If you like movies, then you probably have at least a passing familiarity with French director/artist Jean Cocteau. Maybe you picked up La Belle et la bête (1946) or Orphée (1950) during a half-price Criterion sale at Barnes & Noble. Maybe someone in film school made you watch Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) in some experimental film class and you thought: “What is this? This is some weird ass shit but…I like it! It’s definitely different than those other experimental guys. I might be able to get down with…what’s this dude’s name? Cocteau?”
Most cinephiles and culture vultures know the basics: Cocteau was French. He was gay. His social set was expansive, attracting everyone from Proust, Man Ray, and Pablo Picasso to queer artists like Gertrude Stein, Jean Genet, and Marlene Dietrich. Basic knowledge is fine if that’s all you want, but Jean Cocteau is SO much more interesting. His art was hot, his writing was beautiful, he was controversial…but let’s get real: What makes this Frenchman unique?
He loved the hell out of cats and he was not afraid to let the world know it!
Cocteau was romantically involved with his lead actor, Jean Marais for over two decades. It’s unclear whether Marais also enjoyed cats so that part of their affair is still a mystery. We do know that Cocteau firmly supported his lover’s close relationship with the dog he saved during WWII, Muluk.
What is it they say—opposites attract? If that’s the case and if we place cats and dogs on the spectrum as polar opposites, then these two men probably had a banging sex life! While Marais, son of a veterinarian, was fond enough of his dog to take glamour shots with him and signed autographs on pictures that featured himself and Muluk together, Jean Cocteau was much more than your average cat guy. More than your average cat lady, even. Cocteau believed in felines.
Jean Cocteau illustrated this lovely book of poetry in 1962, ‘La dame aux Chats’ (The Lady with Cats).
These days Jean Cocteau might even be more notable on the internet for his heavily meme-d quotes about cats than for his elegant film work.
1) “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.”
2) “I prefer cats over dogs because police cats don’t exist.”
Cocteau made a great deal of art, but he made a lot of cat-related art. Not only is it vast and multi-faceted, spanning from sculpture to murals to sketch, it’s also extremely joyful. The Cocteau cats are a real treasure.
Cocteau painted this in the local chapel near where he lived in Milly-la-Forêt, in 1959, where he wished to be buried (and was). It is still there.
As a cat lover, Cocteau shared his home with multiple feline companions. While not able to divine every furry friend’s name, two of his marvelous cats went by Madeline and Karoun. Cocteau was quite close with Karoun and nicknamed his furry buddy “King of Cats,” even dedicating a whole book to him! Lucky cat!
Orson Welles by Jean Cocteau (from the frontispiece of André Bazin’s book on Welles)
Orson Welles and Jean Cocteau first met at a performance of “Voodoo Macbeth,” the all-black Shakespeare production Welles staged in New York in 1936 with funding from a New Deal program. They remained friends and encouraged one another’s rascality, according to Simon Callow’s account of the 1948 Venice Film Festival in One-Man Band, the third volume of his Welles biography:
He and the perenially provocative Jean Cocteau formed a sort of anti-festival clique, clubbing together to commit what Cocteau rather wonderfully called lèse-festival. [...] Together in Venice, the two men behaved like two very naughty boys. Welles shocked his hosts by ostentatiously walking out of the showing of Visconti’s uncompromisingly severe masterpiece, La Terra Trema.
Cocteau and Welles in Venice, 1948
Welles was a member of the Comité d’Honneur at Cocteau’s 1949 Festival du Film Maudit, at which both The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai were screened. (Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks made its European debut there, too, and Artaud’s “Sorcery and Cinema” was first published in the festival catalog.) Cocteau contributed this sketch of his friend to the program for Welles’ The Blessed and the Damned, an evening of two one-act plays that opened in Paris in 1950:
Orson Welles is a giant with the face of a child, a tree filled with birds and shadows, a dog who has broken loose and gone to sleep in the flower bed. An active loafer, a wise madman, a solitary surrounded by humanity, a student who sleeps during the lesson. A strategy: pretending to be drunk to be simply left alone. Seemingly better than anyone else, he can use a nonchalant attitude of real strength, apparently drifting but guided by a half-opened eye. This attitude of an abandoned hulk, and that of a sleepy bear, protects him from the cold fever of the motion picture world. An attitude which made him move on, made him leave Hollywood, and carried him to other lands and other horizons.
