Narcissus Sees through Himself: On Jean Cocteau and the Invention of the Film Poet

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Having chosen at different moments of his career to rewrite Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Romeo and Juliet, Beauty and the Beast, the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and the myth of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau placed himself among those conventionbreakers who believe the best-known stories are the ones worth repeating. In his name, I begin with a familiar tale.

It concerns that most ingenuously avant-garde of aristocratic Parisian couples, the Vicomte Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, who in 1929 began to dabble in film production. From Man Ray, they commissioned les Mystères du château de Dé, a fine, half-hour example of the absurdist house-party movie in which everyone plays dress-up. (That included the Noailles. It was, after all, their house.) Soon afterward they became more ambitious in their patronage, putting up a million francs, with no conditions, so that an artist with very little technical experience of the cinema and no great chance of appealing to a mass authence could make a feature-length sound film. Although the man was already celebrated for his ability to summon up arresting images, any movie of his that might be labeled a succès was also likely to be trailed by scandale.

So it was, when the film had its premiere in November 1930 amid right-wing riots, police censorship, a threat of excommunication for the Noailles, and (most serious of all) the loss of the vicomte's membership in the Jockey Club. Yet for all the trouble the Noailles had caused themselves - quite innocently, according to the artist, who later described them as having been baffled by the uproar - they had given world cinema one of its greatest achievements: a work that continues to floor authences today with its incomparable brashness, defiance, invention, and humor.

That film, of course, is l'Age d'or by Luis Bunuel.

The other film the Noailles commissioned in 1930, for an additional million francs - Le Sang d'un poète, by Jean Cocteau - got a much more polite reception upon its premiere in January 1932 (a decent interval having been allowed for after Buftuel's film was sprung on the world), then went on to attract an authence that was too large and too persistent to be dismissed as a cult following. In New York City, the film's run at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse lasted for almost two decades. In more recent years, though, Le Sang d'un poète has not held up well against its Noailles twin. Like many of Cocteau's films (the most notable exception being La Belle et h bête), it is today more studied than enjoyed: a work largely of antiquarian interest, to be dropped as a passing illustration into syllabi on the evolution of queer identity or last century's French avant-garde.

A first-rate critic who was sympathetic to both of those subjects, Stephen Harvey of The Museum of Modern Art, sounded a valedictory note a mere twenty years after Cocteau's deadi. Writing for a commemorative anthology assembled on diat anniversary, Harvey began by asking how much of a contribution Cocteau really had made to the history of film and then politely avoided giving an answer. He did find space to deride the avant-garde snobs who adore Le Sang d'un poète but would never bother to watch Cocteau's popular entertainments. And what would these people get, if they broke down and saw L'Aigh à deux têtesi "Enjoyable kitsch," according to Harvey. That was in 1982. Since then, only the Disney animators have boosted Cocteau's reputation as a filmmaker.

And yet if the cloud of artsiness around Cocteau's films can now seem cloying, the extent of his influence cannot be doubted. Begin with François Truffaut, who gave Cocteau pride of place in his epoch-making essay of 1956, "A Certain Tendency of French Film," in which Cocteau's portrait photograph came first in the gallery of filmmakers who deserved to be called Les auteurs. "Since 1945," Truffaut wrote, "he has given French cinematography five of its greatest films: La Belle et h bête, L'Aigle à deux têtes, Les Parents terribles, Les Enfants terribles, and Orphée. …