The poet, novelist, painter, playwright and erstwhile filmmaker Jean Cocteau was a fatalist with a flair for the fantastic. During Cocteau’s lifetime his forays into the cinema often took a backseat to his well-publicized theatrical and artistic endeavors. While his celebrated poetry, works of prose and art haven’t completely stood the test of time his wildly romantic films remain fresh and exciting.
It is, indeed, unfortunate Cocteau didn’t make more movies since his great talent for handling actors, knowledge of the camera, and penchant for moody set design truly made him a man for the cinema. Blessed with a child-like sensibility and a penchant for the stylish and the absurd, Cocteau anticipated the Pop Art of Warhol, the fantastic sci-fi explorations of Lucas and Spielberg, and, for better or worse, the iconic posturing of modern advertising and MTV.
Cocteau was a child prodigy. Already writing poetry by the age of ten and an acclaimed poet at sixteen, Cocteau became a well-known figure in Parisian intellectual circles. During WWI he took time out from the battlefield to collaborate with Erik Satie and Pablo Picasso to stage the critical and popular hit Ballet Russes.
After the war Cocteau’s star rose as a writer of poetry, novels and essays, but the complex young artist was overcome by demons and became addicted to opium. Cocteau was homosexual and much of his art would be colored by impossible longing and the melancholy of the socially estranged.
Both of those themes would be evident in his first film The Blood of a Poet, an experimental silent which owed much to the shocking surrealism of Bunuel and Dali but with little of the Spaniards’ black humor. Instead, Cocteau framed a nightmarish and absurdist pursuit around the myth of Orpheus.
A frustrated Poet (Enrique Rivero) is instructed by a statue (Lee Miller) to pass through a mirror where he soon finds himself in a posh hotel. The poet slinks down a hallway, peering through keyholes witnessing several disturbing scenarios before he is given a gun to commit suicide.
Later, he returns to his room and wrecks the statue, but in turn the poet becomes a statue in a courtyard. He is destroyed in the midst of a snowball fight which also claims the life of a young boy. Next, the poet finds himself playing cards with a young woman on stage next to the dead boy. When he takes the Ace card out from the pocket of the boy, a guardian angel appears and to take it back. The poet shoots himself and the audience applauds.
Following on the heels of Bunuel’s controversial L’age D’or, Cocteau’s film ran afoul of French distributors and didn’t get a general release for a year. Though Cocteau had a great interest in the potentialities of cinema, the reality of the Depression dried up the market for avant-garde film. He would not make another movie for sixteen years.
After France succumbed to the Nazis in 1940 Cocteau took to writing scenarios and dialogue for the commercial cinema, highlights being Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and L’eternel retour by Jean Delannoy.
A spin on the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Retour would get the politically dodgy Cocteau into hot water with the post-Vichy French government for its glorification of a beloved German fable. But the material also whetted the artist’s appetite to meld mythology and magic into a narrative.
Here, Cocteau’s purple prose tends to overwhelm Delannoy’s impersonal style of directing, so it’s not much of a stretch to give the writer a lion’s share of the credit for the bittersweet romance playing out on the screen.
As the tragic Patrice, Jean Marais began his evolution as the prototypical Cocteau hero. The immaculately coiffed and teutonically handsome Marais had a long apprenticeship in the French film industry before Cocteau rescued him from obscurity to become his glorious screen muse.
For his long-awaited return to the director’s chair Cocteau chose to make Beauty and The Beast, an exquisitely realized take on the Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont fairy tale. Here, Marais shines in dual roles as a frustrated suitor Avenant (where he sports a majestic mullet) and the lovesick Beast.
The object of Marais’ poetic angst, the lovely, unassuming Belle (Josette Day) is manipulated by her cruel sisters (Mila Parely & Nane Germon) and frightened father (Marcel Andre) into sacrificing herself to the terrible Beast. Once in captivity, Belle is horrified to find the brute wants her to become his soul mate and wife. His keen sensitivity and gentle wooing melts Beauty’s resistance leading to the magically transcendent finale.
Cocteau’s peculiar sympathy for the girl’s feckless family keeps the timeless tale from becoming sickly sweet, but it’s Marais’ soulful, understated performance as the tortured Beast which gives Beauty its wings.
Set in a small Mittel-European country during the late 1800s, the elegiac L’aigle a deux tetes (The Eagle Has Two Heads) finds Marais playing Stanislas, a poet-anarchist who sneaks into the royal palace where he plans to assassinate his cold, uncaring Queen (Edwige Feuillere). The proud, sequestered woman recognizes an eerie resemblance between Stanislas and her long dead husband, the former king. She gives the anarchist safe harbor and the unlikely pair form a bond which leads to forbidden love.
Little does either know the Queen’s scheming family and the royal cabinet have orchestrated the attempt on her life and still plan on carrying out the dirty deed. Marais is given little to do as the object of desire but that doesn’t hinder Feuillere from giving a marvelous performance as the aging beauty who eschews a hollow life at the royal court to live with her exquisite memories.
