Jean Cocteau: Cinema as Poetry

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The Childhood of Jean Cocteau

The most famous directors of French cinema, born in Maisons-Laffitte, a suburb on the outskirts of Paris, in 1889, childhood Jean Cocteau’s immediately revealed his interest in graphic arts and poetry. In fact, little Jean, being in poor health, spends hours building small puppet theaters in the backyard and drawing. 

When he sees his parents often go out in the evening to go to the theater, leaving him alone at home, the fact of attending theatrical performances becomes an obsession for him. A passion for the scenic art that he will be able to realize a few years later. 

In 1898, a tragedy occurs that he will not forget for a lifetime: his father Georges shoots himself in the head in his study. The reasons for the suicide remain mysterious. Someone talks about debt, someone else about mental disorders and repressed homosexuality. Jean moves with his family to Paris to the home of his musician grandfather, who regularly gives concerts. 



The school and Jean Cocteau have nothing in common. The future poet does not manage to integrate into school life at all and is expelled from more than one high school, replacing the attendance of official schools with private lessons. 

His true passion is to attend theatrical performances and write poetry. After a few attempts to achieve maturity he decides to give up permanently, dedicating himself exclusively to art. Free of the Jean Cocteau school, he threw himself headlong into the worldly and artistic life of Paris. 

Befriends the actor Edouard de Max and has one of his first romantic relationships with Christiane Mancini, a student of the conservatory. During this period he also began to use drugs such as opium often. 

His friend Edouard de Max organizes In 1908 a recital of Cocteau’s poems in a Paris theater. From that moment Jean became known in the Parisian environment and met many other artists who became his friends: Proust, Catulle Mendès, Lucien Daudet, Jules Lemaitre, Reynaldo Hahn, Maurice Rostand, and began his fluctuating relationship with Anna de Noailles.

The same year, during a trip to Venice with his mother, Cocteau is shocked by the sudden suicide of a friend, who fires a gunshot to his head on the steps of the Salute church. The trauma that hit him with his father’s suicide seems to mysteriously recur, as if it were a karma to be faced. 

Between 1909 and 1912 he published several collections of poems, of which he later refused to recognize the authorship: La Lampe d’Aladin, Le Prince frivole, La Danse de Sophocle. Together he runs a luxury magazine, Shéhérazade. He meets François Mauriac, the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, Sacha Guitry. Misia Sert introduces him to Sergej Diaghilev, impresario of the Russian Ballets, who introduces him to Nijinskij and Stravinskij. 

Jean Cocteau’s First Successes

Jean Cocteau becomes famous very young, collaborating with Diaghilev, Picasso and Sati for the ballet Parade, in 1917. He then inspires the “group of six”, musicians with whom he collaborates throughout his life. Launch the young novelist Raymond Radiguet. He draws, paints, writes for the theater and above all he is a poet. 

During the war Cocteau drove ambulances to transport the wounded and served with the fusiliers of the navy: on this period he wrote a novel Thomas the imposter. In 1914 he founded the magazinewith Paul Iribe Le Mot. He meets Valentine Gross, who will introduce him to Braque, Derain and Satie.

In this period he makes friends with Roland Garros, who makes him start the activity as an aviator: the baptism of the air will be the theme of the first poetic work of some importance: Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, of which he will organize various readings that they provide good success.

In 1916 he was transferred to the Propaganda Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He begins to frequent the Montparnasse neighborhood: he meets Apollinaire, Modigliani, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, André Salmon, Blaise Cendrars, and above all Pablo Picasso. A very strong bond will be born with Picasso, and Jean Cocteau will involve him in several of his successful projects. 

Parade and Dance

The show Parade, which will reveal Jean Cocteau to the general public, is staged at the Châtelet on May 18, 1917: the music is by Erik Satie, sets and costumes by Picasso, choreography by Léonide Massine of the Russian Ballets. The show creates scandal immediately: the audience is divided sharply between supporters and detractors. Many fail to grasp the importance of the new current of the Esprit nouveau, for which Apollinaire coined the term surréalisme.

Disappointed by the theatrical work for which the commitment of his work is not adequately recognized, he devoted himself to theatrical and artistic criticism by writing essays on Picasso and Satie. In recent years he has established a relationship with the young poet Jean Le Roi, who will die at the front after a few months. 

Jean Cocteau and Radiguet

Radiguet and Cocteau

But the most important link is that with the adolescent Raymond Radiguet, presented to him in 1919 by Max Jacob. A deep friendship arises between Cocteau and Radiguet, which will be fundamental for Cocteau’s human and artistic development. Despite the difference in age and notoriety, Radiguet will be Cocteau’s teacher in these years. 

