Jean Cocteau: The Poetic Prince of French Cinema
Jean Cocteau was a true Renaissance man of the arts; he created incredible works in every discipline he put his hand to, including painting, poetry, novels and filmmaking. The variety of his artistic achievements is unparalleled, but as Phillip Spradley attests, his vision is best expressed in his films, which encapsulate his thematic obsessions.
One of the greatest figures of the 20th century and one of its most versatile artists, Jean Cocteau was a true master of the surreal. Cocteau possessed many different talents in the arts and was skilled at poetry, painting, drawing, filmmaking, and acting. He was perhaps most widely recognized for the half a dozen films he directed in his lifetime; the most famous being The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d'un Poete, 1930), Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête, 1946) and Orphée (1950). These three films remain the pillars of his visual style. The latter film was especially significant since Cocteau often dealt with the theme of Orpheus in his life and in his art. He was an artist who idealized classicism such as Greek mythology, embraced modernist forms, such as Cubism and jazz, and anticipated postmodernist dilemmas without losing sight of his own creative identity and of art's unique ability to inform and enhance human life.
Jean Cocteau was born in the vicinity of Paris, France in Maisons-Lafitte on July 5, 1889. He grew up in Paris, in a wealthy bourgeois family. Due to his family’s standing in society, Cocteau was able to reap the rewards of the privileged life of the upper classes. This included exposure to the arts and theater at a young age; thus the young Cocteau was constantly surrounded by the arts.
Cocteau’s artistic career flourished in the time between the two world wars. His first major successes were his stage play, Orphée, and his novel, Les Enfants Terrible. In 1929, Cocteau made his first major film, The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d'un Poete, 1930; pictured right), at age forty-one. By then he had dedicated nearly twenty-five years to published writing, theatrical productions, stage design, murals, and drawings. The Blood of a Poet is divided into four episodes, some more connected than others. The most famous of these features the eponymous poet moving along a corridor in a hotel, looking through the keyholes of bedroom doors. Through these keyholes, he spies a range of tableaux vivants. These include a bedroom in which a child annoys a governess by crawling up a wall, a Mexican firing squad in which the victim falls to the ground and then bounces back to life, and a dark space in which a couple write observations about each other while they embrace. Themes and images that present themselves in this film recur in Cocteau’s future projects, such as mirrors, eyes, statues, doors, and blood.
In 1946, Cocteau directed his first narrative film, The Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête). Beauty and the Beast is based on the famous children’s story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. With this film, Cocteau reached a new level of artistic fusion, combining mythical narrative, visual poetry, cinematic trickery and even his own child-like writing in the credit sequence. The episodic, self-consciously experimental style of The Blood of a Poet was left far behind. Cocteau provides a simple adaptation, strikingly visualized. Cocteau’s claim that it was Beauty and the Beast that forced him to return to film may not be wholly convincing, but it does give a sense of his close identification with de Beaumont’s writing. In particular, her visual vocabulary; that of mirrors, doors, horses and jewelry – is extremely similar to Cocteau’s own vocabulary. As a result of these similarities, Cocteau seamlessly integrates her imagery into his cinematic world.
In 1950 Cocteau released his film, Orphée; it is the film that is thought to encapsulate Cocteau’s life and work, and is loosely based on his 1925 stage play of the same name. It is seen as a culmination of Cocteau’s artistic development, the ultimate merging of his preoccupations with mythology, melodrama and fantasy into a unified whole.
The film begins in a scene reminiscent of Cocteau’s youth; a group of adoring young poets sits in a café, discussing art. They begin to argue and eventually have to be separated by riot police. Suddenly, a young poet called Cégèste is run down by two passing motorcyclists. He is taken into a limousine by a woman who claims to be his guardian. She insists that Orphée, an older poet also present at the cafe, accompany her. What follows is the ultimate Cocteaullian mixture of myth and autobiography, a fantastical story of demise and rebirth, erotic obsession and travels through the afterlife. The film resurrects a number of figures from Cocteau’s previous works, most notably Orphée, Cégèste and the Heurtebise. It balances many of Cocteau’s favorite images such as magic gloves and the mirror, with realistic details and wartime iconography. As in The Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau’s cinematic deceit is unassuming and subsumes itself to the demands of the narrative. In the film, as Orphée puts on the pair of gloves that will allow him to walk through mirrors, the use of reverse-motion leads to the impression that they mould themselves to his hands through some supernatural force. When Orphée and Heurtebise make their final voyage into the afterlife, Cocteau again uses the technique of placing the back wall of the set on the floor and filming from above, so creating a sense of displaced gravity. However, this time he uses this trick discreetly; not as the self-conscious expression of filmmaking boldness that it was in The Blood of a Poet but as a means of communicating the disorientating otherness of the afterlife.
Cocteau died on October 11, 1963 in Milly-la-Foret, France at the age of seventy-four, leaving behind seven films that have become French institutions. Though these films represent a small part of his artistic career, Cocteau’s films reveal the most about himself. All of his films have the same unique quality of his artistic surge; he was not restrained in his work by the limitations of imagination or convention. His passion shows in every aspect of his films; from the outstanding writing, to the imaginative set design, and of course the innovative and poetic directing.
by Phillip Spradley