Criterion notwithstanding, this collection of three movies directed by Jean Cocteau is no trilogy. Rather the three works represent three quite different views of the Poet-the prototypic artistic creator for Cocteau--at three different moments in his career. The first, Blood of a Poet (1930) released at the same time as L'Age d'Or of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali-both pictures were financed by the wealthy patron of the arts, the Vicomte de Noailles-is the most "Orphic" of three, and like L'Age d'Or very much in the vein of French experimental films of the 1920s, with an abundance of symbolism and rejection of conventional narrative syntax. Less radically innovative than L'Age d'Or, Blood of a Poet is like a brilliant book of sketches, some of which work, some of which don't.
Cocteau made no films for over a decade, and only returned to the cinema during the Occupation with The Eternal Return, for which he wrote the screenplay. Although directed by Jean Delannoy, the film was clearly Cocteau's own creation, and marked both the beginning of a period of fertile cinematic collaboration with Jean Marais and a new phase in Cocteau's contributions to film. The masterpiece of this period is, of course, Orpheus (1949). Cocteau had begun in Blood of a Poet by radically breaking with realism. Now he set about showing how the images of modern life could be invested with a mythic power of their own.
In The Eternal Return, Cocteau had put the story of Tristan and Yseult into a modern setting, but without the least hint of irony. In updating the myth of Orpheus to post-World War II Paris, however, he adopted a very different strategy. The Thracian singer becomes a rich and famous writer (Jean Marais) who supplies exactly what the public looks for in literature. At the beginning of the film, Orpheus boasts to an older retired writer, "The public loves me!" And the latter tartly retorts, "The public is alone." But as a result of the unforeseen adventure he lives through in the film, an adventure in which he confronts and falls in love with his own Death (Maria Casares), Orpheus momentarily becomes the Poet he never has been.
Cocteau had placed the myth of the sacrifice of the Poet at the center of Blood of a Poet, and he explicitly articulates it in Orpheus: "The death of a poet requires a sacrifice to make him immortal." However, the "real" Poet, from this point of view, is not Orpheus-who goes back to happily settle down in bourgeois bliss with his expectant wife-but Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe), who becomes the servant of Death, and unquestioningly transmits the messages from the underworld (read: the unconscious). The Poet has to sacrifice himself in order to be more than a writer-"A writer without being a writer," is how he defines the poetic vocation before the Judges of the Underworld-but Orpheus will never have the courage to make that choice by himself.
Not the least astounding thing about Orpheus is the assurance with which Cocteau handles the machinery of commercial film production. Orpheus is hardly a mainstream production by American standards, but it has no ragged edges, technically speaking. The film was strikingly photographed by Nicolas Hayer and it makes a highly adroit use of special effects shots, whose primitive magic Cocteau understood and employed quite effectively. The musical score is by Georges Auric, a member of Les Six who has to rank with Bernard Herrman as one of the major composers of film music in the history of motion pictures. Last but not least, Orpheus has a formidable cast, including-in addition to Jean Marais-François Perier as Heurtebise, Maria Dea as Eurydice, Juliette Greco as her friend Aglaonice, Roger Blin as the older poet, and the sublime Maria Casares as the most glamorous personification of Death ever to appear on the screen.
Viewers will likely have the most difficulty getting into the third movie, The Testament of Orpheus. Cocteau's adieu to the screen is a work filled with spontaneity and invention, so impulsively unstructured as to make Blood of a Poet look like Racinian tragedy. Cocteau plays a traveler lost in time who goes in search of Pallas Athene, but this is a mere pretext for stringing together a series of adventures, like the narrative premise of a picaresque novel. Testament of Orpheus was a movie ahead of its time when it came out 1959, and it remains so today. Possibly its release in DVD may serve to make it known to a wider audience.
Criterion has done itself proud with this set. Anyone inclined to balk might consider that three DVDs of this quality at the price are already a bargain. The picture and sound quality of all three movies, each of which has been digitally remastered, is superb. Blood of a Poet was especially impressive in this respect, and I felt as if I were seeing it for the first time. In addition, The Orphic Trilogy includes a wealth of supplementary material such as essays and pronouncements by Cocteau.
The set also contains two other films en marge of a non-fictional variety. One of these is Villa Santo Sospir, a 16mm picture about the home of Cocteau's neighbor on the Riviera, Mme. Alec Weisweiller, which he had extensively decorated. Mainly a record of art works, Villa Santo Sospir is his only extended work in color. The other, far more interesting, is a documentary about Cocteau's life entitled Autobiography of an Unknown by Edoardo Cozarinsky. Unfortunately, the picture quality is often dupey and unsatisfactory, but the film provides a number of invaluable interviews from the later phase of Cocteau's career.
Anyone who enjoys The Orphic Trilogy should definitely consider purchasing the Criterion DVD of Beauty and the Beast, and the videotapes of The Eternal Return, The Storm Within (Les Parents terribles), and The Strange Ones (Les Enfants terribles), all available from Amazon.com.