JEAN COCTEAU

JULY 5, 1889 – OC­TO­BER 11, 1963

The New European - - Eurofile Great Lives - BY CHAR­LIE CONNELLY

The world has al­ways had trou­ble ac­cept­ing the true poly­math. Even a per­son of great ge­nius can take decades to ex­cel in one genre, we har­rumph, how can some­one be a gen­uine suc­cess at a mul­ti­tude of things? They’re chancers, peo­ple who haven’t paid their dues or put in the graft, there’s no sub­stance to their work, their suc­cess is a pa­rade of flukes clad in the em­peror’s new clothes. Hence when WH Au­den wrote, “To en­close the col­lected works of Jean Cocteau one would need not a book­shelf, but a ware­house,” he didn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean it as a com­pli­ment.

The French are more ac­cept­ing than most of the artis­tic poly­math but even there Cocteau’s ver­sa­til­ity could pro­voke pursed lips and sus­pi­cions aroused. Poet, novelist, film pro­ducer, li­bret­tist, painter, ac­tor, com­poser, he even suc­cess­fully man­aged a cham­pion boxer for a while: there seemed to be no area where Cocteau couldn’t be­come a roar­ing suc­cess.

Naturally this meant that writ­ers and po­ets who slaved over their manuscripts and film pro­duc­ers who spent years learn­ing their craft would re­sent a man who seemed to them to be a mere dab­bler, a fop­pish dilet­tante whose con­nec­tions per­mit­ted ac­cess to the pin­na­cles of the arts with­out first scal­ing the lower slopes.

Yet such were Cocteau’s ex­tra­or­di­nary re­serves of tal­ent that it’s hard to pick one area in which he was most gifted. His 1929 novel Les En­fants Ter­ri­bles is still feted as a mas­ter­piece, for ex­am­ple, while in Or­phée and La Belle et la Bete he pro­duced two land­marks of world cin­ema whose in­flu­ence is still felt to­day, 70 years af­ter they were made.

His first foray into film was 1930s avant­garde Le Sang d’un Poète and it’s the blood of a poet that Cocteau felt ran through ev­ery­thing he did to the point of clas­si­fy­ing his own out­put un­der the head­ings, poésie, poésie de théâtre, poésie cri­tique, poésie de ro­man, poésie graphique

and poésie ciné­matographique.

It was as a poet that Cocteau had first launched him­self into the French cul­tural land­scape. He was barely 18 when in 1908 his verse was per­formed by an ac­tor to a crowd of cul­tur­ally-in­flu­en­tial Parisians, a gath­er­ing that saw him pro­claimed as ‘the new Rim­baud’, and his first col­lec­tion La Lampe d’al­adin was pub­lished soon af­ter­wards to wide crit­i­cal ac­claim.

That first poetic per­for­mance was or­ches­trated by his in­flu­en­tial mother Eugénie, on whom Cocteau doted to the ex­tent he re­mained liv­ing with her un­til he was 37. His solic­i­tor fa­ther Georges had killed him­self when Jean was nine years old, a tragedy that ar­guably forged his drive for suc­cess. The rea­son for Ge­orge’s sui­cide al­ways re­mained a mys­tery, and with Eugénie’s grief and hopes piled onto her gifted son the unan­swered ques­tions and in­evitable guilt over Georges’ death might be what urged Jean to fill the void left by his fa­ther.

In the mean­time he placed his mother on a pedestal, de­scrib­ing her as “a madonna swathed in vel­vet, smoth­ered in di­a­monds, be­decked with noc­tur­nal plumes, a glit­ter­ing chest­nut tree spiked with rays of light, tall, ab­stracted, torn be­tween the last prompt­ings to be good and one last look in the mir­ror”.

Cocteau’s early ca­reer played out in a world of priv­i­lege and con­nec­tions. By the time war broke out in 1914 the 25-year-old counted among his cir­cle the writ­ers Mar­cel Proust, An­dré Gide and Guil­laume Apol­li­naire and the artists Pablo Pi­casso and Amedeo Modigliani. In 1916 he was driv­ing am­bu­lances on the West­ern Front but his lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion was al­ready stel­lar enough for the Rus­sian im­pre­sario Sergei Di­aghilev to stage a bal­let Cocteau had de­vised with the com­poser Erik Satie. Pa­rade was first per­formed in 1917 by the Bal­lets Russes with a set de­signed by Pi­casso and pro­gramme notes by Apol­li­naire.

