WHEN, IN 1930, Cocteau was working on Le Sang d’un poète, he had no intention of making it into a commercial enterprise. Later, in the forties, with such a film as L’éternel retour, he did look upon film making as a means of reaching a wide public. But in 1930, the film he originally called La vie d’un poète, was a means of expression, a means of experimentation, an almost personal way of self-expression. The film was subsidized by le vicomte Charles de Noailles, who gave Cocteau one million francs. (He had also given a million francs to Luis Bunuel for L’Age d’Or.) The gift entailed no commitments. Cocteau was totally free, responsible only to himself.
The story of Le Sang d’un poète is the inner life of a poet, taking place during the time that elapses between the beginning of the fall of a factory chimney and the collapse of the chimney. As soon as we see the chimney begin to totter, we hear Cocteau’s voice say: Tandis que tonnaient au loin les canons de Fontenoy, dans une modeste chambre, un jeune homme. . . . While the world is engaged in violent events, the poet is attentive solely to what is transpiring within himself.
The poet is always for Cocteau any kind of creator, and in this case he is a painter, a man (resembling Rudolph Valentino) drawing a portrait. This first episode is called La main blessée ou la cicatrice du poète. The portrait comes to life and opens its mouth. When the poet tries to blot out the mouth, it is impressed on his hand. A friend calling is disgusted with what he sees and leaves abruptly. The poet remains alone with his own creation. The next morning he finds in his room a life-sized statue of a woman. He applies the wound on his hand to the statue’s face, and the statue comes to life. She forbids him to go out, and removes all windows and door. She asks the poet if it is not absurd to awaken a statue from its sleep of centuries.
At the beginning of the second episode, called Les murs ont-ils des oreilles?, the statue asks him if he thinks it is easy to get rid of a wound and suggests that he walk through the mirror. Crois-tu qu’il est si simple de se débarrasser d’une blessure? Il te reste une ressource. Entrer dans la glace et t’y promener. When the poet answers that people do not walk through mirrors (on n’entre pas dans les glaces), she replies: “You wrote that people go through mirrors and you do not believe it.” (Tu as écrit qu’on entrait dans les glaces et tu n’y croyais pas.) This is a reference to Cocteau’s play of 1926, Orphée. So, the poet does dive into the mirror, where he finds the myths of his subconscious, episodes examined through the eye of a keyhole: the death of a Mexican, a flying lesson, an opium-smoker, an hermaphrodite. When the poet returns to his room, he smashes the statue into bits, as a voice says: “In breaking statues, you risk becoming one yourself.” A casser des statues, on risque d’en devenir une soi-même.
In the third episode we see the poet’s statue in the cité Monthiers, a small street in the ninth arrondissement of Paris, between the rue d’Amsterdam and the rue de Clichy. A group of school children destroy the statue with snow balls as easily as if it were made of snow. The boys quarrel among themselves until one is fatally wounded in the chest. At this point Cocteau’s voice recites a poem, Le Camarade, which appears today in his volume of verse Opéra. It is about the blows dealt in school fights, blows as hard as snowballs which cause blood to flow. This episode, La bataille des boules de neige, is a memory of Cocteau’s lycée Condorcet.
The fourth and last episode: la carte volée, is the same setting of the cité Monthiers. The balcony windows have turned into theatre boxes that are filled with people. Beside the child’s body stands a table where the poet is playing cards with a lady who resembles the statue. She fans herself as if detached or indifferent, and the poet, in order to win, cheats. He puts his hand under the boy’s jacket and pulls out the ace of hearts. But the boy’s guardian angel performs another trick, recovers the ace of hearts and disappears with the body. The woman then says: “If you do not have the ace of hearts, you have lost out.” (Si vous n’avez pas l’as de coeur, mon cher, vous êtes un homme perdu.) This may be an allusion to Raymond Radiguet’s death, whom Cocteau, in his poem L’Ange Heurtebise, calls the ace which the pack of cards did not have.
