Jean Cocteau is still cited by students of literature and cinema as one of the most enigmatic pioneers of the 20th century, known for his poetry as well as his poetic films such as Orpheus. His works are an indispensable part of the history of queer cinema, especially due to his brave stance on his own homosexuality and the subtextual commentary against the heteronormative society of that time.
Born in a small town outside Paris, Cocteau’s childhood experiences shaped his own artistic vision – especially the memory of his father committing suicide when he was just nine years old. He had come to terms with his sexuality at an early age and even had a boyfriend during his school years. “As far back as I can remember, and even at an age when the mind does not yet influence the senses, I find traces of my love of boys,” Cocteau admitted later.
While many thought of homosexuality as the problem back then because of the pernicious social and religious programming against homosexuality, Cocteau was adamant that it was the social structures of power that were responsible for his unhappiness and that he had nothing to feel “guilty” about. He declared: “My misfortunes came from a society that condemns the rare as a crime and forces us to reform our inclinations”.
Over the course of his life, Cocteau had affairs with many notable figures such as the French novelist Raymond Radigue and the boxer Panama Al Brown among others. However, the highlight of his romantic life was his relationship with actor Jean Marais who maintained a productive creative partnership with Cocteau while also being in love. Together, they were described as the “first modern gay couple”.
Like Cocteau, Marais also had a volatile childhood because his mother was frequently imprisoned and his father lived separately. He had been thrown out of school for dressing as a girl and hitting on a teacher, eventually moving into the world of acting later on. Marais discovered Cocteau through his drawings when he was just 24 and took it upon himself to meet the talented artist. Although he admitted that he wanted to get to know the influential pioneer for material reasons at first, it only took Marais ten days to fall in love with the genius.
Their relationship was extremely passionate and intense, with Cocteau recognising the opportunity to cast Marais in his own cinematic projects. Marais starred in most of Cocteau’s most well-known projects, including Beauty and the Beast as well as Orpheus. The filmmaker claimed that Marais’ performance in the latter “illuminates the film for me with his soul”. Indeed, Marais came to be known as Cocteau’s muse who had been heavily dependent on opium for artistic inspiration until then.
They are an enduring symbol of gay pride because they made the conscious decision of staying in a Nazi-occupied Paris despite the fascists’ position on homosexuality. Cocteau and Marais were openly gay and were lampooned in the Nazi media for this. The actor even went as far as to claim that he was rejected by the Resistance in France for being gay when he expressed his desire to sign up and fight against the Nazis.
Marais outlived Cocteau since the literary icon passed away in 1963 after suffering a heart attack. The actor maintained that Cocteau had been the love of his life and wished that he had found him sooner. “I stay with you” is embedded in Cocteau’s gravestone which is probably a message to the future generations about his artistic influence as well as a private reassurance to Marais.