Cocteau paints a selfie
Prior to his death in 1963, Jean Cocteau, the great French artist, filmmaker, novelist and poet, made his cinematic last will and testament, a time-capsule titled Jean Cocteau s’adresse… à l’an 2000 (“Jean Cocteau speaks to the year 2000”). Cocteau, seen seated in front of his own work at Francine Weisweiller’s Villa Santo-Sospir (where his Testament of Orpheus was shot), offers advice and perspective to a generation just being born. Cocteau gives his definition of genius and of the poet, “an intermediary, a medium of that mysterious force that inhabits.” He also discusses the technical progress of science and how it must not be impeded by intolerance and religion.
In his Cocteau biography James S. Williams wrote:
Just a couple of months before his death, in August 1963, he made one last film: a 25-minute short entitled Jean Cocteau s’adresse à l’an 2000 (Cocteau addresses the year 2000). The film comprises one still and highly sober shot of Cocteau facing the camera head-on to address the youth of the future. Once recorded, this spoken message for the 21st century was wrapped up, sealed and posted on the understanding that it would be opened only in the year 2000 (as it turned out, it was discovered and exhumed a few years shy of that date). If in The Testament Cocteau portrays himself as a living anachronism, a lonesome classical modernist loitering in space-time in the same buckskin jacket and tie while lost in the spectral light of his memories, here he acknowledges explicitly the irony of his phantom-like state: by the time the viewer sees this image, he, J. C., our saviour Poet, will long be dead.
Temporality is typically skewed: speaking from both 1963 and 2000 Cocteau is at once nostalgic for the present that will have passed and prophetic about the future. There is thus both a documentary aspect and projective thrust to the film, another new configuration of ‘superior realism’ and fantasy enhanced by Cocteau’s seamless performance as himself and his now ‘immortal’ status as a member of the Académie Française. He reiterates some of his long-standing artistic themes and principles: death is a form of life; poetry is beyond time and a kind of superior mathematics; we are all a procession of others who inhabit us; errors are the true expression of an individual, and so on. The tone is at once speculative and uncompromising, as when Cocteau pours vitriolic scorn on the many awards bestowed upon him, which he calls ‘transcendent punishments’. He also revels in the fact that he can say now what he likes with absolute freedom and impunity since he will not be around to suffer the consequences.
The status of Jean Cocteau s’adresse à l’an 2000 remains ultimately unclear. Is it a new testament or confession, or a heroic demonstration of the need for human endurance, or a pure ‘farce of anti-gravitation’ as he puts it? Or everything at once? It is entirely characteristic of Cocteau to leave us hanging on this suspended paradox. What is certain, however, and what we have consistently seen, is that Cocteau’s life and body are his work, and his work in turn is always mysteriously alive. This is Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings. Let us retain and celebrate the force of that gesture. He is resurrected before our eyes, ever-present, defiant and joyfully queer.
Jean Cocteau is dead, long live Cocteau!
If you are a Cocteau aficionado, the film is a delight. Here are a few transcribed moments:
We remain apprentice robots.
I certainly hope that you have not become robots but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.
But I have no idea who you are or how you are thinking, or what you are doing. I don’t know the dances you are dancing.
The dance of our time is called “The Twist.” Maybe you have heard
You most certainly have your own dance.
I wonder what Cocteau would have made of The Beatles, hippies, punk, Internet pornography, Facebok or the iPhone, but this we’ll never know.
I told you that nowadays youth is straddling contradictions. It has lost the kind of humanity that ours was and yet it isn’t quite robotic yet.
That’s why the young are always being accused of being too sad and worried: it’s only normal.
You certainly must still know the great painter called Picasso.
Picasso said to me: “It takes a long time to grow young.”
And he was right in the sense that someone young doesn’t yet know which way to go, but contemplates whether to go left or right.
Being worried is also being old, but slowly one finds one’s way.
Cocteau died of a heart attack in his Milly-la-Forêt chateau in Essonne on October 11th at the age of 74. Legend has it that Édith Piaf, upset by the news of her friend’s death, on that same day, choked so strongly that she suffered from a heart attack and died as well.
Version with English subtitles, here.