist in the widest sense, contributing not just to film but to the plastic arts, to sculpture and painting, as well as writing and poetry. Therefore his films are more three variations on a classical theme: taking elements of the myth of Orpheus and reconfiguring and recontextualising them in various ways. The first film, Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, made in 1930 but not premiered until 1932), is the most boldly avant-garde, rather in the fashion of Luis Buñuel’s more famous Un chien andalou (1929), while Orphée (Orpheus, 1950) is almost a straightforward telling of the myth. The final of the three films presented here is also the most playful, Le Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, made 1959 but not premiered until 1960). Cocteau himself stars, bringing back the actors of the previous film for brief appearances, but this is a film about being an artist, Cocteau casting himself as a modern-day Orpheus figure of sorts.


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