Last reviewed: June 2017
French author, filmmaker, poet, playwright, artist, and actor.
July 5, 1889
October 11, 1963
An artist possessed of many extraordinary talents, Jean Cocteau (kawk-toh) astonished the world for more than five decades with the originality of his poems, novels, plays, films, paintings, drawings, and critical articles. Prolific, brilliant, and charming, Cocteau earned the admiration and friendship of intellectuals and artists from many fields: The painter Pablo Picasso, the composer Igor Stravinsky, the writer André Gide, and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel were counted among his friends. Born near Paris in 1889 into a wealthy bourgeois family, the young Cocteau enjoyed all the advantages of his situation. The theater enchanted him, as did music halls and the circus. He hated the Lycée Condorcet, which he attended from 1900 to 1902, finding the classrooms gloomy and the teachers uninspiring. He began writing at an early age and read his first poems aloud at the Théâtre Fémina on April 4, 1908; soon after, he founded a literary magazine with several friends.
As a young man, Cocteau became interested in all the new movements which flourished around him in Paris—Surrealism, Dadaism, cubism—and he was fascinated by the promise of cinema. A keen interest in music prompted him to cultivate a relationship with the composer Eric Satie, who was surrounded by numerous fledgling composers. These musicians, along with several others, eventually formed a group known as Les Six, for whom Cocteau was the unofficial spokesman; they explored new melodic and harmonic possibilities and opened new vistas to contemporary composition. Cocteau supported their efforts through his critical writings, particularly Cock and Harlequin. Contact with members of the Ballets Russes who were visiting Paris inspired Cocteau to create scenarios for numerous ballets. Jean Cocteau
Cocteau’s concern with language and poetic imagery became apparent with the publication of his first novel, Le Potomak, in 1919, along with the publication of many volumes of poetry before and after that novel. His interest in spoken theater was manifested in 1927 and 1928 with the publication of Antigone and Orpheus. Reaching beyond traditional techniques, Cocteau cultivated a form of writing which blended symbolism with evocative narration, stressing irony and the beauty found in the commonplace. Some years later, his description of the snowball fight in Children of the Game distilled the essence of adolescent psychology through the creation of almost mythic characters who defy conventions with movements of ferocious poetry, scorning the adults around them. Dargelos, a character probably based on Cocteau’s friend Raymond Radiguet, hurls a hard snowball which wounds his friend Paul; the two boys represent disillusioned and introverted adolescents, tragic in their pursuit of liberation from a life of dogma and bourgeois morality.
Perhaps most brilliant as a filmmaker, Cocteau wrote and directed four full-length feature films and participated in the production of several others. The combination of literary genius, visual inspiration, and symbolic conception places these works among the masterpieces of world cinema. The Blood of a Poet shows the portrait of a creative person trapped in a world of violent events which have no bearing on his inner life. In Beauty and the Beast truth is revealed under the mask of a fairy tale; dream is mingled with reality as Cocteau stamps the tale with his own temperament and vision. This film is not merely a diversion for the public; it is an expression of Cocteau’s insights into the nature of friendship and love. In Orpheus and The Testament of Orpheus, Cocteau synthesizes the themes of many of his earlier works, traversing the frontier which separates life from death. The thoughts of the poet triumph over reality, establishing the supremacy of creativity and imagination over worldly matters. The aesthetic problem of the origin of artistic inspiration is posed, but it is solved only by death: The source of genius remains impenetrable and mysterious.
Cocteau’s perceptions are generally expressed in brief statements and aphorisms which do not explain his art; he sought to avoid the traps of words through simple and bare language. He considered all forms of art to be varieties of poetry which depict, innocently but seriously, the memories of the artist who is a revealer, an unveiler, of objects seen in a new light, without preconceptions. A singular sincerity governed his expression.