Jean Maurice Eugene Clement Cocteau was born to a wealthy family on July 5, 1889 in Maisons-Lafitte, near Paris
. His father was a lawyer and amateur painter, who committed suicide when Cocteau was nine. This event is believed to have influenced him in the direction of surrealism
, but Cocteau involved at least for a time with practically every major art "ism" of the century - modernism
and even dada.
Cocteau's career was a diverse and a rich one - he was a writer, a poet, a critic, a journalist, a painter, a sculptor and a filmmaker. He himself, however, never considered himself anything but Poet - a creator of descriptive meaning, a gleaner of hidden beauty from the mists of cosmic force.
He published his first collection of poems, Aladdin's Lamp, at the age of only 19. He then went on to write the libretto for the ballet Le Dieu Bleu, influenced by his aquaintance with the Russain impresario Sergey Daighilev and his ackquaintance with Igor Stravinsky, whom he visited with while the latter was working on his famous ballet The Rites of Spring. Among his other influential ackquaintances was Picasso, who moved him to say "I admired his intelligence, and clung to everything he said, for he spoke little; I kept still so as not to miss a word."(from Pablo Picasso by Pierre Cabanne, 1977).
During WWI Cocteau drove an ambulance, but his service was cut short when he was arrested in 1915. After the war, he founded a publishing house called Editions de la Sirene, which published his own works as well scores by Stravinsky and Sattie, among others.
Cocteau's notorious addiction to opium started in the early 1920's, some say as a result of the tragicly premature death of his friend the novelist Raymond Radiguet. This addiction will later provide him with material for one of his most well regarded literary works, Opium, a prose and drawing exploration of his withdrawal from the drug.
In 1936 Cocteau published My First Voyage, a first-hand account of Phillias Fogg's 80-day trip around the world, which he undertook to make in real life for a bet. This was after he had established a reputation for himself in the filmmaking world by releasing his first movie, The Blood of a Poet, in 1930.
The rest of the 1930's were rich in creation but also marred by drug addiction. In 1945 Cocteau came back triumphant to filmmaking with his version of Beauty and the Beast, one of his most popular and enduring works. It is a haunting exploration of Freudean themes as well as classically tragic motifes such as hubris and predestination. The film is simultaneously unsettling and mesmerising, frightening and reassuring. Playing three different roles in the movie was another friend and long time collaborator, the actor Jean Marais.
1950 saw the release of the second part of what came to be known as "The Orpheus Trilogy", the movie Orpheus. The closing chapter in the trilogy is The Testament of Orpheus, released in 1960, in which a 70 year old Cocteau plays a character which is essentially modelled on himself. Much has been written regarding the interwined themes of death and creativity which run throughout the series, as well as the rest of his work. Various Freudean theories regarding the death of his father and his obsession with the Oedipal complex have been put forward. It wouldn't be too far fetched, however, to simply suppose that he considered the creative instinct as being inseparable from death, two opposing spokes on the wheel of life.
Jean Cocteau was, throughout his life, a self-invented colourful personality. He almost seems to have regarded himself as an extra prop in the complex theatrics that were his personal and creative life - two aspects which he didn't seem to have seen as at all separable. In later life he underwent plastic surgery and started wearing leather trousers and matador capes. Whatever his peculiarities, he was an endlessly original and fascinating creator, a forerunner of almost all of the influential artistic streams of the century, and a tireless student of artisitc and personal expression.
He died in Milly-la-Foret, not far from Paris, on October 11, 1963, at the age of 74. He is reported to have suffered a heart attack on heaing of the death of another friend, Edith Piaf, expiring with the words "Ah, la Piaf est morte, je peux mourir".
Cocteau's most easily approachable and most available work is his movies, so a short filmography is in order:
- The Blood of a Poet (1930)
- Beauty and the Beast (1945)
- The Eagle with Two Heads (1947)
- Les Parents Terrible (1948)
- Orpheus (1950)
- Testament of Orpheus (1960)