May 24, 2008

The Personal Aesthetic Influences of Jean Cocteau


Legendary and pioneering film director Jean Cocteau considered himself a poet first and foremost. Cinema just happened to be the medium the late artist most excelled in. Cocteau’s stance on cinema as a poetic medium enabled for the director to take a much different approach to the art of cinematic aesthetics. This is obvious when viewing the directors small film lexicon which spanned over 30 years resulting in only seven feature length films. Cocteau’s films engage the viewer in a world of lucid dreams and spectacular fantasy. A lifelong opium addict, Cocteau ’s films feature a world of realistic detachment paralleling his own detachment.

Another obsession and influence of Jean Cocteau was his lead actor and real life lover Jean Marais. Marais no doubt was an object of Scopophilia for Cocteau. In what I will argue are Cocteau’s greatest films, Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus, Marais plays the crucial role of a confident yet conflicted lead character. In Beauty and the Beast, he even played three roles (including the masked beast). Jean Marais perfectly carries the roles that Cocteau gave to him. It is as if Jean Cocteau already had in his mind (which he may have) the way Marais would walk and talk in perfect synch with Cocteau’s unconventional film directing.

Jean Cocteau made sure to emphasize his thoughts on approach and technique when directing films. In his book The Art of Cinema, Cocteau stated, “I don’t think, therefore I am” (Cocteau 164). In that statement, Cocteau makes it clear that he is not a proponent of incorporating intellectualism within film production. Cocteau goes on further to say, “All thought paralyzes action, and a film is a succession of acts.” Cocteau’s emphasis on the intuitive and subconscious artist reveals his thoughts on the dire importance of the “purity” of the art. When an individual is directing a film without a concrete, thought out technique and strategy, the end result will be the most true and pure. The final product may not be perfect (as none of Cocteau’s films are or any other persons films for that matter), but the artist allowed for a more intimate and honest film.

Jean Cocteau also emphasized the purity of the poet in his works. As film was just one of Cocteau’s poetic mediums, his thoughts on poetry and film generally follow the same rules. Cocteau stated, “Poetry is the opposite of poetic. As soon as someone aspires to being a poet, that person ceases to be one and the poetry makes it’s escape (Cocteau 15).” I picked up subconsciously on Cocteau’s cinematic philosophies when first viewing his films. I knew when watching his films that I wasn’t watching anything too contrived ,and it was something that came from some ones soul. Cocteau’s films immediately struck me as auteur pieces, but not in the way that I conventionally look at that theory.

When ones watches a film, say, by master craftsman Stanley Kubrick, you can see the authorship of Kubrick all over the film. His scenes are strategically calculated and thought out to even the most smallest of details. Furthermore, when one watches a Kubrick film, you can also tell that Stanley Kubrick is an intellectual. Someone that has read every book relating to the subject of the film. I don’t see Kubrick as someone that would take the chance of improvisation and serious experimentation (he would have to do much studying before trying something new). Therefore, whereas auteur Stanley Kubrick is a studious master craftsman, Jean Cocteau is ambitious child (not to sound insulting) that puts his true self unconsciously and completely (to the extent that one can do so) into the film.

During the production of Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, he kept a diary of the film’s production. Cocteau made confession, “I am not a real director and probably never shall be. I get too interested in what is happening.” Although this statement sounds unflatteringly incriminating on Cocteau’s part, it also let’s the audience know that Cocteau has no real idea about the fundamental roles of the director. Jean Cocteau goes into creating films with a sort of voyeurs eye and becomes engulfed in his own creation. This only adds to Cocteau’s authenticity and purity as a film director.

Jean Cocteau made the conscious decision to become a filmmaker when he was being weaned off of opium (Cocteau 115). His addiction to opium at the very least was partly the result of his heartbreak when his young poet friend and collaborator Raymond Radiguet died of typhoid fever at the very young age of twenty. Cocteau’s literary style greatly changed during his addiction and weaning off of opium. It would have been interesting if he had directed a film before his introduction to opium, and compared it to his post drug addiction works. Opium was no doubt one of Cocteau’s biggest cinematic and aesthetic influences.

Opium: The Diary of His Cure is one of Cocteau’s most dark and honest confessional documents. The book reads an obsessed addiction with a drug that had a huge influence on Cocteau’s life and work. Cocteau wrote both Opium and his novel Les Enfants Terribles during his opium weaning experience. Both of these works also widely considered some of Cocteau’s best literary works. If he had not been introduced to opium, one has to wonder if Jean Cocteau would have produced the variety of masterpieces that he did .

I am going to look at three cinematic works that Cocteau was involved with: Beauty and the Beast (1946), Orpheus (1949) and Les Enfants terribles (1950). I chose the first two films as I believe they are Cocteau’s greatest works. Although I believe his surrealist directorial debut Blood of a Poet is an equally important film of Cocteau’s, I want to examine his films that have a more cohesive plot. Les Enfant Terribles was not directed by Cocteau, but was adapted from a novel of the same title by Jean-Pierre Melville.

Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast was produced shortly after the liberation of France by the United States during the second world war. France lacked many resources after it’s liberation and film equipment was also very scarce (Cocteau 6). The production of Beauty and the Beast also faced many other problems involving power outages, lack of set materials, and disruption by outside (and sometimes inside) variables. Despite the hectic problems associated with the film, Jean Cocteau found the conclusion of the production of Beauty and the Beast to be heartbreaking. He stated, “I know of nothing so sad as the end of a film and a unit that has worked well together breaking up.” Cocteau’s passion for film production and collaboration was very strong to say the least.


Jean Marais

As stated before, Jean Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais played three of the roles in Beauty and the Beast. Jean Cocteau did not miss any opportunity to feature the face (when not covered by a beast mask) of his love obsession. Cocteau’s aesthetic influence in Beauty and the Beast is obviously a personal and intimate choice. The roles Marais plays perfectly blend into the overall feeling of the film. When the beast transforms into a man, it becomes Cocteau’s ultimate testimony to the beauty of ones soul. The beast is built up to be an evil monster of sorts. When Belle is forced to live with the beast, she discovers a beauty not at all obvious on the outside. A cliché tale indeed, but its conclusion has more power than most contemporary films could even hope for.

Jean Cocteau utilized a variety of his usual simple, yet extremely effective special effects. Faces appear in mirrors, statues come to life, and human bodies float. I can see these occurrences as something Cocteau might have conceptualized while under the influence of opium. On the other hand, most scenes featured in Beauty in the Beast that do not occur at the Beast’s castle have a very realistic (although taking place some time ago) and standard aesthetic. These scenes have the feeling of an outdated period piece that incorporates melodrama and slight comedy. The dichotomy of worlds; the real and the surreal give Beauty and the Beast a great deal of it’s power. Had the film taken place merely at the beast’s castle, it would have lacked the power that a setting of contrast helps accent.

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (based on the Greek classic myth) finds itself for the most part in the world of the supernatural. A middle aged naked Orpheus poet (played by Jean Marais) finds competition in a new young and celebrated poet. When the young poet dies, Orpheus comes in contact with Death, who falls in love with him. Death is an attractive female (Cocteau’s ultimate competition for Marais) who takes the young dead poet and turns him into her servant. Orpheus’s wife Eurydice has great admiration and love for her husband. She states, “he’s very handsome and very famous. It’s a miracle that he’s still faithful to me.” I got the feeling that Cocteau was implying that Orpheus possibly had homosexual feelings as Eurydice’s random quote hints at.

Heurtebise, an associate of death, falls in love with Eurydice. He has fallen victim to love in the past that resulted in his suicide (by lethal gases). This causes a particularly bizarre love conflict. Two dead spirits fall in love with two live spirits (Eurydice is killed and taken to the underworld eventually). Jean Cocteau’s obsession with unconventional love affairs most likely reflects his own homosexual relationships. At one point Orpheus states “Women adore complications.” I found this dialogue to be very telling on his view of the female as the potential enemy.

The final film I am going to look at is Les Enfant Terribles directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville is most well known for his gangster films, so I found it particularly odd that he would direct an adaptation of a Cocteau novel. Les Enfant Terribles features many of the themes so deeply associated with the works of Cocteau but lacking the aesthetic power. The film follows an ambiguous incest brother and sister relationship. The sibling duo in Les Enfant Terribles have made it their life goal to play games and jokes on others. They have involved others in their conspiracies and eventually the sister goes against her own partner (brother). This results in a very tragic ending.

Les Enfant Terribles lacks any of the dreamlike special effects so deeply associated with Jean Cocteau. The films dramatic ending is the only scene that felt as if Cocteau could have possibly directed (in which did a very small number of scenes). Director Jean-Pierre Melville is known for being very minimalist in nature. That is why I believe that Les Enfant Terribles lacks the “magic” films directed by Jean Cocteau have. Just as in Orpheus, a female becomes the conflict bringer in the game of love. And just as seen in Orpheus, the female causes her own relationship’s (and personal ) demise. I think it would be safe to say that Jean Cocteau had some hostility against woman.

Jean Cocteau was a film director that seemed to have very little aesthetic influence from others films or film directors. His biggest aesthetic influences seem to lie in his loss of love, experience with opium, his sexual persuasion, and the tragic circumstances surrounding his life. When Orpheus is asked what a poet is, he responds with, “to write without being a writer.” That statement sums up Jean Cocteau as a film director.


-Ty E

1 comment:

Will Lewis said...

Cocteau is amazing! "Blood of a Poet" is one of my favorites.