Cocteau, Jean (1889–1963)

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COCTEAU, JEAN (1889–1963)


French poet, playwright, novelist, choreographer, draftsman, painter, and film director.

Jean Cocteau, the son of a well-to-do bourgeois family that patronized the arts, began at a very young age to associate with the poets and writers in vogue at the time, including Catulle Mendès, Anna de Noailles, Charles-Pierre Péguy, Edmond Rostand, Laurent Tailhade, and Marcel Proust. He also developed a taste for writing when he was very young. At twenty he published his first collection of poems, La Lampe d'Aladin (Aladdin's lamp), followed by Le Prince frivole (1910; The frivolous prince) and La danse de Sophocle (1912; Sophocles' dance).

A great lover of ballet, music, and the theater, he attended the performances of the Russian Ballet in Paris, where he met Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, for whom he composed Le dieu bleu (1912; The blue god) with Reynaldo Hahn. In his reflections on aesthetics, Le Potomak (1919), he explained how the anticonformist performance of Igor Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps (1913; Rite of Spring) by the Ballets Russes shattered his comfortable life as a dandy and convinced him that the poet must find utterly unconventional ways to express himself. He therefore decided to become an avant-garde artist, fearless about scandalizing the public and about pushing the boundaries of art. He was convinced that all the performing arts, including theater, the circus, film, ballet, and opera were excellent vehicles for poetry. He befriended penniless artists in Montmartre and Montparnasse, artists whose audaciousness exasperated the bourgeoisie, and became a zealous propagandist for the new art invented by Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Blaise Cendrars, Moïse Kisling, and Amedeo Modigliani. He created a profusion of poems, plays, screenplays, and critical manifestos.

Cocteau collaborated with Picasso and Satie on the ballet Parade (1917), also for the Ballets Russes, which Apollinaire characterized as "surrealist." In 1920 he created Le boeuf sur le toit (The ox on the roof) and in 1921 composed Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel (The newlyweds of the Eiffel Tower). He also wrote the ballets Les biches (1924; The hinds) with Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc, and Les fâcheux (1924; The nuisances), in collaboration with Georges Auric and Louis Laloy. Both ballets were produced by Diaghilev. In Le coq et l'arlequin (1918; The cock and the harlequin), he defended Satie's "uncluttered art" (art dépouillé), in opposition to the work of Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner. Cocteau was fascinated by the avant-garde in all its forms: he celebrated airplanes and machines in his poetry and even did aerial acrobatics with Roland Garros—an experience he would later translate into poetic telegrams (with irregular spaces between words) in his Le Cap de Bonne Espérance (1918; The Cape of Good Hope). He contributed to the magazine Dada as well. Cocteau served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Belgian front in 1916 and later turned his war experiences into a collection of poems entitled Discours du grand sommeil (1922; Discourse on the great sleep), as well as a novel, Thomas l'Imposteur (1923; Thomas the imposter). The surrealists' hostility toward him led him to give up avant-garde theater and from then on, heavily influenced by Raymond Radiguet, he produced more traditional works, defending that new traditionalism in a manifesto, Le secret professionnel (1922; Professional secrets). His output during the interwar years and beyond is stunning in its diversity: he produced novels, works of criticism, memoirs, plays, drawings, paintings, and films. Depressed and plagued by emotional problems, he turned to opium, the ravaging effects of which he depicted in Opium (1930) after undergoing detoxification in 1925. During this time he corresponded with Jacques Maritain, who tried to convert him to Catholicism, and broke definitively with the surrealists.

Even more than personal interpretations of classical myths, the guiding thread of Cocteau's creative work was his memories of childhood and adolescence. Thus the starting point for his novel Les enfants terribles (1929; The Holy Terrors) was the memory of a snowball fight at the Lycée Condorcet, during which the hero, Paul, is wounded by the demonic student Dargelos. The scene brings to mind the relationship between a teenage brother and sister that ends with both of them committing suicide. His poem L'ange Heurtebise (1926; The angel Heurtebise) as well as the play (1927) and film version of Orphée (1949; Orpheus) depict an angel ensnaring the poet. The sphinx in La machine infernale (1934; The infernal machine) plays a similar role. Cocteau portrayed the tragic fate of the human being who comes from nothing and, after the short and absurd interlude of life, sinks back into nothingness. All his works play with open and closed space, this world and the one beyond, illusion and reality, order and chaos. Only poetry offers immortality, and the poet creates works of art that explain the world after death.

In 1930 Cocteau made his first film, Le sang d'un poète (The blood of a poet), which was autobiographical and piqued the curiosity of psychiatrists. This was followed by L'éternel retour (1943; Eternal return) and La belle et la bête (1945; Beauty and the Beast), a visual enchantment for spectators, who thronged to the theaters to applaud this lyrical and technical triumph, then by L'aigle àdeuxtêtes (1947; Two-headed eagle), Orphée (1949), and finally Le testament d'Orphée (1959; The testament of Orpheus), which was his last film and a true will and testament, a virtual catalog of all his poetry, dreams, anxieties, fantasies, and hallucinations. He conceived all his films as a vehicle for his friend the actor Jean Marais.


Cocteau fait du cinéma (1925)

Le sang d'un poète (1930)

La belle et la bête (1945)

L'aigle à deux têtes (1947)

Les parents terribles (1948)

Orphée (1949)

Coriolan (1950)

La Villa Santo-Sospir (1952)

Le testament d'Orphée (1959)

Cocteau pursued his poetic work in Le chiffre sept (1952; The Number Seven) Clair-obscur (1954; Chiaroscuro), and Le Requiem (1962; Requiem), as well as in two volumes of his theatrical writings, published in 1948 (Théâtre I and Théâtre II). He designed works for Murano glassblowers and for stained-glass windows (including the Church of Saint-Maximin in Metz) and painted the frescoes of Saint Peter's Chapel in Villefranche-sur-Mer, of Saint Blaise des Simples in Milly-la-Forêt, of Notre Dame de France in London, of The Mare Tower of the Notre Dame Chapel in Jerusalem, as well as wall murals in the Villa Santo Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the city hall in Menton, and the restaurant-bar of the Hôtel Mont-Blanc in Megève.

This scandalous provocateur did not fail to receive numerous official honors. In 1949 he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In 1955 he succeeded Colette at the Belgian Royal Academy for French Language and Literature and was accepted into the Académie Française. In 1956 he was made doctor honoris causa at Oxford University and in 1957 he became an honorary member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1960 he was elected prince des poètes, France's poet laureate. In 1961 he was named Commandeur of the Legion of Honor.

Long reputed to be frivolous and superficial, Cocteau is, in his words, being "reconsidered" (envisagé) by academics, after having first been "deconsidered" (dévisagé) by them.

See alsoApollinaire, Guillaume; Cinema; Picasso, Pablo; Surrealism.


Bernard, André, and Claude Gauteur, eds. The Art of Cinema/Jean Cocteau. Translated by Robin Buss. London, 1992. Translation of Du cinématographe.

Caizergues, Pierre, ed. Jean Cocteau aujourd'hui. Paris, 1992.

Fraigneau, André. Cocteau on the Film: A Conversation Recorded by André Fraigneau. Translated by Vera Traill. New York, 1954. Translation of Jean Cocteau. Entretien autour du cinématographe (1951).

Rolot, Christian, ed. Le cinéma de Jean Cocteau-Hommage à Jean Marais. Montpellier, 1994.

Touzot, Jean. Jean Cocteau. Lyon, 1989.

——. Jean Cocteau: Le poète et ses doubles. Paris, 2000.

Maryse Fauvel