A film is not the telling of a dream, but a dream in which we all participate together through a kind of hypnosis, and the slightest breakdown in the mechanics of the dream wakens the dreamer, who loses interest in a sleep that is no longer his own.1

When cinematic powerhouse Pedro Almodóvar made headlines after a hiatus period, with the Spanish-American drama The Human Voice (2020) last year, his short but all the more emotionally-charged film paid aesthetic and narrative tribute to artistic predecessor Jean Cocteau – the writer of the original play or monodrama La Voix humaine (1930) on which the short is based. Audiences and critics alike were given a golden opportunity to enjoy the Spanish filmmaker at his cross-referential and interdisciplinary, albeit brief, best in a film lasting a mere 30 minutes but bristling with all the more sentiment and where “the Spanish master reconfigured Jean Cocteau’s one-actor play of the same title as the foundation for a meta-concoction.”2

As Almodóvar explores parallel universes, just like Francis Poulenc had done 62 years earlier when he adapted La Voix humaine into an operatic ‘tragédie lyrique’, his “own poetic spirit meshes nicely with that of the old master throughout3. An overview of his cinematic repertoire reflects an inspiration from Cocteau all along; a man considered “the most versatile artist of the twentieth century”4. His work has had ”a significant impact on a later generation” including Andy Warhol and Bernardo Bertolucci, whose “adaptation of Les Enfants terribles (The Dreamers, 2003) shows his debt to both Cocteau’s themes and habit of borrowing from those around him.”5

Of Parisian background and from a well-to-do-family, a young Cocteau was “fascinated with fairytales and dressing in costume.”6 Steeped in a literary and also absurdist tradition, his work peels away the many layers of reality, revealing the surreal and dreamlike elements that dwell behind the façade of everyday mundaneness. Constantly crossing genres, throughout his career Cocteau added a personal touch to every play, script and film that he crafted; embracing it all without holding back. A multifaceted artist and librettist who constantly reinvented himself, he explored film, theatre, literature, painting and acting – excelling across disciplines and always pushing the boundaries of the different art forms while he took art to new heights. He himself became living proof that ‘life [and art] begins at the end of your comfort zone.’

In Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d’un inconnu (1983), Argentinian director Edgardo Cozarinsky takes us on a guided tour through Cocteau’s life and work in an hour-long documentary now soon re-discoverable by audiences as part of the upcoming July Cinematheque special screening, where The Orphic Trilogy (The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus; where Cocteau modernises Greek mythology, and Testament of Orpheus) is also in focus – films that draw on “Orphic myth to explore the complex relationships between the artist and his creations, reality and the imagination”7 and that do not “situate the viewer in the realm of the everyday, but in an oneiric space where the quotidian is interwoven with magic.”8

A veritable feast for the senses and a gem for cinephiles and art aficionados, Cozarinsky’s documentary illustrates the magnificence of Cocteau as a ground-breaking artist and gives free reign also to the man himself who in a number of interviews guides us through his life and work, reflecting on his many honours, choices and preferences – both aesthetic and sexual (the friendship with poet and would-be protégée Raymond Radiguet and his death at an early age affected Cocteau for life, although his long-term partner, film star Jean Marais, would later heal some of the wounds).

