Jean Cocteau Biography

Jean Cocteau Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) has been called the most versatile artist of the twentieth century, and in this case hyperbole has at least some basis in reality.

He was born to a middle-class family in Paris, he excelled from youth in an almost absurd range of fields: filmmaking, poetry, graphic art, fiction, drama, couture, even postage-stamp design. Most of all, Cocteau was a brilliant, witty, self-invented personality whose talents put him at the forefront of practically every "ism" of the century, from surrealism to modernism to dada. The persistence of fairy tale, mythological, and other classical motifs in his work adds a gravitas a word Cocteau would no doubt bristle at, as being much too serious that makes it arguably unique in modern art.

While it's hard at this point to judge the breadth of his achievement much of his work outside cinema is difficult to find his films have been consistently available as staples of the art-house circuit, cine clubs, and classrooms devoted to the aesthetics of cinema. Cocteau was not prolific in this area: he made only six films over a three-decade period. Of these, four Beauty and the Beast and the "Orphic trilogy" stand almost sui generis as representatives of the poetic consciousness in cinema. The Criterion Collection's recent release of the Orphic trilogy in a DVD boxed set affords a welcome chance to reassess these works that were a crucial part of many cinephiles' introduction to the art of film. All three benefit from crisp digital transfers, restored sound, and new English subtitle translations.

Some of Jean Cocteau Poems

Preamble (A Rough Draft For An Ars Poetica)


A rough draft
for an ars poetica

. . . . . . .
Let's get our dreams unstuck

The grain of rye
free from the prattle of grass
et loin de arbres orateurs

It will sprout

But forget about
the rustic festivities

For the explosive word
falls harmlessly
eternal through
the compact generations
and except for you nothing denotates

its sweet-scented dynamite

I discard eloquence
the empty sail
and the swollen sail
which cause the ship
to lose her course
My ink nicks

and there
and there
and there

and there

deep poetry

The mirror-paneled wardrobe
washing down ice-floes
the little eskimo girl

in a heap
of moist negroes
her nose was
against the window-pane
of dreary Christmases

A white bear
adorned with chromatic moire
dries himself in the midnight sun


The huge luxury item

Slowly founders
all its lights aglow

and so sinks the evening-dress ball
into the thousand mirrors
of the palace hotel

And now
it is I

the thin Columbus of phenomena
in the front
of a mirror-paneled wardrobe
full of linen
and locking with a key

The obstinate miner
of the void
his fertile mine

the potential in the rough
glitters there
mingling with its white rock

princess of the mad sleep
listen to my horn
and my pack of hounds

I deliver you
from the forest
where we came upon the spell

Here we are
by the pen
one with the other
wedded on the page

Isles sobs of Ariadne

dragging along
Ariadnes seals

for I betray you my fair stanzas
to run and awaken

I plan no architecture

Simply deaf like you Beethoven

blind like you
numberless old man
born everywhere

I elaborate
in the prairies of inner

and the work of the mission
and the poem of the work
and the stanza of the poem
and the group of the stanza
and the words of the group
and the letters of the word
and the least
loop of the letters

it's your foot
of attentive satin
that I place in position
pink tightrope walker
sucked up by the void

to the left to the right
the god gives a shake
and I walk
towards the other side
with infinite precaution

Jean Cocteau

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