Jean Cocteau Cocteau, Jean (Vol. 16) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

C. G. Wallis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poète is one of the authentic classics of the cinema, in the small group that includes Caligari, The Ten Days that Shook the World, some René Clair, and some Chaplin. It is perhaps Cocteau's own magnum opus, even if we compare it with Thomas L'Imposteur, La Machine Infernale, or Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. And among the works of the '30's—a decade fairly arid in poetry and myth—it is one of the few landmarks, like Murder in the Cathedral and Finnegans Wake. I make these simple unanalytic statements of praise, because certain people at present disparage the poet Cocteau as a faker, a master of aesthetic sleight of hand and nothing more, and Le Sang d'un Poète itself as a pretty piece of legerdemain or at best as a myth purely private in its reference. (p. 24)

[That] I am right in calling [Le Sang d'un Poète] an allegory is evidenced extrinsically by Cocteau's preface, in which he tells the spectator that all poetry is a coat of arms whose symbols can be deciphered only after the expenditure of blood, and that he is dedicating the allegories of Le Sang d'un Poète to Pisanello, Paolo Uccello, Piera della Francesca, as painters of arms and blazons. Internal evidence is given by the prologue and epilogue of the falling tower, whose masonry has crumbled before the story proper commences yet whose collapse is completed only after the end of the story proper, so that the temporal expanse of the total action is comprised within the instant or brief interim elapsing between the two shots of the tower, that is to say, the total action is timeless or without duration and is therefore an allegory of eternal objects rather than a story of particular things. Furthermore, within the story proper the datelessness of the action is emphasized by the mixtures of period and costume, i.e., the studied anachronism in dress signifies that the action is not merely instantaneous or without duration but is not localized at any one point of time. Moreover, the machinery of events which obey laws other than those of the natural world, viz., the transsubstantiation of a charcoal mouth to a living, of a woman into a statue; the agility and levitation of bodies, in entering a mirror or flying to the ceiling; the disproportion between cause and effect, as the quick wasting away of the bronze statue beneath the snowballs; or the coexistence in one subject of contrary states, as life and death—all this serves to compose a world of miracles, that is to say, one where the system of causes transcends its phenomenal effects, or where the phenomena are merely the iconography for various relations among ideas. (pp. 25-6)

[Let] me make some cursory generalizations about the structure and content of the film—sticking fairly close to the literal level—before proceeding with a more detailed analysis. The falling tower serves formally as a symbol of a beginning and an end; and, in content, it introduces the theme of destruction in general and even, since the cause of the collapse of the tower is not shown, that of self-destruction. Now within the action proper, it should be noted that the relation of person to person or even thing to thing is usually that of victim to victor or agent to patient and that the crises in the action are often reversals of this relation…. [It] is evident that the separate incidents usually compose a unification of some or other contraries; and hence the whole film at first glance has a right to be considered, in the Coleridgean categories, as a work of the Imagination rather than of Fancy, even short of the exegesis of its iconography. (pp. 31-2)

[The film is divided, by subtitles, into four parts: La Main Blessée ou la Cicatrice de Poète, Les Murs Ont-Ils des Oreilles?, La Bataille des Boules de Neige, and La Carte Volée]. (p. 32)

The plot of La Main Blessée is essentially the destruction of an image or icon, viz., the erasure of the sketch, followed by the reception of a wound, viz., the mouth in the hand; and that of La Bataille des Boules de Neige is similar, viz., the crumbling away of the statue beneath the snowballs and the mortal blow sped from the hand of Dargelos…. The vivification of the statue by the wounding mouth in La Main Blessée, I do not count as a separate theme: for the original mouth is miraculous and unknown in its causation; consequently its appearances and transmutations will, in poetic probability, be many; while the mortal blow, as such, is one and final, and natural and determinate in origin. The plot of Les Murs Ont-Ils des Oreilles? is, I think, that of the journey through an unfamiliar medium, viz., the subterranean world behind the mirror, leading to a false suicide (at the instigation of a woman) and the false transformation of a man into a statue…. Similarly, in La Carte Volée the pilgrimage of the dead boy's guardian (he wears an apparatus for flying and swimming trunks and has a limp: hence walking on the earth is an unfamiliar mode of locomotion for him) leads to the true suicide of the hero, followed by the woman's turning into a mythical statue—which constitute a real glory as opposed to the false glory in Les Murs Ont-Ils des Oreilles? In brief, the theme of each might be epigrammatized as: the wound, the suicide, and the statue. (pp. 33-4)

The allegory of Le Sang d'un Poète (which Cocteau had once announced as La Vie d'un Poète) might be described, for the purposes of this essay, as "the pilgrimage of a poet." The linear story tells of a progress from being a Naive Poet, through various intermediate rôles, to being a depersonalized poet. La Main Blessée ou la Cicatrice de Poète tells of the progress from Naive Poetry to archaeology…. [The young man] is a Naive Poet because he is making a series of simple likenesses or improvisations. What, if any, relation there is between the mark of the wound and his gift as an artist, we do not know. His naiveté becomes sophisticated when he discovers that poetry is magical…. But the magical power of poetry is still limited by its nature as an imitation, and consequently it is an incomplete reality which it achieves, viz., a mouth and not a whole person or even face, that is to say, it is a monster. It is significant that he does not become conscious of this magical power, until there is a visitor or messenger from the outside...

