C'est tres dur d'etre devant et derriere la camera.
(Entretiens sur le cinematographe)
Cegeste Ne vous obstinez pas, un peintre fait toujours son propre portrait.
(Le Testament d'Orphee)
Bien sur que les ouvres se font toutes seules. Qu'elles revent de tuer pere et mere.
(Le Testament d'Orphee)
The Poet's Legacy
Produced in 1945-46, Jean Cocteau's widely acclaimed film La Belle et la Bete is based on the eighteenth-century fairytale by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, however Cocteau's visual masterpiece clearly has much greater depth. (1) The film has been the subject of many different critiques which have often centred on love and sexuality (DeNitto, Greene). Sylvia Bryant believes that woman is seen in terms of masculine desire (445), whereas Susan Hayward writes about the "non-phallic perception of human relationships" and homoerotic love (1996 47; 1990 127-136). (2) However perhaps the film's most fundamental issue, which has not been analysed, concerns the notion of representation, in particular the possibility of distinguishing between life and art. Does the film show that fictional representation is nothing but a detour in which reality might ultimately reassert itself? Does "reality" or "life" simply lie outside the fictional representation? Derrida has addressed the notion of the border of the work in various texts (see 1978; 1980). In what way does Cocteau's film raise the question of the work and the limits of representation? To what extent might the poet's work be the expression of a force which can belong neither simply to art nor to life? I will focus on these issues, especially by examining the use of the mirror.
Cocteau not only directed films and wrote screenplays, as in the case of La Belle et la Bete, but he was also a poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, artist and actor who reflected on his art. Before concentrating on La Belle et la Bete, I will refer briefly to certain aspects of Cocteau's work which are pertinent to my analysis of the film. In a number of texts, Cocteau reworked the Orpheus myth according to which the poet and musician Orpheus could bring his dead wife Eurydice back to the upper world from hell, on condition that he not look behind him until they reached the sunlight. However he turned around and she was lost. Orpheus was finally torn apart (Graves 111-115). The protagonist of Le Testament d'Orphee is really not just the hibiscus flower, as one might be led to believe at the end of the film, but the Poet. Cocteau's earlier film and play Orphee also concern the poet who, in accordance with the etymology of the word, does not simply write verse but is involved in creation in a more general sense. Through the focus on the poet, the work takes as its subject the making of the work. Cocteau himself plays the main role in Le Testament d'Orphee his voice is also heard narrating his films (3) or for example, in Orphee and on the radio as the voice of Cegeste.
The question of an author or spectator's involvement in a work is addressed by Cocteau in his Entretiens sur le cinematographe. Cocteau considers that the work is not a means of evasion but rather one is invaded by it; similarly, one must speak not of "inspiration" but rather "expiration":
Je veux dire que l'inspiration arriverait du dehors, et il n'y a pas de dehors. C'est votre nuit qui parle, des choses en vous-meme que vous ne connaissez pas. Donc il y a expiration. (109, see also 87)
The image of darkness is a potent one, as is that of the unknown, especially when it is not external but within. How might the poet's work be understood, more specifically the drawing of the self-portrait (4) in Le Testament d'Orphee if the notion of model is problematic? It would seem that it is the "night" or an absence which is ultimately in play in the poet's work, as represented in Le Testament d'Orphee by the striking image of the empty blackboard which the Poet magically rubs with a cloth "to sketch" a portrait. In this conception of the work there is an unknown which is never simply represented once and for all. Indeed the very notion of work cannot be clearly circumscribed. In Du Cinematographe, with reference to La Belle et la Bete, Cocteau writes: "je me demande si c'est moi qui dirige le travail ou si le travail me dirige" (105). An affirmation of incomprehensibility and of the need not to try to understand returns time and time again in Cocteau's writing, including in the title Le Testament d'Orphee ou "ne me demandez pas pourquoi."
Where indeed are the borders between "life" and "art"? Through the mirrors which abound in Cocteau's texts, the difference between "representation" and "reality" is in fact undermined, a question broached in Cocteau's early play Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray based on Oscar Wilde's text. Since mirrors double a character or sometimes show multiple images from several angles at once, as for example of the Princess coming through the mirror in the film Orphee, the unity of the individual is severely challenged. Sometimes it is not clear at first whether that which is filmed is a mirror image or the character. In Orphee, after the poet collects the letter, the camera shows a close-up of Eurydice and Heurtebise and only subsequently captures the frame of the mirror revealing that these images are part of a reflection. The mirror no doubt accentuates a lack of identity, an issue obviously also pertinent in Cocteau's L'Eternel retour in which there are the characters Nathalie and Nathalie II. In the play Orphee, Heurtebise says to Orphee:
Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient. Ne le dites a personne. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la Mort travailler comme des abeilles dans une ruche de verre. (71) (5)
Mirrors are tied to death and change. It is often through mirrors that Cocteau's characters step beyond the world as we know it; "life", like the "zone" shown in the film Orphee, is really between life and death. It is as if the characters were neither real nor imaginary, neither living nor dead, such is the twilight zone which Cocteau exposes in his work.
In the world which Cocteau describes, the notions of both …