Comfortablen in Hell: Far from Being the Opium-Smoking Dilettante of Legend, Jean Cocteau Was One of the 20th Century's Most Significant Artists. Yet His Unacknowledged Homosexuality and Nazi Leanings Made Him a Profoundly Tormented Figure, Writes Gilbert Adair

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Just like one of those iris shots beloved of the makers of silent films, let's start by focusing our attention on a single detail, a plaque on a wall: Rue Jean Cocteau. Slowly the iris expands until it coincides with our entire field of vision. The image, now of a dusty, dozy village square in northern France, encompasses a large covered market, a car park, a cluster of shops (one of which, a men's clothing store, specialises in Jean Cocteau ties, T-shirts and cuff links) and, a little way off from the centre but situated precisely on the above-mentioned rue Jean Cocteau, the gaudily canopied Cafe Orphee. Further off, at the end of that same street where it forks to the left and right, is a tiny, squat Romanesque church: the Chapelle de St Blaise des Simples, inside which Cocteau lies buried. The village in question, in the former departement of Seine-et-Oise near the Fontainebleau forest, about 56 kilometres from Paris, 45 minutes by car on the autoroute du Sud, is Milly-la-Foret.

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If one strolls down the rue Jean Cocteau, one eventually arrives at St Blaise des Simples, described by Cocteau, in an illustrated album published in 1960, as resembling "a poor hag hunkered down [presumably to urinate] at the edge of the road". Once a lepers' chapel, it is, to be sure, a fairly unlovely edifice. Inside, though, it has been decorated--or, to use his own preferred word, "tattooed"--by Cocteau. Directly above the primitive altar is a head of Christ, flanked by the profiles of two conspicuously virile angels. Over these figures, just below the roof's exposed wooden beams, another, now freshly resurrected redeemer is surrounded by a trio of Roman centurions in mini-togas, one of them yawning, the other two fast asleep. There's also a naked young angel, muscular and completely bald. And on the floor beneath our feet is the poet's oblong tombstone.

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It's a simple slab of stone. Cocteau's name, like a letterhead, is inscribed at the top, and on the lower right-hand side, scrawled in his familiar spidery hand writing, are the words "Jeresteavecvous"--or, in English, the Ozymandias-like "I am still among you".

But is he still among us? Has he, like all great artists, survived his own life? Or, instead of an artist's true posterity, has he had what might be called an "imposterity"? Does he impinge on our current consciousness as nothing but a dandified dilettante adulated by the literati, glitterati and twitterati of his own era but utterly irrelevant to ours? Cocteau wrote poetry, fiction, drama and criticism; he directed several celebrated films; he produced thousands of sketches and paintings; he collaborated with such musicians as Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, Poulenc, Honegger, Henze and Menotti; he acted on both stage and screen; he travelled around the world in 80 days (long before S J Perelman, Nicholas Coleridge and Michael Palin); he personally trained the washed-up Panamanian prizefighter Al Brown so effectively that Brown regained his world bantamweight title; and he played the drums in a couple of Parisian nightclubs. Was he a maestro of every conceivable art form and an authentic master of none? Was he, in short, no more than the effeminate, opium-smoking poetaster of popular legend?

What I would venture to propose, rather, even to those who have scant affinity with the exacerbated aestheticism of his sensibility (Cocteau reiterated the term "poet" as often and obsessively as a navvy would use another sort of four-letter word), is that he was actually one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. The influence of his writing, both poetry and prose, is detectable in the work of figures as various as Radiguet and Genet, Edith Sitwell and Mishima; that of his film-making in the productions of the New Wave--Truffaut, Godard, Demy, Resnais, Varda and company--as well as in those of Bresson, Melville, Pasolini, Visconti, Bertolucci, Franju, Bergman, Anger, Fassbinder, Ruiz, Carax, Almodovar, Greenaway, Jarman and Tim Burton; and even that of his essential posture in the behavioural mannerisms and sartorial style of countless young French acolytes to this day as equally, if more obliquely, in the white-clown dandyism of someone like Andy Warhol. …