Fixing the Gaze: Jean Cocteau's la Belle et la Bete

By Sheaffer-Jones, Caroline | The Romanic Review, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Fixing the Gaze: Jean Cocteau's la Belle et la Bete


Sheaffer-Jones, Caroline, The Romanic Review


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. …

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