Jean Cocteau, the first French writer to take cinema seriously, was as old and young as cinema itself; he made his first film in 1925 and completed his last film when he was 70. This book first deals with the issue of the type of film maker that Cocteau was: as a auteur, as a collaborator, as an experimenter, and as a theorist. It takes the pulse of Cocteau's cinema by examining in detail his ground-breaking first film Le Sang d'un poète', and argues that the film offers a vision of the potential of film for Cocteau. The book traces the evolution of realism and fantasy in Cocteau's work by introducing a main element, theatre, and assesses the full gamut of Cocteau's formal inclinations: from the legend and fantasy of L'Eternel retour to the spectacular fairytale of La Belle et la bête; from the 'film théâtral' of L'Aigle à deux têtes to the domestic melodrama Les Parents terribles which 'detheatricalises' his original play. In Le Testament d'Orphée, all the various formal tendencies of Cocteau's cinema come together but with the additional element of time conceived of as history, and the book re-evaluates the general claim of Cocteau's apparently missed encounter with history. The book considers whether the real homosexual element of Cocteau's cinema surfaces more at the most immediate level of sound and image by concentrating on the specifics of Cocteau's filmic style, in particular camera angle, framing and reverse-motion photography.
The great American film critic Manny Farber memorably declared space to be the most dramatic stylistic entity in the visual arts. He posited three primary types of space in fiction cinema: the field of the screen, the psychological space of the actor, and the area of experience and geography that the film covers. This book brings together five French directors who have established themselves as among the most exciting and significant working today: Bruno Dumont, Robert Guediguian, Laurent Cantet, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Claire Denis. It proposes that people think about cinematographic space in its many different forms simultaneously (screenspace, landscape, narrative space, soundscape, spectatorial space). Through a series of close and original readings of selected films, it posits a new 'space of the cinematic subject'. Dumont's attraction to real settings and locality suggests a commitment to realism. New forms and surfaces of spectatorship provoke new sensations and engender new kinds of perception, as well as new ways of understanding and feeling space. The book interrogates Guediguian's obsessive portrayal of one particular city, Marseilles. Entering into the spaces of work and non-work in Cantet's films, it asks what constitutes space and place within the contemporary field of social relations. The book also engages with cultural space as the site of social integration and metissage in the work of Kechiche, his dialogues with diasporic communities and highly contested urban locales. Denis's film work contains continually shifting points of passage between inside and outside, objective and subjective, in the restless flux.
Orphée refers back to Jean Cocteau's play of the same name, a play 'in one act and one interval', first staged at the Theatre des Arts in Paris in June 1926. The original play Orphée was a kind of tragi-farce that diverted myth towards boulevard comedy and yet also parodied the detective thriller genre. Orphée the film bears a directly personal stamp and may even be viewed as a self-portrait, that of the artist in crisis and harbouring deep resentment. Of all Cocteau's films Orphée offers the viewer the largest possible scope for interpretation, yet Cocteau also intervenes directly in the film at regular intervals with authorial voice-overs that arrive even in the middle of spoken dialogues. Orphée was awarded a special prize after a referendum of mass audiences and cinema managers, and the film went on to win the International Critics Award at the 1950 Venice Film Festival.
This chapter examines Jean Cocteau's six major films in groups of two, each group constituting a specific set of problematics. The films include: L'Eternel retour, La Belle et la bête, L'Aigle à deux têtes, Les Parents terribles, La Villa Santo-Sospir, and Le Testament d'Orphée. The first film of each cluster represents the extreme of a formal tendency, the second functions as its virtual resolution, albeit provisional. La Belle et la bête may be said to operate meta-cinematically as a statement on the nature of film and its dual capacity for reality and fantasy whereby the filmic reel is always nothing less than a vehicle of the real. The ultimate proof of the real in Le Testament lies in the film's recording and projection of acts. For Cocteau, time and space were really one and the same, and it is only our human laws that separate them.
