In This Article Jean Cocteau

  • Introduction
  • Artistic Background
  • Within French Cinema
  • As Collaborator
  • As Experimenter
  • As Film Theorist
  • Poetics
  • Mythology
  • Le Sang d’un poète (1932) (The Blood of a Poet)
  • Occupation Cinema
  • La Belle et la bête (1946) (Beauty and the Beast)
  • L’Aigle à deux têtes (1947) (The Eagle with Two Heads)
  • Les Parents terribles (1948) (The Storm Within, a.k.a. Intimate Relations)
  • Orphée (1950) (Orpheus)
  • Le Testament d’Orphée, ou, Ne me demandez pas pourquoi (1960) (The Testament of Orpheus)
  • The Unknown/Unseen Works
  • Influence and Legacy

Cinema and Media Studies Jean Cocteau
by
James S. Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0108

Introduction

Jean Cocteau (b. 1889–d. 1963) was one of French cinema’s greatest and most original directors whose work covered nearly all the major genres, from the early avant-garde to fairy-tale fantasy, historical melodrama, domestic bourgeois drama, detective thriller and mystery, and self-portrait. One of the first French writers to take the cinema seriously, he claimed to have entered the cinema “fraudulently” because he was entirely self-taught, calling himself more an “artisan” and “amateur” (in the French sense of a “lover” of cinema). Yet, the often applied label of “literary filmmaker” is insufficient to describe Cocteau, who was also an experimenter, collaborator, theorist, and all-round ambassador of film. Profoundly interested in the fundamentals of time, space, motion, speed, and sound, he was a visionary filmmaker intoxicated by the mystery of what he called “the cinematograph,” and he strove to discover what film can reveal of beauty and consciousness. His comparatively slim corpus of extraordinary and utterly unique films (what he called his “poetry of cinema”), along with his other multiple activities in the cinema as a writer of screenplays, dialogues, commentaries, and voice-overs; actor; editor; festival organizer; and judge, established Cocteau in the postwar period as one of the supreme filmmakers in France, above all in the eyes of the New Wave directors who hailed him as an auteur complet. Yet, with the possible exception of La Belle et la bête (1946), Cocteau’s cinema, like much of his work in other forms and media, often has been critically underestimated or neglected, particularly in the English-speaking world, although it has always been cherished by a small chosen few. Prolific and prodigious yet too versatile for his own good, he was perceived by many as a sublime jack-of-all-trades and master of none. In fact, Cocteau lived to see himself become one of the most underrated and outmoded figures in 20th-century French culture. Thus, the number of studies devoted to his cinema is relatively small, and the authors of those that do exist have often been content merely to read Cocteau’s work through his life or else reproduce the simple idea of Cocteau as “film poet” without taking into full account the many complex strands and levels of his film work. A major exhibition of his work in 2003–2004 at the Pompidou Center in Paris titled “Jean Cocteau, sur le fil du siècle,” on the fortieth anniversary of Cocteau’s death, has helped to reverse this trend.

Artistic Background

Cocteau’s film work is arguably the summation of his multifarious artistic projects because it integrates all the previous and still evolving aspects of his practice, from poetry, novels, and essays (he published his first collection of poetry in 1909) to theater, painting, design, graphic art, sculpture, music, dance, choreography, ballet, and performance. Whatever field he was working in constituted a different form of la poésie, and his films bring together many, if not all, of the images and obsessions of his earlier literary work, which is littered with allusion and stylistic nods to the cinema. Cocteau worked with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the 1910s as scene painter and publicist, a collaboration that culminated with the 1917 ballet Parade, a unique mixed-media work and a formative moment in European modernism that brought together Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie. During the early 1920s, he collaborated with the group of composers called Les Six (including Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, and Francis Poulenc). In fact, he was a cross-pollinator of art and culture, a go-between (or passeur) between the right and left banks in Paris, and, more generally, of high and popular culture and of the marginal and aristocratic fringes within French society. Steegmuller 1970 is a well-informed and pioneering critical biography highly sympathetic to Cocteau that has greatly influenced his reception in the English-speaking world. This combined life/work approach continues with Nemer 2003, which, however, conforms to the general critical tendency of reducing Cocteau’s last thirty years of artistic activity to just one final chapter under the simple rubric “the public man.” Arnaud 2003 is the most complete critical biography yet of Cocteau, while Williams 2008 argues that Cocteau’s “multiwork” constitutes a radical project in gay modernism that carries important ramifications for our contemporary understanding of being and subjectivity. Another critical approach undertaken has been to place Cocteau directly within the French cultural context, first with Peters and Abadie 1984 and then with Païni 2003, the English version of the catalogue of the exhibition held in Paris at the Centre Pompidou and later in Montreal at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2003–2004. Cocteau 2011, the finest edition of Cocteau’s classic film, provides excellent background material to Cocteau’s artistic career, while the best available general volume in either English or French devoted solely to the work is Cocteau 1995.

  • Arnaud, Claude. Jean Cocteau. Paris: Gallimard, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A rich, exhaustive, and often brilliant volume that uncovers in its eight hundred pages new and important details about Cocteau’s life and work.

  • Cocteau, Jean, ed. Jean Cocteau: Romans, poésies, oeuvres diverses. Edited by Bernard Benech. Classiques Modernes. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    An inspired and finely edited selection of Cocteau’s major poetry, novels, and plays, including screenplays of Le Sang d’un poète (1930) and Le Testament d’Orphée (1959).

  • Cocteau, Jean, dir. Orpheus. DVD. New York: Criterion Collection, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Indispensable edition of Orphée (1950) with a completely new, digitally restored print that includes among its special features the important documentary Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown (1984), 40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau (1957), and In Search of Jazz (1956) (an interview with Cocteau).

  • Nemer, François. Cocteau: Sur le fil. Paris: Gallimard, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short, neat summary of Cocteau’s life and career, with choice quotes and illustrations.

  • Païni, Dominique, ed. Jean Cocteau, sur le fil du siècle. Translated by Trista Selous. London: Paul Holberton, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Immaculately produced volume containing a small, though eclectic, selection of short studies devoted to Cocteau’s work in cinema; includes a stunning range of color plates and illustrations.

  • Peters, Arthur King, and Daniel Abadie, eds. Jean Cocteau and the French Scene. New York: Abbeville, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    A highly engaging and well-illustrated introduction to Cocteau that covers most of his artistic activities and includes a fine contribution by the American composer Ned Rorem, who knew Cocteau personally and collaborated with Jean Marais.

  • Steegmuller, Francis. Cocteau: A Biography. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1970.

    E-mail Citation »

    While far from exhaustive, it conveys a wealth of important details and offers interesting insights into Cocteau’s work. It is also imaginatively illustrated.

  • Williams, James S. Jean Cocteau. Critical Lives Series. London: Reaktion, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    A fresh analysis of Cocteau’s life and work accessible to both Cocteau scholars and undergraduate readers. Organized chronologically, it centers on Cocteau’s relentless self-questioning and how this propelled a dynamic process of formal experimentation.

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