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Bosley Crowther

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Beauty and the Beast"] is an eminent model of cinema achievement in the realm of poetic fantasy.

This should be understood, however: the achievement is on a definitely adult plane and the beauties of Cocteau's conception will be most appreciated by sophisticated minds. It is not the sort of picture that will send the children into transports of delight, unless they are quite precocious youngsters of the new progressive school.

For Cocteau has taken the old story … and has used it as a pattern for weaving a priceless fabric of subtle images. In the style of his "Blood of a Poet," though less abstract and recondite, it is a fabric of gorgeous visual metaphors, of undulating movements and rhythmic pace, of hypnotic sounds and music, of casually congealing ideas.

Freudian or metaphysician, you can take from it what you will. The concepts are so ingenious that they're probably apt to any rationale. From the long corridor of candelabra, held out from the walls by living arms, through which the wondering visitor enters the palace of the Beast, to the glittering temple of Diana, wherein the mystery of the Beast is revealed, the visual progression of the fable into a dream-world casts its unpredictable spell.

The dialogue, in French, is spare and simple … and the music of Georges Auric accompanies the dreamy, fitful moods. The settings are likewise expressive….

Studied or not for philosophy, this is a sensuously fascinating film, a fanciful poem in movement given full articulation on the screen.

Bosley Crowther, "'Beauty and the Beast'," in The New York Times (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 24, 1947, p. 12.

Bosley Crowther

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It sometimes helps if a reviewer has a faint idea of what a film he is reviewing is supposed to be about. That is, at least, some information which he can pass along. But we can't even shoot you that knowledge on Jean Cocteau's "Eagle With Two Heads." Unfortunately, Mr. Cocteau neglected to make it clear.

Apparently his drama … has something to do with a romance between a melancholy queen and an initially rebellious subject who resembles her long-dead spouse. From the rapturous and reckless embracing … we gathered this general impression. Something is cooking. That is plain….

But how all these elements dovetail (if they do) and what they're supposed to prove are never transmitted to the audience in the excess of posturing and talk. Slightly intriguing situations which pop up along the way are lost in murky miasmas of fancy but pointless dialogue. And evident pretensions toward symbolism get all tangled up in wooden words.

Too bad—because plenty of money and taste have plainly been spent on a handsome physical production. Hapsburg splendor is in the regal sets and the costumes … are lovely and flattering. But they all add up to nothing.

Bosley Crowther, "'Eagle with Two Heads'," in The New York Times (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1948, p. 24.

A. H. Weiler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As an artist who has been known to exercise a fertile imagination, Jean Cocteau is disappointingly unimaginative in "The Storm Within."…

M. Cocteau, who herein is inspecting the amours of a singularly unstable family, merely has come up with a series of tempestuous harangues, hysterical outbursts, nebulous soul-searchings and petty plots signifying nothing especially new about either sacred or profane love. And, despite a generally proficient cast, "The Storm Within" is, anomalously, a static drama, which talks a great deal about emotions while projecting little of same….

"The Storm Within" is only a tempest in a teapot.

A. H. Weiler, "'The Storm Within'," in The New York Times (© 1950 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 24, 1950, p. 21.

Bosley Crowther

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps the most tell-tale tip-off to the nature of the "Orpheus" of Jean Cocteau … is thoughtfully offered by the author in a signed statement in the program: "When I make a film," says M. Cocteau, "it is a slumber and I dream."

That is as fair a forewarning as any that we can provide to the curious conceits of fancy that you may expect in this film. For plainly the writer-director has let his imagination roam through a drama of images that resemble the vagrant phantasms of sleep. And while the famed legend of Orpheus provides the framework of a plot and the pictorial character is concrete, the context is utterly abstract.

Indeed, at one point in this crisscross of phantoms and...

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Jean R. Debrix

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Orpheus simultaneously presents two aspects of the poetic process: that of the poet—Cocteau; and that of an ideal poetic instrument—the cinema….

The central theme of Orpheus is poetry's all-pervading power.

For Cocteau, as for every poet, poetry is the only truth, the only way of life, the only means of approaching essential reality. All else is the gross and perishable imaginings of earth-bound men. (p. 18)

Cocteau has poured into Orpheus all his obsessions; his preoccupation with mirrors (narcissism); his weakness for cruel and unmotivated practical jokes (poets cannot help being enfants terribles); his awe for the "holy"; his...