The tragic finale also drew a curtain on Cocteau’s fixation with the real and imagined past. The uncertainty of the postwar years seemed to re-energize his creative juices and, as we shall see, his best film work was yet to come.
Although Cocteau eschewed working in film during the 1930s he remained active in the theatre writing and directing experimental and autobiographical plays. The theatrical experience benefited Cocteau two-fold. He would build a small but talented acting troupe he tapped time and again for his films and it’s clear from the elegant style of his 1940s films Cocteau had become expert in blocking his players making it possible to execute long, complicated scenes with few distracting edits or let-ups.
Based on a play by Cocteau originally produced in 1938 Les Parents Terribles cast the 30something Marais as Michel, a hopelessly naïve twenty-two year old student who falls in love his wastrel father’s young mistress Madeleine (Josette Day). Michel’s clinging mother (Yvonne de Bray) schemes to keep her boy out of harm’s way at the expense of her marriage and mental well-being.
Not surprisingly, Les Parents Terribles is the director’s best-acted film with kudos going to de Bray, Marcel Andre as her spineless inventor husband, and Gabrielle Dorziat as the long suffering spinster Aunt Leo. Shot in the claustrophobic confines of the family’s dark apartment and Madeleine’s small flat, this intense and refreshingly adult film concentrates on the monstrous behavior of the grown-ups at the expense of the rather uninteresting young lovers.
In 1950 Cocteau would return to the theme for which began his film career in a breathlessly hip updating of the Orpheus legend. In Orphee Marais plays the eponymous poet as a pop artist and national hero whose influence inflames the hatred of his self-destructive young rival Cegeste (Edouard Dermit).
During a brawl at a poet’s café, Cegeste is injured by a hit and run motorcyclist. He is carried to a car of a Princess (Maria Casares) who beckons the stunned Orphee to join them. Orphee sees Cegeste is dead but the sullen Princess ignores his queries and transports him to a mysterious house where she barks out orders to her placid minions and walks gracefully through mirrors.
The Princess’ chauffeur Heurtebise (Francoise Perier) finally takes Orphee home where he is greeted by concerned wife, Eurydice (Marie Dea). The haunted Orphee is consumed by strange messages he hears on Heurtebise’s car radio and gradually realizes he is in love with the strange new woman in his life, who is no Princess but Death itself.
The public persecution of the artist and the poet’s obsession with immortality immediately makes Orphee one of the director’s most autobiographical works. But Cocteau’s starkly beautiful film also conveyed a chilling Orwellian vision of bombed-out buildings and stark tribunals that continued to unsettle Europe during the Cold War years.
Although Les Enfants Terribles was Cocteau’s signature work of literature, it would be Jean-Pierre Melville who manned the camera to direct the film adaptation. Melville lent his patented visual flair and dynamic touch to the production but the incestuous story about a spoiled, sickly young man who lives in squalor then luxury with his domineering sister draws its tragic aura from its narrator, Cocteau.
The selfish, sibling love between Paul (Eduard Dermithe) and Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane) destroys all that lays in their path including the hearts of their innocent friends Agathe (Renee Cosima) and Gerard (Jacques Bernard). When Elisabeth learns her weak brother is truly enamored with Agathe, she steers the smitten girl into a loveless union with the doting Gerard.
Fearing further loss of control, cruel Elisabeth slowly poisons Paul and turns a gun on herself, leaving Agathe and Gerard to suffer the consequences.
At the peak of his film career the sixty-one year old Cocteau receded from the spotlight to paint and write poetry resurfacing only to shoot the Cote Azur short La villa Santo Sospir and the highly experimental 8X8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements.
Finally in 1960, he completed his Orpheus trilogy with the blatantly surreal La testament d’Orphee, a gently indulgent and surprisingly funny examination of Cocteau, the artist. Casares, Perier and Cocteau’s adopted son Dermit reprise their Orphee roles, but this time as judges and guides helping Cocteau address his narcissism, mortality and place in the cosmos.
Intended as Cocteau’s “farewell film” La Testament d’Orpee is indeed a fitting finale to a startlingly original career which knew no boundaries, challenged all contemporaries, and created a whole new set of rules about how we interpret art along the way.
Books on Cocteau:
The Art of Cinema – Jean Cocteau **** This anecdotal and whimsical collection of essays offers essential insight into grassroots filmmaking and the creative process of this elusive artist.
Les Enfants Terribles (aka The Holy Terrors) – Jean Cocteau ***1/2 A case can be made for Cocteau being a father of the magical realist movement and this lyrical, self-conscious novel goes far in promoting that idea. At the very least it’s an essential read for anyone interested in the fascinating Frenchman.
Films by Cocteau:
1930 The Blood of a Poet ***1/2
1943 L’eternel retour ***1/2 (directed by Jean Delannoy)
1946 Beauty and the Beast ****
1948 L’aiglea deux tetes (The Eagle With Two Heads) ***1/2
1948 Les Parents Terribles ***1/2
1950 Orhpee ****
1950 Les Enfants Terribles **** (directed by Jean-Pierre Melville)
1952 La Villa Santo-Sospir ***
1960 Le Testament d’Orphee ***1/2