Quoting some of the increasingly hysterical praise for Welles printed elsewhere in the program and then in the show’s reviews, Callow wonders: “At least Cocteau had the excuse of being an opium addict; what were these chaps on?”
Vali Myers was never going to be ordinary. Her talent, wayward spirit and shock of flame-red hair marked her out for a life less ordinary. Ordinary was nice and nice was boring and Vali Myers hated boring.
But Vali had come from ordinary. She was born in Canterbury, Sydney, in 1930 to a wireless operator father and a talented violinist mother. Her mother had given up her career with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to raise her family. Vali watched in growing horror as her mother slowly fell to pieces with the frustration of her small town life. Wives were expected to be drudges for the benefit of their husbands and nothing more. Her mother’s unraveling inspired Vali to focus on and nurture her own talents. She was good at art and loved to dance. She hated school and had difficulties with reading and writing. Her classmates thought her odd, but Vali thought them odd and frighteningly unimaginative.
She quit home at fourteen and worked in a factory to finance her ambitions to become a dancer. Vali eventually became a principal dancer with the Melbourne Modern Ballet Company. This early success confirmed her belief there was more to life than just being some man’s wife as most women her age were expected to be. She later told photographer Eva Collins:
Men always have women backing them up. But show me the bloke who back up his woman if she is an artist. They don’t like doing that, makes them feel like they’re sitting in the back seat. If a man is a real man, why does he need a woman to clean for him? He should look after himself, otherwise, he should go back to his Mummy!
At nineteen, Vali traveled to Paris where she earned a meager living dancing in cafes. For three years she lived on the streets in a hand-to-mouth existence with many of the city’s homeless youngsters. But she was free to do as she pleased and had the opportunity to mix with many of the city’s famous artists and writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Django Reinhart, and Jean Cocteau, with whom she often smoked opium.
This gaggle of young beatniks on the fringes of Paris attracted the interest of Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken, who chose the iconic Vali as the main character in photo-essay Love on the Left Bank (1954). Van der Elsken’s black & white photographs followed Vali as young beatnik girl “Ann” through the gangs of bohemians, musicians, and vagabonds who hung around the bars, clubs, and flophouses of St Germain-des-Prés. Vali’s distinctive look inspired a whole generation of women including Patti Smith who later described Vali as:
...the supreme beatnik chick—thick red hair and big black eyes, black boatneck sweaters and trench coats.
They dine on half a loaf, smoke hashish, sleep in parked cars or on benches under the plane trees, sometimes borrowing a hotel room from a luckier friend to shelter their love. Some of them write, or paint, or dance.
Vali was dancing and painting and keeping a journal of her daily life. She was occasionally arrested as a vagabond but was usually bailed out by Jean Cocteau. During this time, she met and married Hungarian architect Rudi Rappold and for a time they lived in Vienna, Austria, and then in Positano, Italy. After Rappold’s death, Vali remained in Italy where she had gained the moniker “the Witch of Positano” because of her outsider existence. She continued to paint and write and spend time looking after the local wildlife.
In the sixties, Vali moved to London and then to New York. She was a friend and muse to Salvador Dali and became friends with the likes of Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful. In 1968, Vali starred with Marianne in a little-seen film called Dope about London’s drug scene. Vali then moved to New York where she lived at the Chelsea Hotel. It was here she met Patti Smith for whom she famously tattooed a lightening fork on her knee. But Vali didn’t like New York. It was brutal, hard and false. After an aneurysm in 1994, Vali eventually returned to Australia.
With her gypsy dress, her flaming red hair and distinctive facial Maori tattoos, Vali was instantly recognizable wherever she went. But it was her outsider artwork that achieved the greater attention. Her paintings were bought by museums and galleries in America, Europe, and Australia and were collected the likes of Mick Jagger and George Plimpton.
Vali died from cancer in February 2003. She had no regrets. She had lived her life as she wanted to live it. On her deathbed she said:
I’ve had 72 absolutely flaming years. It doesn’t bother me at all, because, you know, love, when you’ve lived like I have, you’ve done it all. I put all my effort into living; any dope can drop dead. I’m in the hospital now, and I guess I’ll kick the bucket here. Every beetle does it, every bird, everybody. You come into the world and then you go.
