Jean Cocteau

b. July 5, 1889, Maisons-Laffitte, Île-de-France, France
d. October 11, 1963, Milly, Île-de-France, France

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Jean Cocteau: Filmmaker?

In his own eyes, Jean Cocteau was not a filmmaker. Of course, he was a filmmaker as well as a dramatist, novelist, poet, painter, decorator, boxing promoter, essayist, librettist, journalist, and full-time celebrity. His three great films of the fantastic – Le Sang d’un poète, La Belle et la Bête and Orphée – remain central to his visual legacy, yet Cocteau always insisted that in the field of film he was an amateur.

Like many gifted artists whose talent falls short of genius, Cocteau did not feel drawn to one art form above all others. Instead he utilised all the media available to him to create a complex personal mythology which mixed imagery and text, poetry and prose, fact and fiction, realism and fantasy, history and modernity. This was further elaborated by numerous autobiographical writings and frequent interviews. Francis Steegmuller, Cocteau’s most perceptive biographer, calls the result of this super-abundance of information that he provided about himself an “invisibility-by-autobiography” (1). In the forty years since his death, interest in Cocteau’s life (especially in France) has burgeoned into a small industry. Invisibility-by-autobiography has been supplemented by invisibility-by-biography.

Steegmuller’s characterisation of Cocteau’s life can also be adapted to refer to his art. Cocteau interweaved all the different strands of his work with such thoroughness, that it is impossible to explore any single strand in isolation. Yet without a process of choice, the chaos of information available about his life and work can be overwhelming. So how to create an account of Cocteau that is both coherent and accurate? In my view, the only satisfactory approach would be through hypertext. What if his life and work were constructed as a hypertextual document in which it would be possible to jump every which way across media, as well as through time to sources and referents? Conflicting information could be presented in parallel, providing a constant source of alternative and contingent truths. Such a document could perhaps provide a new way of seeing Cocteau and his work as a totality.

My first step in setting up such a narrative is to provide a linear and chronological account of the salient details of Cocteau’s life and work. This I do below, with an emphasis on his work in film.


Jean Cocteau was born in 1889 of moderately artistic, bourgeois parents. Accounts of his first forty years suggest only a passing interest in film; it was theatre, not film, which dominated his upbringing. Cocteau often talked about watching his mother prepare herself for evenings at the theatre when he was a child. Through her, he developed the “fever of crimson and gold” that would mould his artistic life (2).

Cocteau’s artistic debut came in 1908 with a public reading of his poetry, paid for and organised by the actor Edouard de Max. Cocteau became a frequenter of Parisian literary salons and cultivated a fin de siècle dandyism, which, despite subsequent adjustments to his persona, he never entirely lost. In 1909, he charmed his way into the extended family of Serge de Diaghilev, impresario of the Paris-based Russian Ballet. Through the Ballet Russe, Cocteau came to know many of the leading artistic figures of the time including Proust, Gide and Stravinsky (3). In the years that followed, he published two volumes of verse which he later dismissed as juvenilia, wrote the libretto for one of Diaghilev’s less successful ballets, and established a short-lived poetry magazine. Despite his boundless creative energy, for several years he remained an artistic social climber, most appreciated for his youth and wit.

Cocteau was exempted from military duty during World War I. Though he worked for a time in the ambulance service with friends from the Ballet Russe, for him “the greatest battle of the war” (to use his own ill-judged phrase) was the production of Parade in 1917 (4). Parade was an avant-garde ballet conceived by Cocteau, with backdrops and costumes by Picasso, music by Satie, and a programme note by Guillaume Apollinaire, which included the first documented use of the word surréaliste. Ridiculed by the press, the ballet was quickly withdrawn, though not before it had made Cocteau famous.

Parade‘s controversial reception also gave Cocteau a degree of kudos within the Parisian avant-garde (5). He became associated with the ‘Group of Six’ composers (Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre). In 1920 he composed a “Spectacle-Concert”, Le Boeuf sur le toit, to music by Milhaud. He also published four issues of a “merrily anti-Dada” magazine entitled Le Coq, though that didn’t prevent him from making occasional appearances at Dada parties (6). In the same year, he entered the most intense personal relationship of his life – with the 17 year-old Raymond Radiguet, soon-to-be author of the celebrated novel Le Diable au corps. Spurred on by Radiguet’s example, Cocteau now entered one of his most productive periods of creation. In 1922 alone, he wrote a series of poems, an adaptation of Antigone, and two short novels.

