Jean Cocteau 1889–1963
French director, poet, dramatist, novelist, scriptwriter, and painter.
Cocteau is a distinguished filmmaker noted for his blending of myth and reality in films of visual beauty. His involvement with the artistic avant-garde of his time is evidenced in innovative contributions to many artistic genres, many of which bore an influence on his filmmaking.
Born near Paris into a family of lawyers, Cocteau early showed literary and artistic promise, publishing his first volume of poetry, La Lampe d'Aladin, at the age of seventeen. His circle at that time included Marcel Proust and Léon Daudet. Through their influence, Cocteau became enthralled with the ballet, an interest which led to a friendship with Serge Diaghilev, Russian ballet impresario and director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was Diaghilev who inspired in Cocteau the philosophy he embraced throughout his artistic career: to shock and surprise his audience.
Towards the end of World War I, Cocteau entered the circle of the creative avant-garde, which included Pablo Picasso and composer Eric Satie, with whom Cocteau created the ballet Parade. Though a failure at the time of its creation, it is now regarded as one of the twentieth century's most innovative ballets. Another valuable influence on Cocteau's creative career was the young writer Raymond Radiguet. Radiguet steered Cocteau away from the avant-gardists and told him to "lean on nothing … and develop an attitude that consists of not appearing original." The death of Radiguet devastated Cocteau, and he turned to opium, an addiction that plagued him all of his life.
It was not until the early 1930s that Cocteau began working with cinema. His first film, Le Sang d'un poète (The Blood of a Poet), imitates Cocteau's ever-present image of the Poet and the Dream. Cocteau wanted his audience to pass through the celluloid barrier into his film world, and enjoy the experience of creator and dreamer.
Cocteau's films served as a sort of personal journey reflecting his obsessions and fantasies as well as his delight in cinematic devices. La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast) allowed Cocteau to unleash his fantasies of decorating cinema as an objet d'art. He employed classical legend in works such as Orphée (Orpheus), a film he made based on one of his own plays. While several of his films are adaptations of his plays, the three films which have established his filmmaking reputation are Le Sang d'un poète, Orphée, and Le Testament d'Orphée. Deeply original and personal, they are concerned with the role of the artist and his source of inspiration.
Cocteau found in the cinema a means superior to all other media in depicting his poetic view of death and the fantastic. Critics feel, however, that the intensity of his artistic vision sometimes makes his films difficult and obscure. However, Cocteau is regarded as a filmmaker of unique gifts, an artist striving to make real his original conception of film: "A film is not a dream that is told but one we all dream together." (See also CLC, Vols. 1 and 8, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, and Contemporary Authors Permanent, Vol. 2.)