Cocteau’s orphic trilogy

Jean Cocteau is a very different case, a multitalented artist whose boldly Surrealist work in the theater, as well as his writings and drawings, defined the yearnings and aspirations of a generation. His groundbreaking sound feature film, Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood ofa Poet, 1930), was not shown publicly until 1932 because of controversy surrounding the production of Dali and Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or (1930), both films having been produced by the Vicomte de Noailles, a wealthy patron of the arts.

Dispensing almost entirely with plot, logic, and conventional narrative, The Blood of a Poet relates the adventures of a young poet who is forced to enter the mirror in his room to walk through a mysterious hotel, where his dreams and fantasies are played out before his eyes. Escaping from the mirror by committing ritualistic suicide, he is then forced to watch the spectacle of a young boy being killed with a snowball with a rock center during a schoolyard fight and then to play

cards with Death, personified by a woman dressed in funeral black. When the poet tries to cheat, he is exposed, and again kills himself with a small handgun. Death leaves the card room triumphantly, and the film concludes with a note of morbid victory.

Photographed by the great Georges Périnal, with music by Georges Auric, The Blood of a Poet represented a dramatic shift in the production of the sound film. Though influenced by the work of Dali and Buñuel and the Surrealist films of Man Ray and René Clair, the picture represents nothing so much as an opium dream a great deal of trick photography, including negative film in 1930 but released in 1932). spliced directly into the final cut to create an ethereal effect, mattes (photographic inserts) to place a human mouth in the palm of the poet’s hand, and reverse motion, slow motion, and cutting in the camera to make people and objects disappear.

For someone who had never before made a film, Cocteau had a remarkably intuitive knowledge of the plastic qualities of the medium, which he would exploit throughout his long career.

When the war broke

out, Cocteau chose to stay in Paris with his lover, the actor Jean Marais, and work on his poems, plays, paintings, and sculptures under the noses of the Nazis.

An instinctive politician, Cocteau managed to curry favor with both the occupying forces and the French Resistance, so that when the war ended he emerged socially and politically unscathed. It would not be until 1946 that he directed his second film, La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast), easily the most poetic and sumptuous version of the classic fairy tale. In the late 1940s, he created a string of brilliant and often fantastic films, including L’Aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle Has Two Heads) and Les Parents terribles (released in the United States and the United Kingdom under the title The Storm Within).

Cocteau’s dazzling visual sense, combined with his flair for the fantastic, created a world that belonged to him alone, a zone of spectacle, desire, and unfettered imagination. His imagery, especially his use of mirrors as portals that one may use to enter alternative worlds, has been appropriated by everyone from Andy and Larry Wachowski in The Matrix (1999) to television commercials, music videos, and numerous experimental films of the 1960s. Though Cocteau persistently returned to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, he created such a plethora of variations on this theme that his work was always original and startling. He also created the screenplays and/or dialogue for a number of classic films directed by others, most notably Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Ladies of the Park, 1945) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants terribles (The Strange Ones, 1950), the latter based on a novel by Cocteau.

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Cocteau’s orphic trilogy