Radiguet died of typhoid in 1923, at the age of 20. The effect on Cocteau was seismic. Within weeks he had fallen into opium addiction. In his book, Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity, Arthur B. Evans suggests that this addiction came to play a central role in his poetry:

[I]t could be reasonably argued that Cocteau’s entire poetic philosophy, his life-style, and his very approach to his art were radically and permanently altered during his years of opium addiction from 1924 to 1929. It was during this time, and that immediately following, that the author came to find his personalized mythology of mirrors, angels, truthful lies, invisibility, and inevitably, his preoccupation with the literal and figurative aspects of death. (7)

For Cocteau, the poet was a messenger, separated from common humanity by the gift of being able to cross into other worlds and bring back news of what he found there. Following on from the loss of Radiguet, death and rebirth became Cocteau’s key metaphors for the journey between worlds that the poet undertakes. And, as Evans suggests, it was the ‘transporting’ medium of opium that came to be his key means of making this journey (8). Stravinsky put it more simply when he said that for Cocteau ”the chief purpose of the drug-taking came to be book-making” (9).

Between 1924 and 1929 Cocteau wrote the stage play Orphée, his great poem L’Ange Heurtebise, a libretto for Stravinsky’s oratorio Oedipus Rex, the autobiographical novella Le Livre blanc (published anonymously, apparently out of fear of offending his mother with its homosexual subject matter), the stage monologue La Voix humaine, and – written in three weeks while undergoing drug rehabilitation at a sanatorium – his most famous novel, Les Enfants terribles. It was in these works that the key elements of Cocteau’s world, the elements that he would draw on for the next thirty years, were finally put in place.

These elements may be briefly summarised in the following terms:

Mythology. Cocteau had always been obsessed with classical mythology, as evident from his earliest poems. In particular, throughout his life Cocteau kept returning to the figures of Oedipus and Orpheus. The more time passed, the more he mixed classical mythology with his own personal mythology: Oedipus and Orpheus were transformed into modern figures, joined by Dargelos the death-bringing schoolboy, the good angel Heurtebise, and numerous other characters loosely based on figures from Cocteau’s life.

Melodrama. Cocteau was brought up on late 19th century French melodrama. Suppressed during the years he spent around the Ballet Russe, his taste for melodrama re-emerged in the aftermath of Radiguet’s death, most notably in Les Enfants terribles (1929). From here on, Cocteau’s obsession with death filtered through into almost all his works. Death in Cocteau’s works is usually theatrical – suicides and poisonings are especially common – but it is also immediate, ever-present and frighteningly real.

The Fantastic. In Europe, throughout the 19th century and in much of 20th century, fantasy did not carry the same association with pulp fiction and popular entertainment that it did in the United States. Cocteau’s use of the fantastic bore little relation to that of Poe and Lovecraft. Rather, it referenced the non-narrative tradition of poetic fantasy established by Goethe, Coleridge and Baudelaire. The Romantic poets were the messengers from the beyond that Cocteau aspired to be, and their use of fantasy was the inevitable result of their artistic journeys. At the same time, Cocteau’s frequent use of camera tricks and trompe l’œil follows directly in the cinematic tradition established by Méliès in the last years of the 19th century.



In 1929, at the age of 40, Cocteau made his first film. The Vicomte de Noailles, a frequenter of avant-garde salons, asked Cocteau and composer George Auric if they would be interested in collaborating on an animation. Cocteau suggested they make a live-action piece instead. The news that he was making a film must, at the time, have seemed like further evidence of Cocteau’s dilettantism (10). In fact, the result was an avant-garde landmark.

Le Sang d'un poète

Le Sang d’un poète (Blood of a Poet) is divided into episodes, some connected, some discrete. Perhaps the most famous of these features the eponymous poet moving along a corridor in a hotel, looking through the keyholes of bedroom doors. Through these keyholes, he spies a range of tableaux vivants. These include a bedroom in which a child annoys a governess by crawling up a wall, a Mexican firing squad in which the victim falls to the ground and then bounces back to life, and a dark space in which a couple write observations about each other while they embrace. The work is strongly indebted to (though in no way derivative of) Un Chien Andalou (1929). Its distinct similarity to Buñuel and Dali’s film led mainstream commentators to label it as ‘surrealistic’. This was of particular annoyance to André Breton, who was now running the Surrealists as if they were Communist cell. Cocteau himself pretended also to take offence at being labelled a Surrealist, though he probably quite enjoyed Breton’s irritation. Le Sang d’un poète caused mild controversy, though this was as nothing compared to the controversy that was soon to be caused by Buñuel’s L’Age d’or, the second and final film to benefit from the Vicomte de Noaille’s artistic philanthropy.

