Jean Cocteau Characteristics

On the whole, Jean Cocteau is best known for his blending of reality and myth in films of visual beauty. Cocteau's films served as a look into his own obsessions and fantasies.

Cocteau felt his main profession was a poet and that spilled into his other genres which include painter, filmmaker, director, scriptwriter, and novelist. In the introduction to Le Sang d'un poete, Cocteau tells the spectator that all poetry is a coat of arms whose symbols can be deciphered only after the expenditure of blood (Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 16).

One of the other aspects Cocteau includes in his films is the use of mirrors as portals. In both La Belle et la Bete and Orpheus the mirror is used as a way to see another location. The mirror helps Belle to see her father and the Beast in La Belle et la Bete while Orpheus is able to see into the afterlife.

Also in both La Belle et la Bete and Orpheus, Cocteau uses gloves as instruments of magic and mysticism. In Belle, they are the instrument of the beast's power while in Orpheus they are the keys to open the portal of the mirror.

Cocteau drew on his own life in some instances for both his written work and his film work. Sometimes he uses a character called Dargelos who appears within the work brandishing deadly snowballs. Cocteau named this character after an acquaintance at a school he attended in his youth. Dagelos appears in the films, Opium and Le Sang d'un Poete.

Cocteau's films are powerful ways of looking into the worlds of reality and fantasy. He uses his art to allow us to see certain situations clearly and easily while visually creating beautiful images.

--Kim Humphreville, 1998.

Jean Cocteau was a notoriously multi-talented artist, whose works produced many classics in media such as poetry, novels, painting, plays, set design, acting, and even a short-lived stint coaching a boxer back into success. Having been involved in these many forms of media, he was linked with many world-renowned fellow artists in their respective fields. Perhaps due to Cocteau's friendships and general associations with these artists, he had been influenced by them as much as he influenced and mentored others. Perhaps he simply was creating works that were an example of some of the avant-garde works being created at that point in time. Cocteau supposedly did not have much interest in film for the first few decades of his life, and even considered himself to be an amateur in the medium. It was one of his other loves, theater, which had prompted him to consider making a film. Many of Cocteau's interests can be seen as flowing into another, and this can be seen in his films, in which his love for theater and elaborate set design are evident.

Cocteau's works in film can best be described as surrealist, a very fitting word for him, as it was in a program note written for Cocteau's 1917 play Parade that is the first documented use of the French word surrealiste for a work. That work itself featured costumes and backdrops by Pablo Picasso. His first work Le Sang d'un Poete or "The Blood of a Poet" was labeled as surrealist, and similar in many ways to trance films, such as Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. Many of Cocteau's works do exhibit a dream-like state of transition between equally dream-like scenes, like the trance films. These transitions symbolize the moving from the real world, to a fantasy world, and vice versa.

The films of Cocteau have a reoccurring theme of using the real world as a basis, or connector to a mythical world. Within these films, he also had several reoccurring symbolisms, such as doors and mirrors as portals from the real world into the dream-like fantasy world. Cocteau had felt that fantasy had to be rooted in reality, and Cocteau himself described his films as a view into “the frontier incidents between one world and another”. Furthermore, as Cocteau considered himself foremost to be a poet, his films, as surrealistic as they may be, did have their basis in his own world, that of a poet. For instance The Blood of a Poet symbolizes the trials of being a poet. In the film, the blood of the poet, Cocteau, is even used literally. Cocteau lives in the real world, but views himself, as a poet, to be a medium in which the poetic world of intuition and fantasy can be expressed. Despite being a proficient artist in so many media, Cocteau considered himself to solely be a poet, and if he created a play or directed a film, it was to expose the poetry in those media. Whether you call them surrealist, trance film, or film poetry, the unique films of Jean Cocteau have been host to many influential characteristics still seen in avant-garde and mainstream narrative films today.

--Mark Oeding, 2006.

Jean Cocteau