This Day In Writing History
On July 5th, 1889, the legendary French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau was born in Maisons-Laffitte, France. Maisons-Laffitte is a suburb of Paris, and Cocteau was born into a wealthy and respected Parisian family. When he was nine, his father committed suicide, plunging the family into chaos. Jean would leave home at the age of fifteen.
Cocteau determined to become a poet. Although he would write novels and plays, and become one of the world's greatest filmmakers, he saw himself as a poet first and foremost. He would author nearly two dozen collections of poetry. His first, La Lampe d'Aladin (Aladdin's Lamp) was published in 1909, when he was just twenty years old.
Around this time, Cocteau began cultivating a circle of friends that would include some of the world's greatest writers, artists, and performers of the day. He first became friends with the legendary French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. He also became friends with writers Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Maurice Barrès.
During World War 1, Cocteau drove an ambulance for the Red Cross. As the war began winding down, Cocteau's friend, Russian ballet master Sergei Diaghilev - founder of the famous Ballets Russes - challenged him to write a ballet. Cocteau had once collaborated on a ballet that was staged by the Ballets Russes, so he accepted Diaghilev's challenge to write his own.
Cocteau's ballet, Parade, featured music by himself and Erik Satie, and sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso. Some of Picasso's cubist costumes were made of solid cardboard, which greatly restricted the dancers' movements. Cocteau's contribution to the musical score involved the use of typewriters, milk bottles, and foghorns as musical instruments. When Parade premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in May of 1917, classical music fans were appalled by the strange avant garde ballet. A riot ensued.
When music critic Jean Poueigh panned Parade, Erik Satie sent him a postcard that read, "Sir and dear friend, you are not only an arse, but an arse without music. Signed, Erik Satie." Poueigh sued Satie for slander. At the trial, Cocteau repeatedly yelled "Arse!" at Poueigh. As a result, he was arrested and beaten by police. The court found in Poueigh's favor and sentenced Erik Satie to eight days in jail.
The following year, Jean Cocteau met a teenage poet named Raymond Radiguet. Amazed by the boy's talent, Cocteau became his close friend and literary mentor. He introduced Radiguet to his literary circle and championed his celebrated 1923 debut novel, Le Diable au Corps (The Devil in the Flesh). Narrated in a sober, objective style, the autobiographical novel told the story of a 16-year-old boy who has a passionate affair with a young married woman while her soldier husband is away at the front. The boy impregnates her, resulting in a huge scandal. The novel resulted in a huge scandal as well.
Sadly, Raymond Radiguet died of typhus at the age of 20, not long after his novel was published. Cocteau was devastated. He plunged into a quagmire of depression and opium addiction. While struggling to kick his addiction, Cocteau wrote his most famous novel, Les Enfants Terribles (Terrible Children) (1929). An English translation would be published as The Holy Terrors.
Les Enfants Terribles told the dark and twisted story of two adolescent siblings, Elisabeth and her younger brother, Paul. The fatherless children live an isolated existence and care for their bedridden mother. When Paul is injured, Elisabeth cares for him as well, and incestuous love blossoms between the siblings. They also devise a game of mental cruelty that they play together. The game, which involves moves of oneupsmanship, continues even after their mother dies and Elisabeth marries a wealthy young man.
Elisabeth's husband dies suddenly, after which, she and Paul move into his large house. One day, Elisabeth brings home a friend - a poor girl named Agatha. Paul falls in love with her, causing his sister to seethe with jealousy. She cajoles Paul's friend Gerard into marrying Agatha, breaking her brother's heart. Paul writes a suicide note and takes poison. As he lay dying, a deluded Elisabeth believes that Paul's actions are an attempt to win their "game." So, she plays her last move by shooting herself in the head. She dies a few seconds before Paul and wins the game.
In 1938, Cocteau adapted his novel as a stage play. For the 1950 feature film adaptation, Cocteau commissioned the great French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville to direct. The highly acclaimed film featured a screenplay by Cocteau and Melville. Nicole Stephane and Edouard Dermit played the lead roles. Cocteau's novel would later be adapted as an opera by legendary composer Philip Glass.
Beginning in the 1930s, Jean Cocteau established himself as one of the world's great filmmakers. His debut film was the avant garde masterpiece Le Sang d'un Poète, (Blood of a Poet) released in 1930. The first in Cocteau's grand "Orphic Trilogy," it was basically a collection of bizarre and beautiful dreamlike images and scenarios. It began with an artist sketching a face that starts talking to him. He rubs out the mouth, but in doing so, transfers the mouth to the palm of his hand. It continues to speak.
The artist places his hand over the mouth of a statue. The statue then speaks to him and encourages him to walk through a mirror. It leads him to a hotel where he spies on the guests through keyholes. Among the guests are an opium smoker and a hermaphrodite. The final section of the movie finds a card shark playing at a table set up over the body of a dead boy. Intermingled with these strange scenarios are random images such as spinning human heads and double-sided masks.
The other two films in Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy, Orphée (Orpheus) (1950), and Le Testament d'Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus) (1960), are far more accessible while remaining true to the avant garde and filled with surreal imagery. They're based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, but set in modern times.
Another of Jean Cocteau's greatest movies was La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (1946), his beautiful, romantic, and surreal avant garde adaptation of the classic fairy tale. It starred Josette Day as Belle and the great Jean Marais as the Beast. La Belle et la Bête is rightfully recognized by film connoisseurs as one of the greatest movies ever made.
During World War 2, as his country faced the specter of Nazi occupation, Cocteau tried to protect France's artistic and literary communities from Nazi interference and persecution through appeasement. He continued to maintain his friendship with Arno Breker, a German sculptor and Nazi supporter, and even praised Breker's sculptures in an article published in 1942. This gave an impression that Cocteau was a collaborator.
After the war ended and France was liberated, Cocteau was charged with collaboration. At his trial, the surprising truth came out: while he publicly appeared to be an appeaser and collaborator during the occupation, he secretly loathed the Nazis and helped save the lives of his Jewish friends and acquaintances using a network of underground contacts. He was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Cocteau was later made a commander of the Legion of Honor - the highest decoration awarded by the French government. He was also made a member of the Académie Française, the Royal Academy of Belgium, the American Academy, and the German Academy. He served as an honorary president of the Cannes Film Festival, the France-Hungary Association, the Jazz Academy, and the Academy of the Disc.
Jean Cocteau died of a heart attack in October of 1963 at the age of 74. Some believe that his death was brought on by news that his dear friend, French singer-actress Edith Piaf, for whom he had once written a play, had died earlier that day.
Quote Of The Day
"The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth." - Jean Cocteau
Today's video features Jean Cocteau's classic 1930 avant garde film, The Blood of a Poet. Note: for some reason, the last few minutes of the film are cut off. Enjoy!