Le Sang d’un poète is both a recapitulation and a new beginning. Viewed in the context of Cocteau’s previous work, it can be seen as an anthology of his favourite images and themes. These include: mirrors (narcissism), eyes (voyeurism), statues (classicism), doors (the borders between different worlds) and blood (the sufferings of the artist). It also contains numerous elements of autobiography and references to previous works, both overt (for example, the snowball fight from Les Enfants terribles) and coded (for example, the magical ‘transportation’ of the poet into parallel worlds). Viewed in the context of Cocteau’s subsequent career, it can be seen as a sketchbook for future films. Many of the techniques that would later become Cocteau’s trademarks were first tried out in Le Sang d’un poète. These include the use of slow and reverse motion, voice-over narration, and the film’s most famous trick of building the walls of certain sets on the studio floor. By filming them from above and getting his actors to lie on the ground, Cocteau creates the impression that the walls in his fantasy world emanate a magnetic pull. This last is a startling effect, but Cocteau’s liking for it gets the better of him, and he uses it too often. In the end, it is difficult not to agree with Cocteau’s own judgement of the film as a theme “clumsily played with one finger” which he would later orchestrate in Orphée (11). However, despite the film’s clumsiness, the child-like delight that Cocteau takes in the possibilities of the medium gives Le Sang d’un poète an energy and playfulness that at the time only Buñuel and Dali surpassed.

Cocteau did not direct another film for the next sixteen years. By way of explanation, he later wrote:

The fact that I let twenty years [a typically casual ]exaggeration] elapse between that film, my first, and the others, shows that I regarded it as something rather like a drawing or a poem – a drawing or a poem so expensive that I couldn’t contemplate making more than one. (12)

Le Sang d'un poète

Cocteau’s implication that it did not occur to him to make another film is inadequate. Was he scared off by the controversy that his film generated? Did he consider another project but find himself unable to secure funding? Did he feel that he’d used up all his cinematic invention? Or was he still not that interested in film? In the absence of any clear evidence, one can only conjecture.

Le Sang d’un poète was Cocteau’s last ‘controversial’ work. As the diplomatic climate darkened in the 1930s and the avant-garde became ever more politicised, Cocteau moved inexorably towards the French literary establishment. He became a prolific columnist and wrote a number of classical stage melodramas including La Machine infernale, L’Aigle à deux têtes and the immensely successful Les Parents terribles. By the end of the decade, Cocteau the avant-garde provocateur had become Cocteau the celebrity playwright.

His eventual return to film in the 1940s was as adventitious as his first experience of directing. However, this time it proved to be longer lasting. A number of explanations can be offered for this rekindled interest in filmmaking.

Cocteau’s own explanation for his return to film emphasises the opportunity that cinema offered him for exploring his favourite themes in new ways. On the subject of La Belle et la Bête, he wrote:

Je voulais le dessiner, le peindre, le porter à la scène. En fin de compte, le cinématographe m’apparut comme la seule machine capable de donner corps à mon rêve. (13)

As the ultimate synaesthetic medium, cinema allowed Cocteau to combine his diverse artistic instincts and incorporate literature, melodrama, drawing, design and stagecraft together into a new context. However, Cocteau’s evocation of an artistic imperative driving him towards film conceals other, more pragmatic, motivations. His companion at the time, Jean Marais, had achieved great success on the stage in Les Parents terribles and was desperate to become a film star. Remaining close to Marais would have to involve a closer involvement in film. Quite apart from the influence of Marais, Cocteau himself was also hungry for attention. Film’s steadily increasing popularity throughout the 1930s had turned it into a medium that no serious self-publicist could afford to ignore. He also obviously greatly enjoyed the filmmaking process. This can be seen time and again in his writings on film, for example:

When I have manual work to do, I like to think that I take part in earthly things, and I put all my strength into it like a drowning man clinging to a wreck. This is why I took up filmmaking, where every minute is occupied by work which shields me from the void where I get lost. (14)

The rôle of film director allowed Cocteau to develop his talent for collaboration, to indulge his social instincts and to become a patriarchal figure for an ersatz family of (largely male) artists.

In order to become a professional director, Cocteau needed to learn his craft. He began in 1943 by writing the dialogue for a B-movie fantasy entitled Le Baron fantôme. He graduated in the same year to a more personal project, an adaptation of his own play L’Éternel retour. The film, a modern-day reworking of the Tristan and Isolde story, provided Marais with his first starring role in a film. Though Cocteau did not direct, his influence at all stages of the production is clearly visible in both the film itself and in its list of credits. L’Éternel retour was a huge escapist success with its wartime French audience, and established Marais as one of the leading stars of 1940s French cinema. In 1945, Cocteau was commissioned to write the dialogue for Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. Finally, in 1946, at the age of 57, Cocteau directed his first narrative feature – La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast).