On vacation on the southern coast of France, while his friend Radiguet writes the novel The Devil in the Body, Cocteau creates new poetic texts. But in 1923 Radiguet died suddenly, a victim of typhus. The loss of his friend will leave Cocteau in a state of depression and prostration that will lead him to seek consolation in opium.

In the following years he begins to slowly approach the Catholic religion and detoxifies himself from opium. In 1925 Cocteau has the revelation of the angel Heurtebise, a key character of his work, and will write the poem entitled Heurtebise. However, relapses in opium addiction will be frequent. He will often prefer the mystical ecstasy of drugs to religion. 

Jean Cocteau and Cinema

Always attracted to cinema, he made a few attempts before making, thanks to the patronage of the Count of Noailles, an experimental film, Blood of a poet. Despite many critics and intellectuals have spoken of this film as of a surrealist work, in reality it has nothing in common with surrealist works. 

His technique does not belong to the world of automatic writing. Rather, it is a dreamlike journey that offers the viewer a sequence of obsessive images found throughout Jean Cocteau’s work: an angel with glass wings, a plaster statue that comes to life, mirrors that can be crossed. 

The Blood of a Poet

A descent into the deep unconscious between poetry, thought and vision. Jean Cocteau transforms his poetry into cinema in his first work, as in all his subsequent films. A film that is difficult to fit into the current of Surrealism. Jean Cocteau’s ghosts take shape in this film that is difficult to tell with words.

The relationship between artist and work of art told through the myth of Orpheus, his father’s suicide, bisexuality, the death of his beloved Raymond Radiguet, opium addiction, music, dance, poetry, the magic of a lost childhood . The marble statue comes to life at the touch of the poet and invites him to dive into the mirror to recover lost things. An immersion in the subconscious where the protagonist finds himself spying from the keyhole Mexican revolutionaries shot, opium smokers, hermaphrodites, girls trained for flying lessons.

Theatrical Works and Travels

In 1932 he begins a relationship with Princess Nathalie Paley, niece of Tsar Alexander III; the princess has a miscarriage from Cocteau’s pregnancy. At the beginning of the 1930s he wrote a lot for the theater and created works such as Le Fantôme de Marseille, La machine infernale, L’Ecole des veuves, personally following the staging of his texts. 

In 1936 he left with Marcel Khill, his new partner, to go around the world in eighty days. On the way he meets on a ship Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard: a sincere friendship will be born. The diary of this trip will be published in a text entitled Mon premier voyage.

A few years later, during the auditions for Oedipus Re, Jean Cocteau meets a young actor with whom he falls in love: Jean Marais. A relationship will be born between the two that will last until the poet’s death. Marais will play various roles in the shows drawn from Cocteau’s texts and will be an inexhaustible source of inspiration in the following years. 

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

The War Years

The Nazi occupation created various obstacles to Cocteau’s artistic activity. Some shows such as La Machine à écrire, provoke reactions of dissent and censorship. Cocteau also suffers an assault because he does not take off his hat in front of the Nazi flag. 

Comrade Jean Marais slaps a journalist who had written an insulting article about Cocteau. Francois Truffaut put this episode in a scene from the film The Last Metro. Fortunately, in 1942 he obtained a post at the Conservatory of Dramatic Arts.

In 1944 he actively took sides, together with other artists, for the liberation of Max Jacob, arrested by the Gestapo and executed on March 4th in the Drancy camp. 

Writing for Cinema

From the 1940s he took an active interest in cinema again. He writes screenplays, dialogues for other French directors, sometimes follows the shooting very closely as in Jean Delannoy’s The Eternal Return. The success of this film consecrates him in the profession and the proposals multiply. 

Jean Cocteau does not always choose collaborations rationally, but his contribution is always precious for the films in which he participates. The dialogues written for Le dame du Bois de Boulogne by Robert Bresson are an example of perfectly successful collaboration and Cocteau’s mastery with the word. 

He returns to directing with Beauty and the Beast, a very personal adaptation of Madame de Beaumont’s fable, enjoying the favor of the public. He develops a story in which he emphasizes the character of the beast played by Jean Marais with an exceptional make-up, which can be seen as the image of a suffering poet. 

After having collaborated in the creation of Roberto Rossellini’s Human Voice, played by Anna Magnani, he also collaborated on the writing of Ruy Blas by Pierre Billon and Noces de sable by André Zwobada. In 1948 for a trip to the United States where he met Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.