Vali in Paris photograph by Ed van der Elsken.
See some of Vali’s artwork and more iconic photos, after the jump…
Vander Clyde as the captivating ‘Barbette,’ early 1920s.
Vander Clyde (aka “Barbette”) was born in Texas around 1898. Though there is some dispute about Clyde’s actual date of birth, there is no debate about how the influential Vaudeville acrobat and female impersonator was to artists such as Jean Cocteau (who wrote an essay in 1926 based on Clyde’s alter-ego as a female impersonator called Le Numéro Barbette). It’s even said that Clyde’s incredible transformative abilities helped inspire Blake Edwards’ gender-bending 1982 film, Victor/Victoria.
As a young child, perhaps as young as eight, Clyde attended a local circus with his mother in Austin and was so moved by the show (especially the aerial acts), that he later confessed to his horrified mother that he intended to run away and join the circus and become a “wire-walker.” Clyde didn’t make good on his threat and instead stayed home and got a job picking cotton for several years so he could earn enough cash continue attending circus shows. After graduating at the top of his class at the age of fourteen Clyde would develop his self-taught aerial skills by using anything he could including the clothing line in his backyard. Shortly after he graduated and according to the 2012 book The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville he responded to an ad in Billboard Magazine placed by the “World Famous Aerial Queens” a group from Italy known as the “Alfaretta Sisters.” Tragically one of the sisters had recently died and the act was desperately looking for a replacement. However the job came with a catch.
The surviving members of the Alfaretta Sisters insisted that one of reasons their act was so popular was because people preferred to watch women swinging around on a trapeze rather than a man. So in order to get the gig Clyde would have to dress up like a girl. Which he happily did. It wouldn’t take long before Clyde would launch his solo career dressed in drag as “Barbette.” When his show premiered in New York at the Harlem Opera House in 1919, The New York Dramatic Mirror (now there’s a publication I’d love to see come back, wouldn’t you?) called Barbette “not a bad looking girl at all” and praised his “thrilling stunts.” The magazine also noted that at the end of Barbette’s act that Clyde dramatically removed his wig stunning the audience to silence.
In 1923 Clyde took to the stage of the Folies Bergère, a cabaret music hall located in Paris dressed in full drag as Barbette. During the show Clyde performed incredible acrobatic stunts such as walking a high wire and dangerous trapeze-related tricks. Clyde’s appearance was so convincing that it left people to ponder the ambiguous performer’s true sexual identity. Members of the French avant-garde community were captivated by Clyde’s portrayal of Barbette including one of France’s most influential creative minds the great Jean Cocteau, who was allegedly linked to Clyde romantically. Cocteau was so taken with Barbette that he commissioned surrealist photographer Man Ray to take a series of photographs showing Clyde’s metamorphosis into the ethereal, androgynous Barbette.
In 1938 Clyde contracted pneumonia which led to his early retirement from the stage though he would continue to work with up-and-coming circus acts as well as on films by Orson Welles and the legendary multi-talented producer and director, Billy Rose. I’ve included some remarkable photos of Clyde as Barbette and some images from his shoot with Man Ray. If you’d like to learn more about Clyde he is the subject of a fantastic looking book called Wildflower: The Dramatic Life of Barbette—Round Rock’s First and Greatest Drag Queen. Though there is no nudity, some may be considered NSFW.
Vander Clyde as ‘Barbette.’ Photography by Man Ray.
Prior to his death in 1963, Jean Cocteau, the great French artist, filmmaker, novelist, playwright 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, gay liberation, punk, Internet pornography, Facebook, the iPhone, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump, but this we’ll never know.
1970’s television was rich with quirky detective shows where every week some maverick cop or P.I. solved a seemingly unsolvable crime. These characters were larger than life, entertaining and very much the antithesis to many of today’s downbeat, under-lit cop shows. There was the avuncular, sparkle-eyed William Conrad as LAPD detective Cannon, Peter Falk as the bumbling, intrepid Columbo, James Franciscus as handsome, blind insurance investigator Longstreet, Telly Savalas as the bald, cigarette-smoking, candy-eating Kojak, the odd couple of Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco, and let’s not forget that seldom seen cop show Quinn Martin’s Beckett starring playwright Samuel Beckett.
