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
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

Image Courtesy: 1: Photographie de presse de l’agence Meurisse/WikiCommons, 2: themoviedb, 3: Alt Film Guide,