Jean Cocteau and l’Esprit Nouveau

Jean Cocteau is primarily committed to creating a new form of the marvelous, forcing collaborators such as production designer Berardi, director of photography Alekan, to adapt to his perspectives. Later he adapted two of his theatrical texts The Two-Headed Eagle and the terrible relatives proposing a completely new relationship between theater and cinema. These are the artistic ideas recounted in one of his famous writings, Esprit of 1951. 10 years pass between the last two films and both are linked in terms of themes and style to Le Sang d’un poète. 

The main character is the poet in the guise of Orpheus who tries to transport into the contemporary world, as he does with Tristan and Isolde in The Eternal Return. No poetic image, no conventional fantastic, no stylistic procedure: with Orfeo he resumes and amplifies the dialogue with his own death. The failure forces him to wait 10 years to shoot the next film, thanks to the support of the young Francois Truffaut. 

The Testament of Orpheus

In The testament of Orpheus Cocteau himself interprets the poet and stages his death, pierced by the spear of Minerva, in the fantastic scenery of the Beaux quarries, in Provence. Then he resurrects, walks on a street and disappears from the sight of men. Jean Cocteau makes an ante mortem inventory: it is a summary of the powers of poetry. 

In his latest film, the legendary Jean Cocteau is a poet who travels through time in search of enlightenment. In a mysterious wasteland, he meets lost souls that result in his death and resurrection. With an exceptional cast including Pablo Picasso, Jean-Pierre Leáud, Lucia Bosè, Yul Brynner, Brigitte Bardot, Orpheus’ will closes Cocteau’s extraordinary research on the relationship between art and life.

Watch The Testament of Orpheus

Cinema as Poetry

Cocteau still takes part in the writing and making of a number of short films: he does not despise any genre. Eclecticism remains one of his hallmarks, a quality that allows him to experiment between different expressive modes in an era in which specialization is becoming the rule. 

His cinematographic work is framed by the Orphic myth, which we find at every creative level. Orpheus the poet hesitates, limps, is indecisive, one foot in life and one in death. Its drama and its strength come from the fact that it is on the limit that separates one world from another, the visible universe and the invisible universe and for this reason it is almost always misunderstood even by those closest to it.

It is torn between love and poetry. But like any man worthy of living he goes through a series of deaths and rebirths in succession. Jean Cocteau considers his films poems of cinema. In this way he intends to protest against the dichotomy so often repeated that opposes the cinema of reality and the cinema of fiction. 

Poetry could not be an added value inserted into the film with an artificial procedure. Poetry must be born autonomously, it must spring from the organization of the images. Jean Cocteau also defines his cinematographic works as “realist documentaries on unreal facts”. 

The two worlds, real and unreal, interpenetrate without always knowing which side you are on. It is the meaning of the recurring theme of the crossing of the mirror and the many inverted images found in his films. 

Beauty and the Beast

To create The wonderful Jean Cocteau rejects the beautiful smoothed images with perfect light. In Beauty and the Beast he asks the director of photography Alekan for a harsh image, such as that of René Clement, technical advisor for this film, or of Jean Pierre Melville who directs Terrible Boys. Poetry is precision, calculation, the opposite of what seems poetic to imbeciles. ” 

Jean Cocteau conceives editing as poetic metrics.” My first concern in making a film is to ensure that the images do not slip , which contrast, fit and unite without damaging their depth. ” 

In his films he does not care about the so-called rules and deliberately makes mistakes which he then claims, proud to be self-taught in the field of cinema. Every trick of his is then a bricolage much more convincing than any special effect. 

He writes a lot, and well, about his own films and those of others. In this way he gives, without theorising, a lesson in exegesis closer to phenomenology than to structuralism. His film career , his Orphic work make him a bridge between two fundamental periods of French cinema, that of avant-garde and that of the Nouvelle Vague

Jean Cocteau is a independent artist in all meanings of the word. It always refuses to insert itself completely in the economic context of industrial cinema. His films are placed against the current with respect to the dominant aesthetic currents of the time. His moment of glory comes later, when the young directors of the Cahiers du cinema make it possible for him to make his latest film, The testament of a poet

The young French directors e Francois Truffaut more than all the others believed him incredibly for freestyle, independence, for his detachment from technology and his way of creating works without compromising with the institutional bureaucratic machine of cinema. 

Died in 1963, Jean Cocteau hardly knows oblivion: his influence is always limited, but underground and uninterrupted. 

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