This chapter discusses four key modes of Jean Cocteau's filmic practice: his status as an auteur, his role and range as a collaborator; his commitment to experimentation; and his importance as a film theorist. It begins with a basic question: what type of filmmaker was Cocteau? Cocteau is usually regarded as a 'literary filmmaker', part of a peculiarly French tradition of writers who also became innovatory filmmakers. Cocteau's long career was one of consistent experimentation in style and the mechanics of form and it embraced a range of traditions and disciplines. Cocteau's career was a series of turning points and transformations. During the 1950s Cocteau found refuge at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in the South of France due to a rich patron, Francine Weisweiller, who invited him to share her villa Santo-Sospir near Villefranche-sur-mer. The chapter also presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book.
The genesis of Le Sang d'un poète is the stuff of film legend. Le Sang d'un poète offers itself, in fact, as a cinema of the senses. Ironically, and despite all André Breton's best efforts to smear Jean Cocteau worldwide, Le Sang d'un poète was championed in the United States in February 1934 precisely as a surrealist work and would eventually enjoy a seventeen-year run at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York. In the first of his many film collaborations with Cocteau, Georges Auric composed the music played by the Edouard Flament orchestra, and plastercasts were supplied by Plastikos. The final editing was by Cocteau himself. According to Cocteau, Charlie Chaplin himself considered the uninterrupted passage at one point from medium shot to close-up to record the continuous movement of one character as an innovation.
Steven Shaviro's 'cinematic body' brings out the truly radical nature of Jean Cocteau's investment in reverse-motion photography as an 'image-en-procès' whereby film literally regresses and provides disturbing glimpses of primary erotic matter. More crucially, zones of uncertainty and ambiguity exist within Cocteau's cinema that are simply left out of the exclusively thematic accounts of sexuality and (sado)masochism, however compelling. In fact, Cocteau's moments of reverse motion bring the viewer face to face with an otherness which he or she can neither incorporate nor expel. The secret knowingness of male characters by means of objects is tied up directly with a Cocteau film's own playful, erotic knowledge of itself when it goes into reverse motion and makes objects out of human forms. Frederick Brown talks of Cocteau's belles dames sans merci who unsex men as another instance of his decadent romanticism and his vocation for ecstatic self-martyrdom.
This chapter shows that for very different reasons Jean Marais and Edouard Dermit were active collaborators at the very centre of Jean Cocteau's film work and not simply idealised mirror images of Cocteau himself. It explores two of Marais's greatest screen performances for Cocteau, in L'Eternel retour and La Belle et la bête, two roles which on one level could not be more different in style and approach. Certain contemporary reviewers of L'Eternel retour questioned Marais's masculinity and even considered him an 'angel' of indeterminate sex, while one English critic even wondered if the film was deliberately pulling the Germans' leg in scenes such as Marais bursting into tears when upset. His performance in La Belle et la bête, according to Cocteau, demonstrated that he could act like Edouard de Max and Lucien Guitry whose earlier prestige and glamour he was now establishing for himself.
Jean-Luc Godard is interested in matters anal, of course most graphically in films like Numéro Deux, Sauve qui peut (la vie), and Passion, and like Jean Cocteau acknowledges the centrality of violence to the artistic process. Godard's erotic play with Cocteau installs Cocteau as a guiding principle for his experimental practice such that Cocteau himself becomes a primary agent of sublimation for Godard. The resurrection of flowers in King Lear is an utterly concrete demonstration of Cocteau's filmic process of thinking through one's hands, an act to which Godard directly aspires through means of montage. In his valedictory film Le Testament d'Orphée, Cocteau cut a solitary figure. Cocteau functions for Godard as both sublime and abject, ideal and false, as suggested even by Godard's early review of Orphée when he refers to the film as 'poésie de contrebande' and to Cocteau's confessional statement that he entered the cinema fraudulently.