Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) versatile persona has left a notable mark on cinema, scenography, literature (poetry, plays, screenplays, novels, and essays) and painting. Undoubtedly,cinema and poesy combined equals a dreamer and believer, which was Cocteau. If his heritage would prove to be worthwhile, Cocteau wanted his tombstone to say: “Je début” (I begin). Instead, it is written “Je reste avec vous” (I stay with you).

In the fields of avant-garde and experimental cinema, Cocteau’s authority is respected, and worshipped while also being contradicted and doubted upon but most certainly not being left unnoticed. Academics and critics have coined all sorts of titles for him such as eccentric dandy, avant-garde genius, clever dilettante… or dilettante of playing genius (?). 

Better yet, a renaissance man whose artistic drive expanded into various art fields. He had a quite decadent lifestyle – Cocteau was a prominent part of Montparnasse bohemian circles, where, surrounded by numerous famous contemporaries, he led his own “movable feast”. In 1917 Cocteau wrote a script for Diaghilev’s produced ballet “Parade”. His collaborators on this were Picasso (scenography), Apollinaire (libretto) and Satie (music). Among his friends and collaborators, there were several influential 20th century artists including Diaghilev, Modigliani, Stravinsky, Colette and Edith Piaf. 

Nevertheless, in one interview Jean Marais – Cocteau’s long-time partner (both on screen and in life) said that above all, poetry remains Cocteau’s life work. Expressed in different ways, it gained new forms of existing. 

Blood of Cocteau

In 1895, when the first film was screened, Cocteau was only 6 years old. We can say that cinema and Cocteau were almost peers. Therefore, he stands proudly by the new born form of art, defending cinema against all the sceptics who dared to claim that it is just meaningless entertainment. Furthermore, cinema gave Cocteau an ideal medium in which to express his notions. Tightly tangled up in literature, mythical and surrealism concepts, his films are dreamlike and rich with symbols, however, Cocteau himself never wanted to be considered as a surrealist. He believed that dreams are a powerful mirror of reality. Even more so, Cocteau insisted that he cannot claim full responsibility for his artistic creations as it is the doings of a mystical force that inhabits him. 

Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy, consisting ofThe Blood of a Poet(Le Sang d’un poète, 1930), Orpheus(Orphée, 1950) and Testament of Orpheus(Le Testament d’Orphée, 1960), deals with artists’ sufferings, death, and rebirth. Cocteau’s idea was to create a Greek tragedy set in “our times”. The real tragedy in these films however, seems to be the artistist’s anguish. For instance, in Blood of a Poet, the artist will eventually try to strangle himself. More interestingly so – with the same arm he used to create his artwork – a statue. In Orpheusthe poet will go through magical mirror, winding up in an underworld and in crossroads between loving his wife, the Death princess (Maria Casares), and his poetry. Testament of Orpheus(1960) is the third film from Orphic trilogy, and serves as Cocteau’s goodbye letter – a quite personal one for that matter. At the end of his life Cocteau himself stars in this movie, revisiting his cinematographic inheritance and characters who have been featured in his movies.  When closely watching each of these movies, one’s mind might wonder abouthowcloseartistodeathandvice versa. Cocteau himself battled stress, anxiety, opium addiction and various other struggles.

Claiming authorship 

He redefined avant-garde and tried to diminish pretentiousness in cinema. Cocteau used the term ‘auteur’ even before Truffaut, Bazin& Co started out. He bordered it with literature, stating that everything belongs to an auteur.  

“It is true that the author of a film is its director. Everything belongs to him. I directed La Belle et la Bêtebecause I wanted to be the real author of the work. [..] Nowadays, the director is supreme master of a film: he is the one who pulls the smallest details together.” [1]

Indeed, Cocteau’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast(1946) is a magical film viewing experience. The desires and longings of Belle and the Beast (Jean Marais) are portrayed in such a nuanced manner. This isn’t your usual naïve tale about a girl meeting a beast. There won’t be jolly teacups dancing on a table and closet will not come alive just to dress Belle up. This is a mysterious film with a delicate erotica encoded within. The film is beautifully atmospheric: pace of talking, gothic garden and the silenced castle – everything contributes to this enchantment of isolation. Still, the real magic lies in the oppressed passions between the two. 

The mentioned films are a good start of beginning to knowJean Cocteau’s universe. However, it’s advisable to go deeper and discover his other films (such as The Storm Within(Les Parents Terribles, 1948) and The Eagle Has Two Heads(L’Aigle à Deux Têtes, 1948) etc.), writings and drawings.

Moreover, a large portion of Cocteau’s portfolio consists of films that he screen-wrote for other directors including The Strange Onesby Jean-Pierre Melville (Les Enfants terribles, 1950), The Eternal Returnby Jean Delannoy (L’Éternel retour, 1943), Ladies of the Parkby Robert Bresson (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, 1964) and others. 

P.S. In 1962 Jean Cocteau recorded a video, where he addressed people of the future. His speech is a sincere reach out to the generation living in 2000’s. Watch it here


[1]“The Art of Cinema”, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd , 2000, 32-33

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