When the poet takes his life, and we can see the blood on his cheeks and lips, there is applause from the boxes. The ending of the film is an allegory on immortality: the bull, the map of Europe (Europa) on the bull, the poet’s lyre floating through space. La route est longue, we hear. The long road is the mortal boredom of immortality: l’ennui mortel de l’immortalité.
In many ways, Le Sang d’un poète is close in ideas, in its analysis of the poet’s myth, to the earlier play Orphée. Thanks to film technique, Cocteau presents the work as if it were the unfolding of a dream. It is a descent into the self and there the creative secrets are revealed. A poet has to pass through a series of deaths before reaching his definitive death, which is immortality. But everything is proposed to us as if it were an enigma that we can see only through mirrors or keyholes.
The chimney that starts to topple at the beginning of the film, and that falls at the end, is an effort to transcribe the mystery of time. Cocteau seems to be saying that time is an illusion for man that exists between his birth and death. Both the play Orphée, which preceded it by a few years, and the film Le Sang d’un poète, demonstrate Cocteau’s liking for enigma, his tendency to demonstrate truth under the mask of a fable, and his manner of mingling the dream world with the real world.
When, in 1930, Cocteau undertook the creation of Le Sang d’un poète, he had already rejuvenated several artistic forms, and stamped them with his own temperament and vision: the novel, plays, essays, the ballet, graphic arts. The only one left was the movies. He was determined not to create any facile diversion for the typical movie public, but to use the film as a means of expressing his own thought. He used it as a poet and designer experimenting with a new art.
Le Sang is a commentary on the very private mythology of Jean Cocteau, on themes that today seem less private because they have appeared in other works of Cocteau: Orphée, Opéra, Les Enfants terribles. The charge of unintelligibility is no longer made. In watching the film, it is imperative not to forget Cocteau’s preface, where he says that poetry is a coat of arms whose symbols can be deciphered only after a loss of blood. He dedicates his film to those painters of escutcheons and coats of arms: to Paolo Uccello, to Piera della Francesco, and to Pisanello.
Le Belle et la bête, of 1945, is another film written and directed by Cocteau. Although it is based on the fairy story of Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, the film is a new work, a tragedy formulated by Cocteau against a seventeenth-century background. The character Belle, reminiscent of Snow White and Cinderella, incarnates kindness toward her father and toward la Bete. The young girl and the monster each lives in her or his own world. The tragedy is the separation of the two, the incapacity of the lover joining with the one he loves. Belle’s love for la Bête deepens through the storv and gives it its dimension of tragedy. As soon as Belle is separated from the monster, everything changes. Her friendship, her kindness become passionate. The sumptuousness of the production is largely due to Christian Bérard, who was responsible for the setting and the costumes. The scenes in the father’s home might easily be an evocation of Vermeer, and those in the monster’s palace are reminiscent of the mysterious lavishness of a Doré painting.
In 1948, Cocteau produced two films closely based on two of his plays: L’Aigle à deux têtes and Les Parents terribles. The first was far less successful than the second. The text of L’Aigle was drastically reduced, and the film turned into a melodrama, a kind of mystery play in costume. But Les Parents terribles remains more faithful to the text and the performances of the play. The tragedy of the family, of the apartment closed off from the world, is dramatized by a skillful use of the camera. The emotional conflicts revealed on the faces of the characters, the close study of their gestures and the objects surrounding them are caught by the camera. The hardness of Léo and the madness of the mother Yvonne are as poignantly shown as the youthfulness of Michel. The camera explores the secrets of the drama more profoundly than the stage performance was able to do.
Whereas Le Sang d’un poète was a work created directly as a film in 1930, Les Enfants terribles was a film of 1950, adapted from Cocteau’s novel of 1929. Technically the films are very different, but thematically they have resemblances.
Every possible theory has been proposed to explain this enigmatic novel, a story which opens with the snowball which the pupil Dargelos throws at his classmate Paul, on leaving school one day, and ends with the dark ball of poison which Dargelos years later sends to Paul.
