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Jean Cocteau: A fabulously surreal mind formed from tragedy

“I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.” – Jean Cocteau

Looking into a mirror was, for Jean Cocteau, like looking into the entrance of another world. This reflective doorway became a recognisable piece of iconography throughout the films of Cocteau, a metaphorical image that well represented the poet, playwright and filmmakers obsession with the image of the self. Characterised by a life of several highs and lows, Cocteau’s life of tragedy led him to a fantastical, ethereal dreamscape from which much of his work would draw. 

No stranger to abuse and hardship, Cocteau grew up in a wealthy family on the borders of Paris in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, where his retired father would teach a young Jean how to draw, paint and extract his inner artist. When Jean was just ten years old, however, his father would commit suicide, a tragic event that would forever mould the shape of the young artists’ life, encouraging an unusual, self-reflective and surreal body of work.

Attending Lycée Condorcet during his teenage years, Cocteau began to struggle considerably with school and much-preferred spending time at the theatre and writing plays with his school friend René Rocher. In 1907, he would leave Yvelines for Paris with his mother, where the two would build a codependent relationship, rejecting the deep-rooted sadness he felt for his father by focusing his artistic intentions on the surreal dreamworld. At the tender age of 19, he would publish his first volumes of poems named Aladdin’s Lamp the collection gave Cocteau prominence in Bohemian artistic circles where he would become known as ‘The Frivolous Prince’

This came, however, at the dawn of World War I, where Cocteau would serve in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and would, soon after, form a relationship with artist Pablo Picasso. Associating himself with the Cubism movement, calling the art a ‘recall to order’, Jean Cocteau attracted the attention of Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev who persuaded the poet and artist to write a scenario for a ballet. Resulting in the ballet Parade, released in 1917, the performance featured sets designed by Picasso and music by Erik Satie, and would illustrate the great lengths Cocteau had come since his tragic childhood. 

A key figure in the movement of avant-garde art, Jean Cocteau also developed a devastating opium addition as a form of mental escapism from the trauma of his early life, a vice that would form the inspiration for novels Les Enfants Terribles and Opium: The Diary of an Addict. Both harming and inspiring the artist throughout the 1920s, it was during this time that Cocteau’s successful play Orphée was staged in Paris, and also shortly before the artist would release his first feature film The Blood of a Poet, a surrealist film following the fantasies of a young artist. 

No doubt an autobiographical piece of cinema, The Blood of a Poet would mark the artists move away from poetry and painting, to focus on the medium of cinema, creating Beauty and the Beast in 1946 and Orpheus in 1949. Writing and directing a large majority of his films, Cocteau’s style was known as highly influential on the upcoming French New Wave genre with the director’s final film The Testament of Orpheus becoming a highly prominent piece of European cinema, featuring the appearance of Pablo Picasso, as well as the Russian, American actor Yul Brynner. 

The legacy he leaves behind is one that embraces the surreal potency of the dreamscape as a space in which to address an individual’s darkest truths and realities. As Edith Wharton, writer of The Age of Innocence, once described the poet, he was a man “to whom every great line of poetry was a sunrise, every sunset the foundation of the Heavenly City…”.