Jean Cocteau

James S. Williams

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online February 2013 | | DOI:
Jean Cocteau

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Jean Cocteau (b. 1889–d. 1963) was one of French cinema’s greatest and most original directors whose work covered nearly all the major genres, from the early avant-garde to fairy-tale fantasy, historical melodrama, domestic bourgeois drama, detective thriller and mystery, and self-portrait. One of the first French writers to take the cinema seriously, he claimed to have entered the cinema “fraudulently” because he was entirely self-taught, calling himself more an “artisan” and “amateur” (in the French sense of a “lover” of cinema). Yet, the often applied label of “literary filmmaker” is insufficient to describe Cocteau, who was also an experimenter, collaborator, theorist, and all-round ambassador of film. Profoundly interested in the fundamentals of time, space, motion, speed, and sound, he was a visionary filmmaker intoxicated by the mystery of what he called “the cinematograph,” and he strove to discover what film can reveal of beauty and consciousness. His comparatively slim corpus of extraordinary and utterly unique films (what he called his “poetry of cinema”), along with his other multiple activities in the cinema as a writer of screenplays, dialogues, commentaries, and voice-overs; actor; editor; festival organizer; and judge, established Cocteau in the postwar period as one of the supreme filmmakers in France, above all in the eyes of the New Wave directors who hailed him as an auteur complet. Yet, with the possible exception of La Belle et la bête (1946), Cocteau’s cinema, like much of his work in other forms and media, often has been critically underestimated or neglected, particularly in the English-speaking world, although it has always been cherished by a small chosen few. Prolific and prodigious yet too versatile for his own good, he was perceived by many as a sublime jack-of-all-trades and master of none. In fact, Cocteau lived to see himself become one of the most underrated and outmoded figures in 20th-century French culture. Thus, the number of studies devoted to his cinema is relatively small, and the authors of those that do exist have often been content merely to read Cocteau’s work through his life or else reproduce the simple idea of Cocteau as “film poet” without taking into full account the many complex strands and levels of his film work. A major exhibition of his work in 2003–2004 at the Pompidou Center in Paris titled “Jean Cocteau, sur le fil du siècle,” on the fortieth anniversary of Cocteau’s death, has helped to reverse this trend.

Article.  11552 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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