The book was a consciously conceived, consciously written story. There are many realistic details in it from Cocteau’s childhood: memories of the cité Monthiers, the little street used in Le Sang d’un poète, the characters of the brother and sister, the setting of their room. These are all striking elements, and they come from real life. And then there is the more abstract theme of destiny, of tragic destiny, that becomes apparent especially at the end.
The book, from the moment of its first appearance, until today, has had an exceptional success. It is probably the best known, the best liked single work of Cocteau. The loftiness of its tone, of its style may be the explanation for this suecess. Each successive generation of young readers discovers the book and finds in it, not a mirror of a generation, but a picture capable of suggesting the drama and the destiny of young people. The brother and sister, Paul and Elisabeth, have a purity about them, in their will to remain faithful to their destiny, even if this destiny leads them into a tragic end. Their integrity would seem to be their childhood which they insist upon preserving. The tragic role of the novel is Elisabeth, the child-sister.
The young readers appropriated the book for themselves, though Cocteau always disclaimed any feeling of solidarity with his younger readers, and always denied the existence of any message in the novel. What attracts the book’s readers even today is the commentary it makes on human fate or destiny that cannot be tricked or altered by time, by human time that brings with it growth and forgetfulness. Nothing is forgotten between the opening episode of the snowball and the closing episode of the black ball of poison. This theme of the white and black ball at the beginning and the end of Les Enfants terribles is comparable to the falling chimney that announces and concludes Le Sang d’un poète. Dargelos the class bully, who throws the white snowball at the beginning of Les Enfants terribles is the same who, years later, poisons his same victim by sending him the black pellet. Destiny is victorious over the lies which the distance of time and space tells us.
When, in 1950, Cocteau adapted his novel into a film by writing the scenario, the dialogue, and the commentaries, he was helped in the actual shooting of the film by Jean-Pierre Melville. The film of Les Enfants terribles, despite its beauty, is inferior to the novel. The poetic, tragic strangeness of the novel appears in the film as something eccentric or melodramatic. In his way of telling the story, the novelist sustains the mysteriousness of tragic destiny, whereas the art of the cinematographer is not always able to avoid the merely picturesque. From time to time in the film, Cocteau’s own voice speaks sentences destined to unite and explain sequences, but even this technique is not always able to recapture the quality of legend, of the irremediable, which the novel sustains from beginning to end. And yet the beauty of this film is undeniable. Nicole Stéphane plays the part of Elisabeth, and in the very intense scene of her crime, when she climbs and descends the stairway, there is a beauty of movement and dignity and suspense, but in the passage in the book, Cocteau has succeeded in changing the real world and making it into something supernatural. The camera remains too close to the anecdote, but the novel avoids all the triviality of the story in order to create the spell of the epic.
The final scene of the film is unquestionably an attempt on the part of Cocteau and Melville to remain as close as possible to the final scene of the novel. The anguish of Elisabeth, which precedes the dénouement, is composed of many elements in the novel which are difficult for an actress to portray: there is certainly a tinge of madness in her, there is some degree of shame which is constantly vying with pride, and there is finally a sense of power, a will of her energies that force her to take her brother with her into death, and thus free the room where they had lived and where their life was symbolized by a series of talismans. Elisabeth defies everyone and everything in this final gesture. The pictures on the screen do not seem to elevate her as high as the words on the page.
It is perhaps the character of Elisabeth that makes the film almost impossible to create. She is so many characters simultaneously: a child and a demon, a sister and a goddess. In every scene she is being transformed into a power greater than herself, but in the final scene especially, where she succeeds in reigning in an absolute way. The brother and sister at the end inhabit another realm completely separate from the purely human.
The film of Orphée of 1950 is a synthesis of the various forms of creative work done by Cocteau between 1930 and 1950. For the second time in his film career—the first was Le Sang d’un poète—he made no attempt, no compromise, in order to reach the large movie public. And yet this work, more fervently than any other, has appealed to cinema addiets throughout the world. It is the masterpiece of the poet-cinematographer.
