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A Portait of the Artist

September 26th, 2004 (06:16 am)
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© 2004 by D. Gordon. First appeared on MilkPlus.

While in Montreal a couple months ago, I stopped in at the Jean Cocteau: Enfant Terrible exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. The only thing I knew about Cocteau was that he'd directed Beauty and the Beast, so the exhibit was a lot of fun: an exhaustive look at Cocteau's artistic and biographical journey through life. I won't go into all the details – that could take a good review in itself – but the movie clips made a definite impression on me: long enough to get an idea of Cocteau's style, short enough to maintain the flow of the exhibit, and set up so that they didn't intrude on adjacent displays.

Coming across as dreamy / introspective / otherworldy, they also got me very interested in tracking down Cocteau's films. In particular, I saw an instant link between Les Enfants Terribles and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (which I spent a lot of angst on earlier this year). Knowing that Bertolucci had spent time in France and had to know Cocteau's work, I wanted to see how much the earlier movie had influenced him. As it turns out, my library has a copy of Criterion's Orphic Trilogy (a box set of The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, and The Last Testament of Orpheus), and the BFI released Les Enfants Terribles on DVD at the beginning of September, so all I had to do was block off some time and watch...

  • The Blood of a Poet (1930) : This was Cocteau's second film (the first is lost). As such it's both cerebral and rough around the edges, but shows the signature touches common to many of Cocteau's movies: metaphoric mirrors, reverse photography, animated statues, exaggerated movement, and the central concept of rebirth from death. This last one is pretty important; Cocteau's explorations of the life of the artist show a deep affinity with the Orphic myth. It's clear that Cocteau approached filmmaking as another way to express his art, and that expressing the artist's life was what his art was about.
  • Orpheus (1949) : Very beautiful, and much more accessible than I had guessed based on the clips in the museum. Orpheus is Art. Orpheus is (hu)Man. Orpheus is Cocteau. Orpheus is obsessed with Death - quite literally. Again this is the Orphic myth, but it's many others stories on many other levels - personalized to Cocteau, broadened to the human condition, extended to existence and beyond. Cocteau plays with time, space, and meaning - and leaves nothing definite or secure. All of these story levels are effortlessly joined, much like watching perfect, infinite reflections arc between multiple mirrors. Those Cocteau touches (mirrors, passing between worlds, etc) are well integrated into the whole; they don't stick out as gimmicks. The movie is an extension of but not a sequel to the The Blood of a Poet; the earlier movie is the skeleton, this movie is the flesh and blood. A smart, fresh retelling of the Orphic myth, in some ways it may be better than Beauty and the Beast.
  • The Testament of Orpheus (1960) : This Orpheus is a direct descendant of the 1949 movie, with Cegeste, a minor character, indicting Cocteau for leaving him unresolved in the earlier movie (a truly artistic crime). This is where Cocteau as artist truly morphs into Orpheus, with Cegeste as his guide through the underworld of his life, to the tribunal to be judged for his crimes by the characters from his film. Cocteau isn't above mocking himself during that journey (much as others had been doing in real life); for example, a little girl reciting facts about Cocteau to a principal-like questioner refers to the artist as a musician who plays the "buffoon" (maybe she meant "bassoon," maybe not). In the context of the three movies, The Testament of Orpheus is the clothing on the corps of the Oprhic trilogy. An integral part, but I still see Orpheus as the critical movie.
  • Les Enfants Terribles (1950) : This is a Jean Cocteau story. This is not a Jean Cocteau film. There's the tangled web and fatalism of Cocteau's standard storyline, but the movie lacks the waking dream state of Cocteau's movies. There are no mirror/doorways, camera tricks, not even a peep from a statue. The one Cocteau trademark - a child felled by a stone-filled snowball - is central but straightforward; the other symbols are too cut-and-dried to be Cocteau. I've heard that there was a struggle between Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville, the director, over casting, shooting, directing, you name it... and the movie itself is amazingly cohesive enough given a struggle; but the things that make Cocteau's works Cocteau's just aren't there.
    This also isn't The Dreamers circa 1950. Both movies share similar main characters along with a sense of isolation. But Bertolucci added his own inner demons and personal narrative (not to mention resolution). Maybe there's bias in looking back from 2004, but I doubt Cocteau could have added more than the barest whiff of incest to his story, and it's really the platonic side of the combative love/hate relationship between Elisabeth and Paul that dominates the story. I never got the sense that Paul felt any sexual attraction towards Elizabeth.
    Am I disappointed? Hard to say. Obviously not what I was expecting on several fronts. It's interesting; Nicole Stéphane as Elisabeth is a strong presence (much stronger than Edouard Dermithe as Paul, likely cast because he was Cocteau's lover); the key conflict speaks volumes; but it just doesn't have Cocteau's spirit.

This might be an excuse, though, to check out both Melville's other works (including Bob le flambeur, Le Samouraï, and Le Cercle Rouge) and Cocteau's 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles...