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.
Jean Cocteau fait du cinèma (1925)
La Villa Santo-Sospir (1952)
Musée Grévin (1958) (short)
Django Reinhardt (1957) (short)