The myth of Orpheus, for Cocteau, is the eternal story where life and death face one another, or where life and death exist in close proximity. He looks upon the principal incidents of the film as transpiring on that frontier which separates life from death. Various tricks and subterfuges (trues) were necessary in the creation of the film so that the thoughts of the poet (Orpheus and Cocteau) would be presented as something real, as truth, in fact.
Cocteau’s first treatment of this theme was written in 1925, as the play Orphée. So many differences exist between the two works, it would be improper to consider the film an adaptation of the play. There is a horse in the play, which transmits messages and poems to Orphée. In the film, the horse has been replaced by the automobile of the princess. This princess is Death, or rather Orphée’s death. The automobile of the princess is driven by Heurtebise, who in the play was window repairer and the guardian angel of Orphée and Eurydice. Heurtebise is now a chauffeur, and the radio of the auto transmits incoherent or enigmatic messages that fascinate Orphée. But this takes place before Orphée descends into hell, or, as it is called in the film, la zone. This is a no-man’s land between life and death. It is the place composed of the memories of men and their habits. La zone may be another example of the illusion that time and space provide us with. It may be the coma, or the brief second separating life and death.
In the film itself, Heurtebise is defined as a young man who is dead and who is in the service of Death or the princess. Orphée considers the princess omnipotent, but she tells him there are countless figures of Death, that carry out the orders of Death. Even she does not know who Death is. He lives nowhere. Some believe that he sleeps and that men are his dream—his bad dream. All the characters in the film, including the motorcyclists and the princess herself, are as far off from The Unknown as are we, who look upon ourselves as living.
But the actions of the princess, which create the drama, are free actions decided upon by herself. The theme of free will is important in Orphée. The princess dares to take the place of destiny when she plays the role of a woman in love with Orphée, whom she was supposed to watch over. Cocteau is careful to say that he does not know what her punishment will be.
Before his death, the artist and stage designer Christian Bérard had prepared models for the sets (maquettes). When the film was being shot, Cocteau was alone for this part of the work, but he and Bérard had talked about la zone, and had decided it should be simple and anti Dantesque. The scenes were taken in the ruins of Saint-Cyr.
Where does poetry come from? To this question, the play Orphée of 1926 has a first answer: it comes from the depths of the self (des profondeurs du moi). The film Orphée gives a more complicated and less precise answer. Orphée receives the poems from the radio. Cégeste, the young poet who is dead, transmits them. But from where does he get them, we might ask. There is no answer in the film. Cocteau took them from Apollinaire and from his own book Opéra.
The plot or story of the film is as simple as a Greek tragedy, as Antigone, or as a Racine tragedy, Bérénice, for example. This would be one way of expressing it: the Death of the poet Orphée falls in love with him, and thereby repudiates the laws of earth and hell. She is punished by a tribunal, and then order returns. There is also a subsidiary subject or plot: the worldly destiny of the poet Orphée. Other poets are jealous of him and envy him. The Club of the Bacchantes hate him and prefer the new avant-garde poet Cégeste. We see him in his human relationship with his wife Eurydice. He is cruel to her because she understands nothing about poetry.
In both Le Sang d’un poète and Orphée, we see a series of deaths and rebirths concerning the poet. The problem remains: what is the source of a poem? It comes from my night, says Orphée of the play (de ma nuit). It comes from somewhere else, says Orphée of the film: un ailleurs où habite la mort. It is this kind of aesthetic problem, as well as the photography, the adaptation of the myth, that caused almost a battle during the year 1950-51. France is famous for this kind of battle over a new dramatic work: Le Cid, Andromaque, Hernani, Pelléas et Mélisande, Cyrano de Bergerac, Ubu Roi.
This is the third work of Cocteau in which he studies the drama of the creator. Orphée of 1926, Le Sang d’un poète of 1932, Orphée of 1950. But for the first time he uses two poets: Orphée and Cégeste. In every way they are opposed to one another. Orphée (Jean Marais) is the national figure, the one who has received all honors. But Cégeste (Edouard Dermit) is the favorite of the young, of the avant-garde. He edits the magazine Nudisme, which publishes only white pages. Orphée calls this ridiculous (c’est ridicule!) but another writer replies: “Less ridiculous than if the pages were covered with ridiculous poems.”