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C. A. Lejeune

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I cannot pretend to know what [Orpheus] all means, and I have a lurking suspicion that Cocteau doesn't know either, but I do know that it sent me out of the theatre quivering with excitement, and more provocatively engaged than I have been by any film for seasons. Cocteau, of course, has two prevailing ideas, that run like coloured thread through all his work: the idea of a poet as an extra-sensory medium, and the idea of a hungry marriage between life and death. He twists these two ideas together in Orpheus, as he did in a tentative way in L'Aigle a Deux Têtes, and has produced a picture that is bewildering, stimulating, sometimes touching and sometimes quite hateful, but always a provocation to...

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Neal Oxenhandler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What Cocteau has attempted to do in his films is to convey, through the cinematic medium, the conception of poetry which exists in his purely literary works. Let me begin then by briefly characterizing this conception of poetry.

For Cocteau poetry is not primarily a dramatic representation of experience as in Racine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. He is definitely in the tradition of "pure" poets for whom poetry is an end in itself and for whom morality is essentially an esthetic function. He insists in his poetry on purely verbal and syntactical manipulations. (p. 14)

Cocteau is not fundamentally interested in dramatic action; nor is he interested in ideas. His concern is less philosophical...

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William Whitebait

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cocteau has been an innovator, a fashionable one, whose artificialities have always made him open to ridicule; and now that he's getting on, abuse yaps at his heels. But that's not to say that he has not been truly a poet and also that less definable thing a fascinator. His understanding of poetry has always had more than a touch of Chan Canasta. He dazzles with a few absurd props; he brings it off; how does he do it? We have been lured as by some perfect sleight of hand or feat on the high wire. An impossible lightness, a transparent charm, together with the situation to curdle one's blood, have set him apart from contemporaries: and so far as publicity goes, he has no more dined off it than Epstein. His last film,...

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Peter John Dyer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The early scene between the old man and the black centaur] from Le Testament d'Orphée … communicates something of the sense of purpose and finality underlying the whole film. It is, in fact, Cocteau's swan-song, and completes a thirty-year-long obsessional cycle, from the manifesto of Le Sang d'un Poète and the actual execution of Orphée to the explication of Le Testament d'Orphée, with a shape and symmetry unique in the cinema….

Though this labyrinth of dream associations, latent memories, myth and materialism (Cocteau's paintings and his film Orphée, as well as many of his friends, make appearances) is closest to Le Sang d'un Poète in pattern, it...

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Roger Manvell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Le Testament d'Orphee Cocteau] observes the continuity of a dream and not the logical pattern of a drama. [The film] therefore proceeds broadly from image to image and from symbol to symbol in its presentation of Cocteau's poetic concept of existence, and like his other personal films it is a most powerful demonstration of the cinema's technical capacity to project the world of the image created by the fluent but captive imagination of a poet, who claims to be pressing passionately against the cell-walls of the mind for the release his spirit demands.

Cocteau the poet confronts the creatures of his personal mythology in settings which occur not because they exist solidly in time and space...

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Bosley Crowther

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is hard to think of anybody (with the evident exception of Jean Cocteau) who, however egotistical he might be, would have the nerve to make a full-length film about himself. But M. Cocteau has done it. He has made a film all about Jean Cocteau in his "Testament of Orpheus"….

That is to say, he has made a picture about his own spiritual-esthetic search through a surrealist world of phantoms and symbols for the favor of the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athene….

[This] remarkable old show-off, who has done enough good things in his time to excuse a splurge of arrant narcissism in his declining years, has made a film that, for all its high pretension to being a symbolization of the...

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Roy Armes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The legend [dramatized in La Belle et la Bête] is handled in a variety of styles. The home life of Belle's family is parodied and is often broadly farcical in tone (as, for instance, in the use of cackling ducks to accompany the shots of Belle's two sisters). By contrast, the departure of Belle for the Beast's castle and her entry there are stylised, Cocteau employing slow motion photography to obtain a dreamlike effect. The fairytale world of the Beast's castle is given great solidity for Cocteau aimed at giving a "realism of the unreal" and it is arguable that in fact the setting has been given too much weight: there is a degree of ponderousness about the film which Georges Auric's music serves only to...

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George Amberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though unadmitted, The Testament of Orpheus has far greater ambitions and implications than its modest format indicates. And in this resides its particular significance. (p. 23)

Testament is too deliberate and lucid a work to be dismissed as an old man's self-indulgent gratification—as many critics chose to do. Wanting or capricious though it may be, Testament is neither pointless nor irrational and, least of all, senile. To the extent that this controversial film fails, as it ultimately does, it is for nobler reasons than pretentiousness, incompetence or declining power….

[It] is not only one of the great confessional documents of our time but probably...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)