In his eclectic repertoire Cocteau added a “poetic consciousness in cinema”9, with the writer himself declaring that the “poet should be capable of anything and never drown in his own ink.”10 He was also of the conviction that “[h]onours should be regarded as a sort of transcendental punishment. Because we unveiled ourselves. A poet mustn’t unveil himself.”11 Crossing genres, he delved into dadaism and has been credited with fuelling also new surrealist trends (Buñuel left an impact); always sensorially attuned, always awake, alive and aware, exploring what lies beneath and on a constant quest for new ventures and adventures. Cocteau moved in the higher echelons of the contemporary art world, fraternising with fellow painters, sculptors, scholars, philosophers, singers, dancers and composers. Satie, Debussy and Ravel get a special mention in Cozarinsky’s documentary, as do Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky. Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso stand out from the crowd in a film where Cocteau’s admiration for the latter becomes apparent. Picasso influenced Cocteau on many levels and did a cameo appearance in Orphée (Orpheus, 1950). Cozarinsky’s documentary, which opens with Cocteau calling it a “sort of Chinese shadow play of my life”12, contains excerpts from films, personal commentaries, visual memorabilia, sketches, stories and recollections. In a comparatively short running time, namedropping is constant and faces of famous men and women illuminate and parade across the screen. The viewer is taken on a dizzying tour into the psyche of a man who breathed art with every pore of his body and to whom friendship was the ideal type of relationship, much preferred to marriage.

Autoportrait d’un inconnu is an important contribution to Cocteau’s legacy and must be watched in parallel with some of his own major films. The French master lives on through work that cuts across spatial dimensions and that establishes a dialogue with viewers until today. Bold and experimental, Cocteau drew from others but likewise inspired his contemporaries with an expressive style that has much in common with Salvador Dalí. 1966 saw the opening of the Musée du Bastion in Menton, created by Cocteau, and a 2011 merger with the Wunderman Collection enabled the establishment of The Jean Cocteau Museum – Severin Wunderman Collection. Designed by Rudy Ricciotti, the museum covers 2700m² of exhibition space and houses more than 2,000 of Cocteau’s works – his “drawings, paintings, ceramics, photographs, lithographs, posters, personal books or writings”13 getting the credit they deserve. Cocteau keeps reminding us that true art is a living thing that survives long after the creator him- or herself is gone.

Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d’un inconnu / Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown (1983 France 66 mins)

Prod: Claude Chauvat Dir: Edgardo Cozarinsky Scr: Edgardo Cozarinsky, Carole Weisweiller Edt: Georges Klotzi


  1. Jean Cocteau: The Art of Cinema,” The Culturium, published November 5 2015
  2. Carlos Aguilar, “Review: In his tasty new short ‘The Human Voice,’ Pedro Almodóvar revisits without repeating,” Los Angeles Times: Movies, published March 11 2021
  3. Glenn Kenny, “‘The Human Voice’ Review: Almodóvar meets Cocteau meets Swinton,” The New York Times: Critic’s Pick, published April 1 2021
  4. Gary Morris, “A Black Silence Almost as Violent as Laughter: Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy on DVD”, Images Journal: Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy: Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, Testament of Orpheus
  5. Jean Cocteau: Biography of Jean Cocteau,” The Art Story Foundation: Artists, published 2021
  6. Ibid.
  7. The Orphic Trilogy”, The Criterion Collection, published 2021
  8. Danica van de Velde, “Between Dreams and Death: Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950),” Senses of Cinema, Issue 95 (July 2020)
  9. Gary Morris, “A Black Silence Almost as Violent as Laughter: Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy on DVD”, Images Journal: Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy: Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, Testament of Orpheus
  10. Edgardo Cozarinsky, “Autobiography of an Unknown” (1983)”. Online documentary uploaded 6 May 2021, YouTube video, 1:06:52
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Museum Jean Cocteau-Collection Severin Wunderman: Leisure Centre in Menton,” France-Voyage.com

About The Author

Jytte Holmqvist is a movie enthusiast with a doctorate in Screen and Media Culture from the University of Melbourne. Her main research interests are Spanish, Catalan, and Italian film which she tends to analyse from a contemporary urban, gender-oriented and global perspective. She is particularly fascinated by the cinematic repertoires of Pedro Almodóvar, Ventura Pons, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini. Dr Holmqvist has established a publishing record and aspires to move into film criticism as a professional field. She lectures in film theory and research methodology at HBU-UCLan School of Media, Communication & Creative Industries, is a certified translator, speaks a number of languages fluently and has travelled extensively. She has lived in six countries to date and is intent on continuing her global explorations.

Related Posts