Monday, 4 April 2016


“Film will only became an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.” - Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau was a French poet, librettist, novelist, actor, director and artist (born July 5, 1889, Maisons-Laffitte, near Paris, France - died October 11, 1963, Milly-la-Forêt, near Paris). Some of his most important works include the poem L’Ange Heurtebise (1925; “The Angel Heurtebise”); the play Orphée (1926; Orpheus); the novels Les Enfants terribles (1929; “The Incorrigible Children”) and La Machine infernale (1934; The Infernal Machine); and his surrealistic motion pictures Le Sang d’un poète (1930; The Blood of a Poet) and La Belle et la bête (1946; Beauty and the Beast).

Cocteau grew up in Paris and always considered himself Parisian by speech, education, ideas, and habits. His family was of the solid Parisian bourgeoisie (cultivated, wealthy, and interested in music, painting, and literature). Cocteau’s earliest memories had to do with the theatre, in popular forms, such as the circus and the ice palace, as well as serious theatre, such as the tragedies performed at the Comédie-Française. At age 19 he published his first volume of poems, La Lampe d’Aladin (“Aladdin’s Lamp”).

Cocteau was the product of the years immediately preceding World War I, years of refined artistic taste that were devoid of political turmoil. His real exploration of the world of the theatre began when he encountered the Ballets Russes, then under the direction of Sergey Diaghilev. When Cocteau expressed a desire to create ballets, Diaghilev challenged him by saying: ‘Étonne-moi’ (“surprise me”). This famous remark seems to have guided the poet not only in his ballets, such as Parade (1917), with music by Erik Satie, and Le Boeuf sur le toit (1920; “The Ox on the Roof”), with music by Darius Milhaud, but also in his other works; and it is sometimes quoted in his plays and films.

During World War I, Cocteau served as an ambulance driver on the Belgian front. The landscape he observed there was later used in his novel Thomas l’imposteur (1923; “Thomas the Imposter”). He became a friend of the aviator Roland Garros and dedicated to him the early poems inspired by aviation, Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance (1919; The Cape of Good Hope). At intervals during the years 1916 and 1917, Cocteau entered the world of modern art, then being born in Paris; in the bohemian Montparnasse section of the city, he met painters such as Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani and writers such as Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire.

Soon after the war, Max Jacob introduced Cocteau to the future poet and novelist Raymond Radiguet. The 16-year-old Radiguet, who appeared to be a prodigy, advocated an aesthetic of simplicity and of classical clarity, qualities that would become characteristic of Cocteau’s own work. The example of Radiguet counted tremendously for Cocteau; and when Radiguet died in 1923, at age 21, the older man felt bereft of a friendship that had been based upon a constant interchange of ideas, encouragement, and enthusiasms. An addiction to opium, brought on by Cocteau’s grief over his lover’s death, necessitated a period of cure. Jacques Maritain, a French Thomist philosopher, paid his first visit to Cocteau in the sanatorium. Through Maritain, Cocteau returned briefly to religious practice.

These complex experiences initiated a new period in his life, during which he produced some of his most important works. In the long poem L’Ange Heurtebise the poet engages in a violent combat with an angel that was to reappear continually in his works. His play Orphée, first performed in 1926, was destined to play a part in the resurrection of tragedy in contemporary theatre; in it, Cocteau deepened his interpretation of the nature of the poet. The novel Les Enfants terribles, written in the space of three weeks in March 1929, is the study of the inviolability of the character of two adolescents, the brother and sister Paul and Elisabeth. In 1950 Cocteau prepared the screenplay for a film of this work, and he was also the film’s narrator.

Cocteau had enlarged the scope of his work by the creation of his first film, Le Sang d’un poète, a commentary on his own private mythology; the themes that then seemed obscure or shocking seem today less private and more universal because they have appeared in other works. Also in the early 1930s Cocteau wrote what is usually thought to be his greatest play, La Machine infernale, a treatment of the Oedipus theme that is very much his own. In these two works he moved into closer contact with the great myths of humanity.

In the 1940s Cocteau returned to filmmaking, first as a screenwriter and then also as a director in La Belle et la bête, a fantasy based on the children’s tale, and Orphée (1950), a re-creation of the themes of poetry and death that he had dealt with in his play. Also a visual artist of significance, Cocteau in 1950 decorated the Villa Santo Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and began a series of important graphic works: Frescoes on the City Hall in Menton, the Chapel of Saint-Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer, and the Church of Saint-Blaise-des-Simples in Milly-la-Forêt. His adopted son, the painter Édouard Dermit, who also appears in his later films, continued the decoration of a chapel at Fréjus, a work Cocteau had not completed at his death at age 74.

We recently watched again his 1950 film “Orphée” (Orpheus), starring Jean Marais, François Périer and María Casares. The film appeared as striking and as poetic as the first time I had watched it. While based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Cocteau makes of this an allegorical and magical tale of love, death and the meaning of life. It is a surrealistic masterpiece and one can become immersed in it again and again, becoming lost in its symbols, drawing new meaning with each viewing and enjoying again and again the amazing images.

The film is set in post-war, bomb-damaged France of the late 1940s. Orphée (Marais) is a self-absorbed poet, living in splendid isolation with his beautiful wife Eurydice in. Times are changing and Orphée’s popularity is waning as a new wave of poets is winning the new generation. As a poet he feels slighted and he goes into town with the intention of facing the new age. However, he is snubbed and he becomes enraged. The leader of the new poets, the young Jacques Cegeste, is caught up in a brawl in a bar, which spills out into the street and he is killed by a motorcyclist. Orphée, an innocent bystander, is taken away in a black limousine with the lifeless body of Cegeste by a beautiful and mysterious Princess to a deserted house.

Time runs backwards in this house and the way into the underworld lies through mirrors. Orphée falls in love with the Princess (and so falls in love with his own death). Cegeste’s followers advise the police that Orphée is responsible for the young poet’s death. Ultimately Orphée has to choose between between the Princess and Eurydice, his wife.

Marais was Cocteau’s lover for a time and that’s why he probably landed the role of Orphée. He looks quite like the aesthete poet – self-admiring and narcissistic, obsessed with his reflection in the many mirrors of the film. Maria Casares steals every scene she is in as the Princess/Death, playing her role with aplomb and great gusto. François Périer does a marvellous job as Heurtebise, the Princess’s assistant who “breaks the rules” and falls in love with Orphée’s wife. Juliette Greco plays a small but memorable role, and Maria Dea as Eurydice seems rather insignificant in the film’s main themes – or rather her death is quite the catalyst…

It is an amazing film, the closest poetry comes being filmed. A brilliant masterpiece of a complex and wonderfully creative mind. If you are interested in art, poetry, literature, philosophy, myth and symbolism, you will simply love this film!

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