by Richard Misek
In his own eyes, Jean Cocteau was not a filmmaker. Of course, he was a filmmaker as well as a dramatist, novelist, poet, painter, decorator, boxing promoter, essayist, librettist, journalist, and full-time celebrity. His three great films of the fantastic – Le Sang d’un poète, La Belle et la Bête and Orphée – remain central to his visual legacy, yet Cocteau always insisted that in the field of film he was an amateur.
Like many gifted artists whose talent falls short of genius, Cocteau did not feel drawn to one art form above all others. Instead he utilised all the media available to him to create a complex personal mythology which mixed imagery and text, poetry and prose, fact and fiction, realism and fantasy, history and modernity. This was further elaborated by numerous autobiographical writings and frequent interviews. Francis Steegmuller, Cocteau’s most perceptive biographer, calls the result of this super-abundance of information that he provided about himself an “invisibility-by-autobiography” (1). In the forty years since his death, interest in Cocteau’s life (especially in France) has burgeoned into a small industry. Invisibility-by-autobiography has been supplemented by invisibility-by-biography.
Steegmuller’s characterisation of Cocteau’s life can also be adapted to refer to his art. Cocteau interweaved all the different strands of his work with such thoroughness, that it is impossible to explore any single strand in isolation. Yet without a process of choice, the chaos of information available about his life and work can be overwhelming. So how to create an account of Cocteau that is both coherent and accurate? In my view, the only satisfactory approach would be through hypertext. What if his life and work were constructed as a hypertextual document in which it would be possible to jump every which way across media, as well as through time to sources and referents? Conflicting information could be presented in parallel, providing a constant source of alternative and contingent truths. Such a document could perhaps provide a new way of seeing Cocteau and his work as a totality.
My first step in setting up such a narrative is to provide a linear and chronological account of the salient details of Cocteau’s life and work. This I do below, with an emphasis on his work in film. more…