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Jean Cocteau is a preeminent figure in 20th century French culture. A major contributor to the history of the cinema, he is also noted for his work as a novelist, poet, painter, sculptor and playwright.
Cocteau wrote, directed, narrated, edited and performed in his first film, "The Blood of a Poet," shot in 1930. Privately financed by the Vicomte de Noailles, the film's release was delayed for two years due to the scandal that surrounded another 1930 Noailles production, Dali and Bunuel's "L'Age d'or," which was denounced as "sacrilegious" when first screened.
"Blood of a Poet" was certainly influenced by the work of Dali and Bunuel, as well as other surrealist films by Man Ray and Rene Clair. But in its unprecedented use of sync-sound dialogue, narration and music (by the prolific and accomplished Georges Auric), juxtaposed with free-form episodic imagery, Cocteau's debut marked a watershed in non-narrative, personal filmmaking. Bracketing the beginning and end of the work with a shot of a factory chimney collapsing (to show that the events represented actually take place in an instant of "real time"), Cocteau designed the piece as a series of disparate sections, each centering on the adventures of a young poet/artist condemned to walk the halls of the "Hotel of Dramatic Follies" for his crime of having brought a statue to life. Perhaps the most famous of the film's striking images is the sequence in which the young man, having created a drawing with a moving mouth, wipes the mouth onto his hand in an effort to erase it from the picture; whereupon the mouth takes on a life of its own, begging for air and later drinking from a bowl of water. Another memorable--and much-imitated--conceit is that of the poet passing through a mirror which turns into a pool of water.
Cocteau worked only intermittently in film for the next 15 years, one reason being his recurring addiction to opium. His return to directing in 1945, with "Beauty and the Beast," was partly due to the efforts of his favorite actor and close associate Jean Marais, who played the Beast in the film.
Relentlessly romantic, beautifully mounted (despite the problems attendant on film production in post-war France) and flawlessly acted, "Beauty and the Beast" marked a triumphant return to the screen for Cocteau. With its linear narrative and familiar mythic structure, the film was less experimental than "Blood of a Poet." Yet Marais's unforgettable performance, the beast's (pre-prosthetic) make-up and Cocteau's inspired visual conceits (the beast's fingers smoking after a kill, human hands used as candelabras in his castle), made the film one of the director's most memorable--and most enduringly popular--works.
Cocteau directed two films adapted from his own plays, "The Eagle with Two Heads" and "The Storm Within" (both 1948). "Eagle" is a rather ordinary palace romance which the director later claimed he had created solely to please Marais. "The Storm Within," on the other hand, is perhaps the finest of all Cocteau's narrative films. At the center of the work is the magnetic performance of Yvonne de Bray as Marais's violently possessive, drug-addicted mother, who kills herself when her son decides to marry. Shot almost entirely in one apartment, "The Storm Within" achieves an unparalled sense of claustrophobic melancholy, highlighted by brilliant camera movement within the confines of the small, cramped flat.
In 1950 Cocteau made the film for which he is perhaps best known, "Orpheus," again starring Marais, this time as a young poet beset by artistic and romantic rivals. When his wife dies, Orpheus descends to Hell to rescue her, only to be brought before a tribunal where his final fate is determined. Once again, Cocteau makes considerable use of liquid mirrors through which his protagonists enter and leave rooms. Attacked in some quarters as being too mannered and occasionally pretentious (a charge that followed Cocteau throughout his career), the film is on the whole a successful blend of the real and the fantastic, "a realistic document of unrealistic events," as Cocteau had termed "Blood of a Poet" many years earlier.
Over the next ten years Cocteau worked on several projects, providing dialogue and/or off-screen narration for a number of features by other directors and contributing to several short films. His one-act, one-person play "The Human Voice" was made into an excellent short film ("L'Amore") in 1948 by Roberto Rossellini and also provided the inspiration for Pedro Almadovar's 1988 farce, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Cocteau also adapted his novel "Les Enfants Terribles" into the screenplay for Jean-Pierre Melville's 1950 film of the same name. Like Jean Delannoy's "L'Eternel Retour" (1943), the work bears Cocteau's stamp far more than that of its nominal director.
In 1959, with private financing (part of it coming from Francois Truffaut), Cocteau made his last film as a director, "The Testament of Orpheus." A rather elaborate home movie starring its director, the work features cameos from numerous celebrities including Pablo Picasso, Yul Brynner and Jean-Pierre Leaud. A nostalgic return to the legend of Orpheus in the manner and style of "The Blood of a Poet," the film lacks the earlier work's imagination and intensity.
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Made short 16mm film "Jean Cocteau fait du cinema"; no prints extant and never shown in public
Film directing debut (also writer; editor; sets; voices), "Le sang d'un poete/The Blood of a Poet" (58mins)
First feature as screenwriter, "La comedie du bonheur"
Worked with Marcel Carne on adaptation of "Juliette ou la cle des songs" (later filmed by Carne with other collaborators)
Appeared in Sacha Guitry's "La malibran"