Friday 4 November 2022

Jean Cocteau: The Art of Film

Orphée (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
A poet and novelist who became a film-maker in his forties, Jean Cocteau proceeded to write and direct films on fantastic themes, marked by great visual beauty, full of haunting images and distinctly dreamy, almost mystical performances from a trusted company of actors that included Jean Marais. Cocteau once remarked that ‘when I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming’.

Jean Cocteau was born in 1889 to faintly artistic, middle-class parents. Accounts of his early life suggest only a passing interest in film. Instead it was theatre, under his mother’s influence, which dominated his upbringing. Through her, he developed the ‘fever of crimson and gold’ that would shape his artistic life. Cocteau would go on to make use of all the media available to him to create an intricate personal mythology. Novelist, poet, painter, playwright, designer –  all of those disciplines are reflected in his films. His three celebrated films of the fantastic – ‘Blood of the Poet’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Orphée’ – are central to his visual legacy, yet Cocteau always maintained that as a filmmaker he was only an amateur.

In the following extract Jean Cocteau discusses his creative process. It’s taken from an interview he gave a few months before his death in the Autumn of 1963:

Jean Cocteau: I feel myself inhabited by a force or being – very little known to me. It gives the orders; I follow. The conception of my novel Les Enfants Terribles came to me from a friend, from what he told me of a circle: a family closed from societal life. I commenced to write: exactly seventeen pages per day. It went well. I was pleased with it. Very. There was in the original life story some connection with America, and I had something I wanted to say about America ... The being in me did not want to write that! Dead halt. A month of stupid staring at paper unable to say anything. One day it commenced again in its own way.

Interviewer: Do you mean the unconscious creates?  

I long said art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious. Latterly, I have begun to think: Is genius an at-present undiscovered form of the memory? 

Do you keep a sort of abstract potential reader or viewer in mind when you work?

You are always concentrated on the inner thing. The moment one becomes aware of the crowd, performs for the crowd, it is spectacle.
Can you say something about inspiration?
It is not inspiration; it is expiration.

 Beauty and the Beast (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
Are there any artificial helps—stimulants or drugs? You resorted to opium after the death of [your friend] Radiguet, wrote your book about it, ‘Opium’, and were, I believe, in a period of disintoxication from it when you wrote ‘Les Enfants Terribles’.
It is very useful to have some depressant, perhaps. Extreme fatigue can serve. Filming Beauty and the Beast on the Loire in 1945 immediately at the end of the war, I was very ill. Everything went wrong. Electricity failures nearly every day; planes passing over just at the moment of a scene. Jean Marais’s horses made difficulties, and he persisted in vaulting onto them himself out of second-floor windows, refusing a double, and risking his bones. And the sunlight changes every minute on the Loire. All these things contributed to the virtue of the film. And in The Blood of a Poet Man Ray’s wife played a role; she had never acted. Her exhaustion and fear paralyzed her and she passed before the cameras so stunned she remembered nothing afterward. In the rushes we saw she was splendid; with the outer part suppressed, she had been let perform…
[The director] Rossellini, in Rome, told me that if he were to put down in a script all his imagination casts up for the scene he would have to write a novel; but in fiction we must put it down, or it is lost.
And the public is lazy! You ask them to enter into habits of thinking other than their own, and they don’t want to. And then . . . what you have written in autograph changes in typewriting, and again in print. Painting is more satisfying because it is more direct; you work directly on the surface.
What do you think of the French new-novelists who are beginning to abandon subject [in their work]?
... I read detective fiction, espionage, science fiction.
Do you recommend, then, to writers they read nothing serious at all?
[shrugs] I myself do not.

Les Enfants Terribles (Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville)
You wrote one of your novels in three weeks; one of your theatre pieces in a single night. What does this tell us about the act of composition?
If the force functions, it goes well. If not, you are helpless.
Is there no way to get it started, crank it up?
In painting, yes. By application to all the mechanical details one commences to begin. For writing, ‘one receives an order…’
Françoise Sagan describes how writing begins to flow with the use of the pen. I thought this was a rather general experience.
If the ideas come, one must hurry to set them down out of fear of forgetting them. They come once; once only. On the other hand, if I am obliged to do some little task – such as writing a preface or notice – the labor to give the appearance of easiness to the few lines is excruciating. I have no facility whatever. Yes, in one respect what you say is true. I had written a novel, then fallen silent. And the editors at the publishing house seeing this, said, ‘You have too great a fear of not writing a masterpiece. Write something, anything. Merely to begin’. So I did—and wrote the first lines of Les Enfants Terribles. But that is only for beginnings — in fiction. I have never written unless deeply moved about something. The one exception is my play La Machine à Écrire. I had written the play Les Parents Terribles and it was very successful, and something was wanted to follow. La Machine à Écríre exists in several versions, which is very telling, and was an enormous amount of work. It is no good at all. Of course, it is one of the most popular of my works. If you make fifty designs and one or two please you least, these will nearly surely be the ones most liked. No doubt because they resemble something. People love to recognize, not venture. The former is so much more comfortable and self-flattering. It seems to me nearly the whole of your work can be read as indirect spiritual autobiography.

The Blood of a Poet (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
The wound in the hand of the poet in your film ‘The Blood of a Poet’ — the wound in the man’s hand out of which the poetry speaks – certainly this reproduces the ‘wound’ of your experience in poetry around 1912-1914?

The work of every creator is autobiography, even if he does not know it or wish it, even if his work is ‘abstract’. It is why you cannot redo your work.

Not rewrite? Is that absolutely precluded?

Very superficially. Simply the syntax and orthography. And even there… I leave repetitions, mistakes, words badly placed quite unchanged, and there is no punctuation. It would be artificial to impose punctuation on a black river of ink.

– Jean Cocteau, The Art of Fiction No. 34. Interviewed by William Fifield. The Paris Review 

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