Beckett was the gangly, laconic cop who didn’t always get his man but knew if the bad guy got away that he would have to try again, fail again but fail better. His catchphrases were “Book ‘em Godot!” and “Birth was the death of him, Murphy.” And who can forget his sidekick and pal in real life, Andre the Giant as handy henchman Little Bim, or the starry supporting cast that included Jean-Paul Sartre as sleazy Walleye Molloy (“Hell is other peepholes”) and Jean Cocteau as Huggy Bear. Sadly this modernist cop show never took off with US audiences and was quickly dropped from the TV schedules. However, over the years Beckett has gained a cult following and today fans of the show are still waiting for the long promised DVD release, which is bound to turn up sooner or later, maybe, maybe not… But until that day comes, here’s a taster of the classic opening title sequence to the series. Now, book ‘em Godot!
Happy Birthday to Jean Cocteau—man of many (p)Arts: artist, novelist, poet, playwright, film-maker, and designer, born today in 1889.
Cocteau was firstly a poet, who described himself as a lie that always told the truth.
He was also a highly controversial figure—often criticized for being a mere dilettante; he was easily swayed in his political views (he thought Hitler a pacifist and once speculated about the Führer’s sex life); had an obsession with underage boys; and was addicted to opium.
Yet for all the questionable things Cocteau’s life is always redeemed by his Art.
Je suis Jean Cocteau is a short film that collects together moments from Cocteau’s films (Testament of Orpheus, Blood of a Poet, Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus, and Les Enfants Terrible) creating a showreel to his imagination.
“When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming.”
Dreams that have inspired subsequent film-makers, writers and artists.
(And today is also my brother’s birthday, so Happy Birthday Michael!)
The idea of a film had its germination during a house party given by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles at Hyeres in 1929. Georges Auric, Cocteau’s lifelong musical collaborator, surprised his hosts by announcing that he wanted to compose the score for an animated cartoon. Cocteau was asked on the spot to provide a scenario. After some discussion, the Noailles agreed to give Cocteau a million francs to make a real film with a score by Auric. This became The Blood of a Poet, still one of the most widely viewed of all Cocteau’s screenworks. Cocteau described its disturbing series of voyeuristic tableaux as “a descent into oneself, a way of using the mechanism of the dream without sleeping, a crooked candle, often mysteriously blown out, carried about in the night of the human body.”
Blood of a Poet can’t even be classed as the first Surrealist film, as Entr’acte had been made by René Clair, in 1924; The Seashell and the Clergyman (La Coquille et le clergyman) arguably the first true Surrealistic film, directed by Germaine Dulac, and written by Antonin Artaud, was made in 1928; and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí had made two landmark Surrealist films, Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Âge d’Or (1930), by the time Cocteau was ready to put his thoughts on celluloid.
While there are undoubted references to Surrealist imagery (i.e. the lips on the artist’s hand), The Blood of a Poet shouldn’t be tied into any group or movement, for it is a film very much centered in Cocteau’s artistic sensibilities:
The Blood of a Poet like so much of what Cocteau created, abounds in autobiographical motifs: the macho Dargelos and the snowball fight, the opium smoker, the poet with his sexual stigmata, and the gunshots that, intentionally or not, echoed his father’s suicide long before.
Like all great artists, Cocteau sourced ideas from what was around him, what was new, to create his own distinct artistic vision. Of course, such magpie instincts left him open to the criticism of dilettantism, which was unfair, when considered against the range and diversity of his output as artist, writer, film-maker, designer, poet and man-about-town.
It was while out on the tiles at his favorite hot-spot “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” that Cocteau met the model, and later photographer, Lee Miller. Cocteau was casting for his film, and Miller breathlessly volunteered her services. It was her only film, and she would later describe the difficulties in making the film:
Feral Benga, the black jazz dancer who played the angel, sprained his ankle and became an angel with a limp. Cocteau put a star on Enrique Riviero’s back to cover an old bullet wound from the pistol of some cuckolded husband. The mattresses used to soundproof the studio walls were, unfortunately for the cast, infested with ravenous fleas and bedbugs. When the “bull” (really an ox) rented from an abattoir arrived at the studio with only one horn, Cocteau made a second one himself.
