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Poet of the Cinema.

WHILE COCTEAU IS perhaps best known to Americans for two of the movies he wrote and directed--La belle et la bete (1946) and Orpheus (1949), which figure on most short lists of great French films --he started as a poet and always saw himself as such. It was through his friend Lucien Daudet, the gay son of novelist Alphonse Daudet, that Cocteau entered the world of belle epoque Parisian salons immortalized by Marcel Proust, who was one of his early idols. There he sought out everyone who could help him, among them the greatly admired gay actor Edouard de Max, who in 1908 arranged a public reading where the eighteen-year-old Cocteau's latest verse was read to a distinguished public by some of the era's greatest actors. That evening made him a star in the world of French letters, a position he would struggle to maintain for the remaining 55 years of his life.

Not satisfied with being a secondary fish in the mainstream waters, Cocteau set out to become a leading modernist. Having become involved with the Ballets Russes, he enticed Eric Satie and Pablo Picasso to join with him in the creation of a radically non-romantic ballet, Parade, in 1917, a project that greatly advanced his career. Three years later his scenario for another ballet, Le boeuf sur le toit (performed in England as The Nothing Doing Bar), with music by Darius Milhaud, confirmed his position in the avant-grade.

This involvement in theatre made sense. As James S. Williams notes in this new biography, Cocteau "was always on stage and performing different personae." The same is true of his fiction. Like other gay French writers of his era, such as Pierre Loti, Colette, and even Proust, Cocteau spent his life "cleverly and persistently blurr[ing] the usual boundaries" between his life and his often apparently autobiographical work, "making his life the stuff of myth and generating in the process no end of public misunderstanding and confusion." His art was a way of attracting the public's attention, which he lived for, but it also afforded him a means to shape how they saw him, which was equally important. (For a study of how Proust, Gide, and Colette went about that, see my review of Michael Lucey's Never Say I in this journal's May-June 2007 issue.)

In 1919 the tables were turned on Cocteau, and not for the last time. Now famous, he found himself sought out by a young man who wanted his help, sixteen-year-old Raymond Radiguet. Cocteau saw his talent and, though their romantic relationship failed, the older writer nonetheless mentored the younger one through the creation of his two important novels, The Devil in the Flesh and Count d'Orgel's Ball, before Radiguet died of typhoid fever in 1923.

If the young man's death devastated Cocteau, it also set him free to go back to producing work of his own. His 1927 narrative The White Book is one of the early examples of the French gay novel, complete with a predictably doomed gay love affair. His one-act, one-woman play The Human Voice (1930), in which a woman learns in the course of a telephone conversation with her lover that he's leaving her, was quickly seen as a reference to the recent end of Cocteau's own relationship with Jean Desbordes. (The play was subsequently turned into a very moving opera by Francis Poulenc, which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been staged with a man rather than a woman.)

In 1937, another beautiful young man came to him for advancement, Jean Marais. He was initially an indifferent actor, but Cocteau worked with him and helped turn him into a major movie idol. The high point of that relationship was, once again, not the romance, which ended rather quickly, but the artistic collaborations, the best known of which is the remarkable movie La belle et la bete, in which Marais starred in the part of the Beast. After that, yet another young man came calling, gay writer Jean Genet, who had a novel that he wanted to bring out. So Cocteau helped Genet publish what would become Our Lady of the Flowers.


After World War II, Cocteau became preoccupied with his legacy. He arranged for the publication of a lavish edition of his Complete Works (which was in fact far from complete), and in 1954 he campaigned successfully for membership among the "Forty Immortals" when a seat came open in the French Academy. He continued to focus on movies, sometimes writing, sometimes directing, though a few box office failures left him hard-pressed to get financing. He spent the morning of his last day recording a radio tribute to Edith Piaf, who had passed away just a few hours earlier.

Williams' well-written and well-paced biography has a few minor flaws, of which the worst is its lack of an index. Cocteau knew almost everyone of interest on the French art scene for half a century, and an index would have been handy for those wanting to check on his involvement with a given figure. The author closes with a good summation of Cocteau's significance as a gay artist. "Cocteau is of major importance to ... modern gay artists, writers, and filmmakers precisely because he sought to transgress and transcend all genres, classifications and taboos in his bid to translate a fully assumed gay reality into universal art." Sometimes the results were not perfect, and it remained for subsequent artists to improve upon Cocteau's innovations. Sometimes, as with La belle et la bete and The Human Voice, Cocteau showed that a new art form could be done right the very first time.

Jean Cocteau by James S. Williams

Reaktion Books. 192 pages, $16.95

Richard M. Berrong, professor of French at Kent State, is the author of In Love with a Handsome Sailor, a gay reading of the novels of Pierre Loti.
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Title Annotation:Jean Cocteau
Author:Berrong, Richard M.
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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