Ep. 154: Jean Cocteau - The Rest is Literature, Part I1h 33m | Mar 25, 2022
Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet’s job. The rest is literature.
Jean Cocteau. The rest is literature.
When Cocteau was a young boy he said he would be clever later. He said his father was a painter. Boys say a lot of things. His father was an amateur painter, a lawyer by trade. His father killed himself when Cocteau was nine.
You are not what you do, after all. You are not your work, you are not your suicide. Poets only pretend to die. You are not even your art but your art is the greatest reflection of self. Awaken from the reverie of your orphic dream. The poet creates and never insists upon his poetry. He is a poet because what he makes sings with all of his soul.
When the editors of Cahiers Du Cinema collectively disavowed the stagnant literary-leaning past and present of French cinema, they kept the Masters. Robert Bresson, Jeen Renoir, and Jeen Cocteau were anti-modernists making movies that would be new forever. The masters suited the artistic ethics of the Nouvelle Vauge. Cocteau then embodied the past, present, and future of the French cinema. The rest — as the Cahiers crew would insist — is literature.
Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can bring drama to a family. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he kills a victim, and that this beast will be shamed when confronted by a young girl. They believe in a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and to bring us luck let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s “open sesame":
Once Upon a Time...
The gem of today’s triple feature, Beauty and the Beast (1946) is the pinnacle of fantasy storytelling in film. Marrying Cocteau’s multi-hyphenate interests in the poetic and the balletic, the film achieves the beauty of a stage play with the heightened specificity of what it means to make a film.
It provides an exceptional bridge to understanding his other work: his varied interests and grounding in ‘20s-era surrealism with a literary bent.
Today, we draw back the curtain on a life lived in the arts and celebrate three pieces of a storied career of a real master craftsman.
First, we venture into The Blood of a Poet — perhaps the first poem film to make headway with international success. Because it is first, it can disregard histories, examples, and rule books, and is permitted to tell its own story uniquely in the text. Cocteau wrote, “To sum up, The Blood of a Poet and my new film Beauty and the Beast are aimed at the aficionados. It is true that I do not kill the bull according to the rules. But this contempt for the rules is accompanied by a contempt for the danger that excites a large number of people.”
Poetic art is creation with regard to space and feeling, moved by the dance of the human spirit, and unconcerned with the linearity of rules. “Poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the music,” Ezra Pound said. Like the myth of Orpheus who could sooth all animals and nature with his poetry of music, the film is equally connected. It has no false symbols or ornamentation that does not add punctuation. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it just is.
Crucially, composer Georges Auric is involved, who would score 11 films for Cocteau. His score is a remnant of his avant-garde period and thus embodies and directs the film with its certainty of purpose. His later works would become more populist as he worked hard to square his work with leftist political beliefs that could reach audiences.
Georges Auric’s compositions are the fundamental through-line between the three distinctly different films.
In Beauty and the Beast and The Eagle with Two Heads, Cocteau has likewise found a more connective populist style. While the films begin to subscribe to the director’s own rule book and definitions without relying on the past, they use familiar constructions and foundations to wildly different ends.
Both are wondrously shot. The camera glides. The black and white is silver in its glow. The steady beauty of it all is overwhelming, singular, well considered.
And yet, with accessibility, Cocteau remains poetic. His films still move smoothly over uncovered terrain and define the fairytale and romantic stories in ways they have simply never been visualized.
His astute gift for defining the image with his camera and getting the most out of untrained actors pays dividends. The poetry sings. The films move with singular beauty. Open sesame. Them movies are poems all right.
Cocteau has done a poet’s job. The rest is literature.