Jean Cocteau

1889-1963

Biography

Jean Cocteau photo
Although Jean Cocteau is probably best known for the half dozen or so films he directed, his creative talents extend far beyond the narrow confines of cinema. An accomplished artist and writer, as well as a film director, he was among the great creative influences of the Twentieth Century. His stature is reflected by his circle of friends and patrons, which included such artistic giants as the composer Erik Satie, the writers Marcel Proust and Colette, the painter Pablo Picasso and the ballet director Serge Diaghilev.

In all of his work, Cocteau was profoundly original and avant-garde, often drawing together the classical (such as Greek mythology) with the modern (including Cubism and jazz). The only thing that unified Cocteau remarkably diverse output was the artist's assertion that everything had a basis in poetry. This is most evident in his written work (his novels, poems and screenplays), where the voice of the poet is clearly discernible.

Cocteau was born on 5th July 1889 at Maisons-Lafitte, near to Paris. His comfortable bourgeois upbringing was shattered when his father committed suicide when he was just nine. This event undoubtedly had a profound effect on Cocteau, and from an early age he developed a reputation as a rebel and a trouble causer (he was expelled from school and he later ran away to Marseilles). Through his many and diverse artistic hobbies, which included painting and writing, Cocteau found a more constructive way to express his reactionary urges.

Cocteau's artistic career flourished between the two world wars. His first major successes were his stage play Orphée and his novel, Les Enfants terribles. In 1930, with the patronage of the eccentric Vicomte de Noailles, Cocteau made his first film, Le Sang d'un poète , a surrealist expression of his own artistic beliefs (although the film was denounced by the Surrealist Movement as superficial).

It would be almost 15 years before Cocteau would make his next film, the legendary 1946 film La Belle et la bête. In the interim, Cocteau wrote some of his best stage plays, including La Machine infernal amd Les Chevaliers de la table ronde, and some film scripts, including Robert Bresson's first major film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne.

In 1949, Cocteau made what many consider to be his greatest film, Opheé, which starred his close friend Jean Marais. A surreal re-telling of the Greek legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, the film is believed to have a semi-autobiographical sub-text. Cocteau returned to similar themes in his final film, Le Testament d'Orphée (1960), in which he himself played the central character.

In later years, Jean Cocteau became a formidable public figure (elected to the prestigious Academie française in 1955), but he was also an unashamed eccentric (to the extent of having a face lift and wearing matador capes). He died on 11th October 1963, from a heart attack immediately after hearing the news of the death of his friend Edith Piaf.

Although it represents a very small part of his creative output, it is possibly Cocteau's films that reveal most about the great artist. What most distinguishes his films is the immediate impression of a strong creative talent, one that is capable of following its own artistic flow, unrestrained by the limits of imagination or convention. This shows not just in the writing - which is among the most beautiful in cinema history - but also on the visual side, in the inventive camera work and often in the set design. Cocteau's cinema is probably the most poetic the world has ever seen, eloquent, mysterious, and timeless.

The above article was submitted to filmsdefrance.com in good faith and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.




Quotes

“In Paris, everybody wants to be an actor; nobody is content to be a spectator.”

“An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.”

“An original artist is unable to copy. So he has only to copy in order to be original.”

“Art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.”

“Art is not a pastime but a priesthood.”

“Asking an artist to talk about his work is like asking a plant to discuss horticulture.”

“Emotion resulting from a work of art is only of value when it is not obtained by sentimental blackmail.”

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

“One must be a living man and a posthumous artist.”

“The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication: that is why so many bad artists are unable to give it up.”




Related articles

2015 film releases

Read more about the French films to be released in 2015...

The Silent Era

Before the advent of sound France was a world leader in cinema. Find out more about this overlooked era.

The Golden Age

Discover the best French films of the 1930s, a decade of cinematic delights...

The Occupation Era

Even in the dark days of the Occupation, French cinema continued to impress with its artistry and diversity.

The New Wave

A wave of fresh talent in the late 1950s, early 1960s brought about a dramatic renaissance in French cinema, placing the auteur at the core of France's 7th art.