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Poetry in motion
Jean Cocteau’s real-life fantasies at the Museum of Fine Arts

Jean Cocteau, who died in 1963 (at age 74), was a prophetic critic of the kind of fantasy cinema that rakes in 2003 dollars: "The public expects fairies, or at least, in default of fairies, it expects what in modern parlance is termed evasion, escape. But genuine poetry has no use for evasion. What it wants is invasion, that is, that the soul be invaded with words and objects which, just because they don’t present a winged appearance, impel it to plunge deep into itself. Therefore it’s through sheer frivolous laziness that the public prefers poetic poetry, fantastic fairy plays, and rebels against anything that requires a personal effort of fantasy and magic."

The pleasures, wonders, and terrors of "The Fantastic Cinema of Jean Cocteau," the MFA retrospective that’s starting tonight, November 20, belong to a world whose objects are those of reality, reorganized for the camera. Cocteau is uninterested in special effects that involve anything more than that. The backgrounds may be faked or, as in his best film, Orphée/Orpheus (1950; December 7 at 2 p.m.), simulated through back projection; the camera may be upside down or on its side; the film may end up being shown in reverse. But nothing else gets into the film other than what was there when it was shot. The characteristic Cocteau special effect involves reversing time or deforming movement. In his first film, Le sang d’un poète/Blood of a Poet (1930; November 30 at 2:15 p.m.), the Poet makes his way arduously along a hotel corridor, clinging to the wall as if resisting being pulled or blown away (as happens again in Orphée), disobeying gravity by leaping up to stand on a doorknob.

Even though Cocteau himself plays "The Poet" in his last film, Le testament d’Orphée (1960; December 7 at 4 p.m.), it’s a mistake to respond to his films primarily on the level of his personal mythology. The task is not to imagine Le sang d’un poète, Orphée, and Le testament d’Orphée without Cocteau, which is in any case impossible, but to imagine them as he presents them: as films about the difficulty of doing poetry. And we should also abandon at once any thought of decoding the imagery of his films, as if they were samples of an abstruse symbology. As the otherworldly Princess says to Orpheus in Orphée (the lines are repeated in Testament): "You try too hard to understand. It’s a great fault."

"Place your nighttime in broad daylight," advises Cocteau in Le testament d’Orphée: this was a strategy he followed throughout his career as a filmmaker. The idea of using recognizable real-world locations dense with suggestions of contemporary life and turning them into way stations for a journey to unreality perhaps didn’t start with Cocteau, but it found in him its classic exponent. From Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville down to the Matrix trilogy, he influenced or anticipated an entire wing of fantasy cinema in reinventing the real as a stage for the unreal.

Contemporary commercial films always devalue the real world in order to enhance the value of a fantasy world. (The Matrix films are only the most explicit version of this unquestioned ideology — or metaphysics.) Cocteau never does this, and the question of a simple alternative between reality and fantasy, or between a bare and unadorned reality and a reality enriched by fantasy (in the form of some beneficial "myth") is never posed in his films.

But the more fundamental difference between Cocteau and commercial cinema is on the level of the image. In Tim Burton’s soon-to-be-released fantasy Big Fish, the image, when it’s meant to be noticed at all, is self-glorifying, patently posed there on the screen in order to be oohed and aahed over and found pretty or eerie or whatever. The film has the same overpriced, oversimplified, overcareful quality of bad children’s-book art that’s so repellent in the Lord of the Rings films: nothing can show up on screen just for its own sake, or just because the director loved it (whereas in Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action, in my book the best commercial fantasy film of 2003, anything and everything shows up on screen for no other reason but that).

In Cocteau’s La belle et la bête/Beauty and the Beast (1946; November 22 at 2:20 p.m. and November 28 at 2 p.m.), the image is rich, dense, and full. It may extend into off-screen space, or it may be self-contained (though never to the degree that an image in The Matrix Revolutions is), or it may contain inexplicable, wondrous details, but unlike the slave images of commercial films, it’s not determined by something else: it exists for itself and within a constellation of images. If, in Le testament d’Orphée, Cocteau shows the Poet’s hands repairing the torn petals of a hibiscus, that’s above all because he wants to share his enjoyment in this miracle. Cocteau’s images may be beautiful, but the beauty is never the reason for the images, whereas if in a Matrix or Lord of the Rings film an image happens to be striking (let’s not waste the word beautiful), that’s because it was designed to be "poetic," in the disparaging sense of the word as Cocteau uses it, or, almost as bad, "picturesque" ("Every time one slips into the picturesque, the spectators grab hold of it as though it were a lifebelt in a shipwreck. They have no eyes for anything else.").

Another difference between Cocteau and our modern fantasists is that Cocteau never thinks about the comfort of the audience, except to imagine ways to disturb it. His opinion of comfort is clear from the end of Orphée, when Orpheus and Eurydice, now ensconced in their roles of bourgeois husband and wife and oblivious of the adventures that have befallen them, share banal endearments while the angel Heurtebise, waiting with the Princess to receive their eternal punishment for having dared to love the two mortals, concludes, "It was necessary to put them back in their dirty water."

Something of the harshness of this conclusion can be found, perhaps, even at the end of La belle et la bête, in which the handling of Beauty’s union with the now handsome Beast is deliberately trivial and mocking. The lightness of the moment makes it impossible not to recall the Beast in his earlier form and remember how much more interesting he was.

Of the six films Cocteau directed, two stand slightly apart in that their unreality is present only in the form of coincidence and a certain abstraction rather than in any avowed supernatural element. L’aigle à deux têtes/The Eagle Has Two Heads (1947; November 29 at 2:15 p.m.) is a triumph of mise-en-scène: pursuing continuous motion, Cocteau creates visual patterns that constantly insist on the presence of the camera. With Les parents terribles/The Awful Parents (1948; November 29 at 4 p.m.), he pushes the same style still further, this time bearing down more tightly on the actors’ faces. Intended partly as a record of the performances in the stage production of Cocteau’s play, the film of Parents emphasizes the theatricality of the text in a way that would be impossible in theater. For Cocteau, the realism of cinema is never a drawback, because he never tries to disguise the essential theatricality of his characters.

Les parents terribles and Les enfants terribles/The Awful Children (1950; November 23 at 12:15 p.m.) are both studies of unnatural families; the relationships of mother and son in the one and brother and sister in the other are characterized by a furious innocence that turns monstrous, nurtured in isolation from an external reality that can only destroy it. Cocteau entrusted the direction of his script for Les enfants terribles (based on his own novel) to Jean-Pierre Melville, and the film, an astonishing one-of-a-kind masterpiece, accomplishes the strange feat of being at once faithful to and far from Cocteau. Melville’s back-projection shot of a shy, disheartened suitor gazing past the camera out a window while the camera slowly backs away from his beloved and her brother in the background recalls both Les parents terribles (in which the backing-away of the camera is a key psychological effect) and Orphée (with its back-projection shots of Heurtebise and Orpheus making their way through the Zone).

Cocteau was a man of the theater who loved actors and acting, and the performances in his films are a crucial part of their texture. Among the most brilliant examples are the delicacy of Jean Marais’s Beast; the sparkling interplay among Yvonne de Bray, Marcel André, and Gabrielle Dorziat as the terrible parents and the equally terrible aunt; the delicious monster played by Nicole Stéphane in Les enfants terribles. And to the performances of Maria Casarès as the fateful Princess and of François Périer as her accomplice in Orphée, the only possible responses are admiration and gratitude — the same responses evoked by all of Cocteau’s work.

Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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