The film was financed by Charles, Vicomte de Noailles at a cost of one million francs. The Vicomte and his wife agreed to appear in the film, a scene where they talked amongst themselves and, on cue, began applauding. However, Cocteau intercut this footage with a another sequence, which ended in a suicide. Upon seeing the completed film, they refused to let Cocteau release it with their scene included. It was therefore re-shot with Barbette, the well-known female impersonator, and some extras.
Prior to its release, there was further controversy when it was rumored the film was filled with hidden symbolism:
Cocteau himself always denied the presence of hidden symbolism in the film, but word got about that it had anti-Christian undercurrents. This greatly distressed the Noailles. After the scandal caused the Viscount to be expelled from the elegant Jockey Club, and even brought threats of excommunication from the Church, they forbade Cocteau to allow public release of The Blood of a Poet for over a year.
It is often said that The Blood of a Poet is a surrealist film. However, surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it. the interest that it still arouses probably comes from its isolation from the works with which it is classified. I am speaking of the works of a minority that has opposed and unobtrusively governed the majority throughout the centuries. This minority has its antagonistic aspects. At the time of Le sang d’un poète, I was the only one of this minority to avoid the deliberate manifestations of the unconscious in favor of a kind of half-sleep through which I wandered as though in a labyrinth.
I applied myself only to the relief and to the details of the images that came forth from the great darkness of the human body. I adopted them then and there as the documentary scenes of another kingdom.
That is why this film, which has only one style, that, for example, of the bearing or the gestures of a man, presents many surfaces for its exegesis. Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering.
My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinetmaker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult.
The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols. As far as the former are concerned, it initiates their mechanism, and by letting the mind relax, as in sleep, it lets memories entwine, move and express themselves freely. As for the latter, it rejects them, and substitutes acts, or allegories of these acts, that the spectator can make symbols of if he wishes.
Former Siouxsie and The Banshees’ co-founder, bass-player and all round musical genius, Steven Severin is currently touring the U.K. with his brilliant score for Jean Cocteau’s 1930 debut film Blood of a Poet
Since 2002 and the demise of The Banshees, Severin has been writing soundtracks for TV and cinema, including superb scores for London Voodoo and Richard Jobson’s The Purifiers. More recently, Severin has composed and toured with his compositions for The Seashell and The Clergyman and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His four treatments for Caligari was one of the highlights of last year’s Edinburgh International Festival.
Now, having successfully toured with Blood of a Poet across America and Canada earlier this year, Britain has the chance to catch one of the must-see events of the year.
It is always possible to subvert, to rebel. A strong idea can be a salve, an inspiration to some whilst the very same idea is an irritant, a disruption to others. I just try to do things that move and excite me and hope I am capable to transmitting those emotions in the most eloquent way possible.
- Steven Severin
York CITY SCREEN 7th. Oct.
Bradford PLAYHOUSE 8th. Oct.
Leeds HYDE PARK 9th. Oct.
Liverpool FACT 10th. Oct.
Norwich CINEMA CITY 12th. Oct.
Kensal Rise LEXI 15th. Oct.
Southampton HARBOUR LIGHTS 16th. Oct.
Brighton DUKE OF YORKS 17th. Oct.
Brixton RITZY 19th. Oct.
Greenwich PICTUREHOUSE 21st. Oct.
Derby QUAD 28th. Oct.
Cardiff CHAPTER ARTS 29th. Oct.
Oxford PHOENIX 30th. Oct.
Exeter PICTUREHOUSE 31st. Oct.
Bath LITTLE THEATRE 1st. Nov.
Bristol WATERSHED 2nd. Nov.
Inverness EDEN COURT 4th. Nov.
Croydon CLOCKTOWER 8th. Nov.
Sheffield SHOWROOM 11th. Nov.
Nottingham BROADWAY 12th. Nov.
Birmingham ELECTRIC 14th. Nov.
Leicester PHOENIX 15th. Nov.
Edinburgh CAMEO 18th. Nov.
Steven Severin’s ‘Cesare Variations’ after the jump…