A decade later Cocteau would pro­vide the li­bretto for Igor Stravin­sky’s opera Oedi­pus Rex. It was this com­bi­na­tion of cut­tingedge avant garde and deep love for the an­cient clas­sics that, en­hanced by an ear finely tuned to de­vel­op­ments and chang­ing fash­ions in the arts, kept Cocteau at the fore­front of French cul­ture right up un­til his death. Even as he aged he seemed to re­tain a cul­tural youth, a fresh­ness of com­po­si­tion and orig­i­nal­ity of ideas that meant he never truly went out of fash­ion.

It was his faith in the an­chor of clas­si­cism that led the sur­re­al­ists to de­velop a febrile dis­like of the man and his work. In­deed from the 1920s the sur­re­al­ists’ leader An­dré Bre­ton pur­sued a vendetta against Cocteau that lasted two decades. Bre­ton’s acolytes would turn up at premieres of Cocteau’s work, heckle loudly and lob stones at per­form­ers.

They once tele­phoned Eugénie and told her her son had been killed in a car crash and one of the sur­re­al­ist cir­cle even set out to mur­der Cocteau at an event that, for­tu­nately, he de­cided at the last minute not to at­tend.

Sur­re­al­ists apart (and with the ex­cep­tion of the ho­mo­pho­bic Bre­ton even they thawed even­tu­ally) it was Cocteau’s per­son­al­ity as much as his work that won peo­ple over and kept him at the cut­ting edge of the cul­tural mi­lieu decade af­ter decade.

His friend­ships and re­la­tion­ships ranged from the cham­pion ban­tamweight boxer Panama Al Brown, whom he man­aged and took as a lover, to the waif-like Edith Piaf, the lat­ter a friend­ship of such depth and en­durance that the singer and the poly­math even died within hours of each other.

Some say that Cocteau’s fa­tal heart at­tack was in di­rect re­sponse to news of Piaf ’s death. On the last morn­ing of his life Cocteau, who was work­ing on the de­sign of a new stage set for De­bussy’s opera Pel­léas and Mélisande, was swamped with re­quests for com­ment about the singer who had suc­cumbed to can­cer the pre­vi­ous night.

“I have had a tem­per­a­ture since this morn­ing and I must say that the death of Edith Piaf has given me new breath­ing pains,” he told Reuters, laid up on his sofa. In poor health since a heart at­tack six months ear­lier, Cocteau told the news agency he’d felt un­easy the pre­vi­ous night and wor­ried that it was down to the death of some­one close to him. It was a kind of sti­fling sen­sa­tion, he said, rem­i­nis­cent of his heart at­tack.

When his heart gave out a mat­ter of min­utes later it was ei­ther a co­in­ci­dence, Cocteau’s last and great­est artis­tic ges­ture or a fi­nal, em­phatic act of up­stag­ing. Even in death he was per­form­ing, be­cause for all his artis­tic ver­sa­til­ity Jean Cocteau’s great­est tal­ent was play­ing him­self.

“I’ve dreamed more than I’ve lived and all that has taken on ter­ri­ble pro­por­tions,” he said to­wards the end of his life. “The spec­ta­tor will barely no­tice that I’m like an ac­tor in some­one else’s play. Even this other is un­der or­ders from a mys­te­ri­ous schiz­o­phrenic who lives in us all, that most peo­ple man­age to ex­or­cise, or in whom they refuse to be­lieve.”

As TS Eliot put it to Stravin­sky, “Cocteau was very bril­liant the last time we met but he seemed to be re­hears­ing for a more im­por­tant oc­ca­sion”.

Whether it was ego­tism, a deep-set and al­most en­tirely hid­den in­se­cu­rity or an un­con­scious de­sire to atone for his fa­ther’s ab­sence that kept Cocteau per­form­ing in both his pro­fes­sional and pri­vate lives, so suc­cess­ful was he that as the years passed he be­came known more and more just for be­ing Jean Cocteau.

“My name has over­taken my work,” he said late in his life. “My work must catch up.”

Maybe this is the se­cret of the poly­math: their true tal­ent is the sim­ple and sin­gu­lar act of be­ing their ex­tra­or­di­nary selves.

Even in death he was per­form­ing, be­cause for all his artis­tic ver­sa­til­ity Jean Cocteau’s great­est tal­ent was play­ing him­self

Photo: Re­porters As­so­cies/gam­maRapho via Getty Im­ages

POLY­MATH: Jean Cocteau pic­tured in Jan­uary, 1955

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