Why this might not seem so easy
A famed polymath, Jean Cocteau was a restless poet who pursued his preoccupations across multiple media. As such, his film work must be understood as part of his wider output, which included novels, essays, plays, poems, drawings, paintings, murals, sculptures, song sketches, set designs and, given his carefully crafted public persona, his life itself.
Though a member of the avant-garde, Cocteau disliked the elitism of ‘art’ cinema. He was suspicious of intellectuals, and resisted fixed interpretations of his work. He saw himself as an amateur craftsman, and frequently compared directing to carpentry: his films were ‘tables’ where audiences would sit and conduct séances, conjuring up their own interpretations and meanings.
The fantastique notion of the séance is, of course, highly appropriate for a director who believed that cinema functioned like a dream, and whose work contains images of intense, magical beauty. Detractors have, however, labelled him as a dilettante obsessed with surface gloss.
To do so, though, is to miss the aching romance that lies beneath. Indeed, Cocteau’s life and work seem to be marked by two figures from his youth: his fellow schoolboy Pierre Dargelos, whom he adored, and his teenage lover, Raymond Radiguet, who died of typhoid aged 20. In these two young men, Cocteau found the prototype for the sexualised adolescents that recur throughout his work – and who, on film, would often be played by his lovers of the moment.
The best place to start – La Belle et la Bête
Based on the fairytale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, La Belle et la Bête (1946) opens with a title card asking the viewer to approach it with the faith and the wonderment of a child – a sharp rejoinder to critical adults.
The story, perhaps, needs no introduction: when Belle’s father picks a rose from the garden of the Beast’s castle, the Beast threatens to kill him unless his daughter takes his place. Belle, unable to bear the thought of her father’s death, rides to the Beast’s castle, where, rather than being killed, she is welcomed like a princess. Every night, over dinner, the Beast asks for her hand in marriage.
Cocteau populates the Beast’s kingdom with magic mirrors, living statues and self-lighting candelabras – yet he strives for realism within the fantastic, attempting to make the implausible seem plausible and the unreal seem real. As such, the effects are mostly done in camera, rather than in a laboratory. Along with the chiaroscuro lighting, inspired by Vermeer, Rembrandt, de Hooch and Doré, such an approach helped Cocteau create some of the most indelible images in all of cinema.
What to watch next
Some critics have interpreted La Belle et la Bête as an allegory, with Belle’s dysfunctional family representing French society in the post-war years. For Orphée (1950), his retelling of the Greek myth in which the eponymous musician descends to the underworld to bring his wife back from the dead, Cocteau would draw more explicitly on the imagery of the French occupation.
However, Orphée is not a straightforward political parable, and to see it as such would be reductive of its wider themes – and miss its tragically romantic undercurrent. Cocteau reimagines Orphée as a Parisian poet, torn between his love for his wife, and his even stronger love for his own death, memorably incarnated by María Casares.
For Cocteau, Orphée was a symphonic orchestration of a theme he had previously played ‘on one finger’ in The Blood of a Poet (1930) – namely, the ‘successive deaths’ that a poet must go through in order to become ‘his real being’. A defiantly avant-garde apprentice work, Blood introduces many other motifs found in Cocteau’s later films including, significantly, Dargelos as a lethal erotic obsession. Here, Dargelos conceals a stone in a snowball, and uses it to kill a fellow classmate.
The snowball fight had already appeared in Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants terribles (1929), albeit with less fatal consequences. Cocteau later adapted the book into a screenplay for director Jean-Pierre Melville. Though Cocteau was heavily involved in the resulting film (1950), it arguably lacks the sparkle of Cocteau’s self-directed work. Its tale of an intense incestuous bond, however, remains key to understanding Cocteau’s overall body of work.
Les Parents terribles (1948), which centres on a mother’s passionate love for her son, is narratively unconnected but thematically similar. Cocteau, quite rightly, considered it to be his “biggest” achievement “cinematically speaking”, and his penetrating camera brings a claustrophobic concentration to the proceedings. The film was an attempt to de-theatricalise his 1938 play of the same name, metamorphosing it into pure cinema without changing the text. As such, it forms a diptych with L’Aigle à deux têtes (also 1948), in which Cocteau deliberately attempted to retain the theatrical nature of his source play, while at the same time opening out the text to include exterior scenes.
L’Aigle à deux têtes was later also adapted for the screen by Michelangelo Antonioni (as The Oberwald Mystery, 1980), and Cocteau’s work as screenwriter and playwright stretches his contribution to cinema way beyond his directorial work.
In 1948, Roberto Rossellini filmed Cocteau’s one-woman play The Human Voice (1930) as part of his anthology film L’amore. Given Cocteau’s preference for bringing a sense of reality to even the most fantastical of scenes, it’s perhaps not surprising that a neorealist like Rossellini would prove to be the ideal director for Cocteau’s material.
Three years earlier, Cocteau provided pitch-perfect dialogue for Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945). Though, at first glance, Cocteau and Bresson might seem like strange bedfellows, Bresson’s recurring theme of receiving grace through love feels surprisingly in tune with the romantic underside of the Cocteau universe.
Where not to start
Perhaps Cocteau’s most rewarding film, Testament of Orpheus (1960) is also among the most challenging for newcomers. Cocteau was fond of saying that all artwork is ultimately a portrait of the artist, and nowhere is this more true than in Testament, which he described as “undressing myself of my body so that I could exhibit my naked soul”.
Eschewing conventional narrative, the film consists of a series of scenes that follow the logic of a dream. As the film itself reiterates, this is not a work to be understood, but to be felt. It’s a joy to behold – the last conjuring from one of cinema’s great magicians, in which he meditates on the nature of poetry and artistic creation. It won’t be for everyone but, as the film concludes: “If you didn’t like it, I’m sorry, for I put my all into it.”