At the beginning of the film, in the café scene, we learn that Orphée’s work is considered old-fashioned by the avantgarde. And later in the film there is a scene of outright hostility toward Orphée on the part of the public. At first Orphée scorned Cégeste because the younger poet’s work contradicted his. And yet, after his meeting with the princess, Orphée received radio poems sent by Cégeste. He does not understand the poems, but their strangeness moves him deeply. By illuminating simultaneously the two poets, Cocteau emphasizes the drama of the creative artist by speaking of the avant-garde and the established poet.
When the tribunal in la zone questions Orphée on his profession, he answers: “I’m a poet.”
The clerk says: “Your card says writer.”
“It’s almost the same thing.”
“There is no almost here. What do you mean by poet?”
“To write without being a writer.”
In the play, Orphée passes through a mirror to reach death or hell. In the film, la zone is that place beyond the mirrors. The character of the princess is the most human in the film. There is an admirable love scene between Orphée and the princess, between a mortal man and a dead woman, on the threshold of the beyond, of la zone. When at the end of the film she is in la zone waiting for the poet to come to her, she says to Cégeste: “It is the first time I have almost had an understanding of time. It must be a terrible thing for men to wait.” C’est la première fois que j’ai presque la notion du temps. Ce doit être affreux pour les hommes d’attendre.
The understanding Cocteau brought to poetry throughout his career, in all the varied art forms he used, is perhaps his most important contribution. This was illustrated in Le Sang d’un poète and Orphée. Le Testament d’Orphée, Cocteau’s final film, of i960, is a conscious culmination of this search, an expression of his belief that the art of the movie (la cinématographie) is as much a vehicle for poetry as words or graphic art. Cocteau never adhered to one simple theory of poetry, to one coherent poetics. At times he looked upon poetry as something very private, as the expression of an intimate alchemy. At other times he looked upon it as something more objective, as an objective, as an object, an enigma, an escutcheon (blason) which can be used by a reader in terms of himself. According to this definition, a poem represents the poet by its style rather than by its subject matter.
In Le Testament d’Orphée, the young poet Cégeste takes the poet Cocteau away from the questions asked by members of the tribunal at the end of Orphée. Cégeste, the young poet who had died in the earlier film, had been left by Orphée in la zone. In the aesthetic sense, Cégeste is the poem, and when he asks Cocteau for an accounting, we realize the poet owes such an allegiance only to his poem. In this last film, Jean Cocteau plays his own role. He converts his own life into a legend. He converts it into the legend his life had already become.
At the same time Cocteau was shooting his film in 1959, a film of Vadim (a brilliant new film director) had been censured for immorality. Cocteau expressed the hope that his own film would be censured for imbecility: forbidden to all over sixteen (interdit aux plus de seize ans).
Picasso was often with Cocteau during the making of Le Testament d’Orphée, and used to encourage him with such words as: “Your film will do what it wants to. Like my paintings. I begin them and then they paint themselves. They do as they wish. Your film will not obey you.” Of the many remarks that Cocteau himself made about his film, one in particular summarizes his intention. Among the elements in the work, he listed: the quarries of white stone used as the principal setting, Edouard Dermit, the other actors, the music. All of that, Cocteau said, is the castle, and the film is the ghost in the castle.
Most of the film was made in Les Baux-de-Provence, a village in southern France. It is on a hill and seems made of white chalk. The entrance to Les Baux is called le val d’enfer, the valley of hell, because Dante once lived there and one legend claims it inspired certain scenes in the Inferno.
At the bottom of the hill, a large hotel has been built against the rock. This hotel, La Baumanière, has been used by such celebrities as Churchill, Onassis the Greek shipbuilder, Bernard Buffet the painter, Ali Kahn. During the weeks, in 1959, of serious work on Le Testament d’Orphée, this hotel was completely reserved for Jean Cocteau and the crew of technicians and the many friends and artists who contributed their time and talent, and who helped him to photograph the final testament of the poet.
When Cocteau first discovered this setting, some years before 1959, he realized that the white grottoes of Les Baux could be converted into a fantastic setting. He dreamed of making a film there of Britannicus, but this was never realized. On another occasion, when Jean-Paul Sartre asked him to make a film of Les Mouches, he considered using Les Baux. This project also was never realized.
For Le Testament d’Orphée, a committee was formed to help Cocteau and his producer Jean Thuilier. Among those whose help persevered during the long months of work on the film were André Malraux, the writer and minister, and Truffault, the young film director, famous for Les Quatre Cents Coups. Vadim, another film director of the nouvelle vague, brought several young people from nearby Saint-Tropez, to help decorate the film.
The large number of Cocteau’s friends who have acting parts, most of which are very small, makes Le Testament d’Orphée comparable to the triumph of Irène, the final tragedy of Voltaire when, after the performance, all the actors clustered about the bust of the writer on the stage, to pay homage to him, in 1778. Since Cocteau himself plays the poet in Le Testament, Jean Marais appears in the role of Oedipus. Three other characters from Orphée play their same roles: Maria Casarès as the princess, and François Périer as Heurtebise. They do not know, or pretend they do not know, who Cégeste is, the younger man played by Edouard Dermit. Dermit plays two roles: Cégeste the character and himself who is a painter and the adopted son of Cocteau. Cocteau also plays two parts: himself and the role of the poet. The three characters, Cégeste, the princess, and Heurtebise seem to come to Cocteau in Le Testament because of the mysterious bonds joining the creatures of an author’s imagination with himself.
Other friends who appear briefly in this testament are: the actor Yul Brynner, who guards the entrance to hell, the French actor Daniel Gélin, the painter Picasso, the singer Aznavour, the matador Dominguin, the writer Françoise Sagan, gypsies (gitans) from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Mme Alec Weisweiller, in whose villa at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat Cocteau lived several years. There is a scene in the film showing Mme Weisweiller in the garden of her villa.
Cocteau, at the age of seventy, is the principal actor in this film of which he is also hero, author, director. He was indefatigable during the shooting of the film and seemed to everyone remarkably agile and youthful. He refused to use a double and performed himself all the difficult scenes, including the dangerous scene where Minerva throws a spear at him.
The richness of the film is bewildering: horses in the Babylonian setting of Les Baux, gatemen of hell in tuxedos, with heads like Yul Brynner’s, flowers that are torn and put together by fire, motorcycle policemen of death, Oedipus, his eyes gouged out, sphinxes, Minerva, masks of Anubis, death masks, a statue with three faces whose eyes are sea-shells and who is probably Tiresias the soothsayer, settings that resemble the interior of an Egyptian pyramid. This is the universe through which Jean Cocteau walks, accompanied by Cégeste who could easily be looked upon as an angel.
In one of the scenes, Heurtebise says that Cégeste is the name of the temple in Sicily. And the poet answers that it is also the young poet in his film Orphée. But it was first the name of one of Cocteau’s angels in his early poem L’Ange Heurtebise. In the film’s subtitle, which is heard at the end: Ne me demandez pas pourquoi (“Do not ask me why”), Cocteau says he is incapable of explaining why he filmed this adventure which does not adhere to the usual movie techniques.
The beginning of the film is taken in a film studio in Nice, studio 4 of La Victorine. The props used are those designed to create the atmosphere of an empty space, of quite literally a movie studio. Cocteau tries in this opening scene to create a farce in the style of Goldoni. It is a mix-up of space, time, and sound.
At the end of the film, Cocteau tricks two motorcycle policemen, two motards. After his disappearance, a sportscar from which we hear jazz scatters the identification papers of Cocteau, which on reaching the ground, become the flower he has tried to bring to life in order to offer it to Minerva, goddess of reason. This is the point where she refuses the flower and pierces him with her spear. Throughout such sequences, it is well to remember Cocteau’s statement that he is not a maker of films in the ordinary sense (je ne suis pas un cinéaste). He calls himself a poet using the camera as a vehicle for the projection of dreams.