La Belle et la Bête

La Belle et la Bête is based on the famous children’s story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. In it, Cocteau reaches a new level of artistic fusion, combining mythical narrative, visual poetry, cinematic trickery and even his own child-like writing in the credit sequence. The episodic, self-consciously experimental style of Le Sang d’un poète is left far behind. What Cocteau provides instead is a simple adaptation, strikingly visualised. Cocteau’s claim that it was La Belle et la Bête that forced him to return to film may not be wholly convincing, but it does give a sense of his close affinity with de Beaumont’s writing. In particular, her visual vocabulary – that of mirrors, doors, horses and jewellery – is extremely similar to Cocteau’s own. Accordingly, Cocteau seamlessly integrates her imagery into his cinematic world. In turn, Cocteau’s camera and editing tricks and his heightened visual imagination are seamlessly integrated into De Beaumont’s narrative. For example, when Belle first walks through the main hall of Bête’s castle, the film cuts to close-ups of candelabras lighting themselves as she walks past. Cocteau’s use of reverse motion serves the contextual purpose of emphasising the magical atmosphere of Bête’s castle.

At the same time, the film’s perfect fusion of story and telling belies the self-doubt that Cocteau felt when he was making it. From the evidence of the diary he kept during the filming of La Belle et la Bête, Cocteau seems to have believed that he was making an avant-garde work. Many of his artistic choices seem to have been made as an explicit response to conventional visual ideology. For example:

In a spirit of instinctive contradiction I am avoiding all camera movement, which is so much in the fashion that the experts think it indispensable. (15)

So too, playing the role of frustrated genius, Cocteau frequently complains in his diary about how the logistics of the production, and even members of his crew, are preventing him from achieving his vision. About his cinematographer, Henri Alekan, he writes, “His mania for plotting his shots yet at the same time making them appear diffuse, revolts me. It’s all too ‘artistic’. And not within a mile of that documentary style that I wanted from him” (16). But elsewhere in the diary he writes, ”I suppose it’s because I’m trying to keep the camera fixed and the shots simple, that makes Bérard say my angles are flat… [I]t certainly would be better if Alekan had an assistant so that he himself were free to choose the angles, and not have to do all the lighting and actual shooting himself” (17) In one breath he criticises his crew, in another he reveals how creatively dependent he is on them. He elevates static camera set-ups to the level of ideology and then allows them to become a source of insecurity. Throughout his diary, Cocteau unwittingly affirms that he is indeed an amateur filmmaker.

Cocteau was no Orson Welles. His avant-garde temperament fuelled his desire to rewrite the rules of film. But unlike his great contemporary, also a self-confessed amateur in the field of film, Cocteau did not have a strong enough vision to counter the aesthetic conventional wisdom of the time. Faced with the technical and logistical pressures of shooting a full-length film, he often found himself unsure of what to do with the camera. So he fell back on his crew and on the conventional film language of the time: eye-level camera, strict continuity editing and of course the 180º Rule. A disparity between his unconventional subject matter and his adherence to classical film language can be seen to varying degrees in all his films. Cocteau always claimed that to work, fantasy needed to be rooted in reality, be it that of Belle’s sisters hanging up their washing or angels of death riding around on motorbikes. Analogously, one might suggest that Cocteau’s hallucinatory stories were always rooted in stylistic conformity.

L'Aigle à deux tête

This stylistic conformity can be seen even more clearly in Cocteau’s two subsequent films, both made in 1948 and based around his own plays. The first, L’Aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle Has Two Heads), traces the developing love affair between a queen and an assassin sent to kill her. The original play was set almost entirely in a single location. In the film, Cocteau opens the action out, including a number of exterior sequences. But this does nothing to lessen the film’s theatricality. In addition, without the fantasy of Cocteau’s two previous films, the result is no more than a well made but rather dull film version of an old-fashioned melodrama.

Cocteau went straight on to direct Les Parents terribles, with Jean Marais reprising the role that had made him famous. Learning from the failings of L’Aigle à deux têtes, Cocteau chose an alternative strategy for transcribing his play into film. He set it in the same two interior locations as the stage play and restricted himself almost entirely to close-ups and medium close-ups. The claustrophobic locations and the unrelenting gaze of the camera create a disconcerting intimacy with the characters and reinforce the hermetic, incestuous atmosphere of the film’s dysfunctional family unit. It is easy to see why Cocteau regarded Les Parents terribles as his greatest directorial success – it is a beautifully crafted fusion of form and content. At the same time, like Cocteau’s previous two films, it never strays beyond the stylistic conventions of the time and its melodramatic element, like that of Les Enfants terribles, has not aged well.

Les Enfants terribles was itself filmed in 1950 by Jean-Pierre Melville, in close collaboration with Cocteau. Melville had been making films since he was a child, and brought with him an instinctive understanding of film form. In contrast to Cocteau’s modest camera movements, Melville utilised the full gamut of camera techniques at his disposal. He used long, elaborate dolly shots as well as handheld shots, long-lens close-ups and ultra-wide angle master shots. In his editing, he was not afraid to use ellipsis or to cross the line. And he finished the film with a crane shot so breathtakingly operatic that it immediately found its way into French film history.

In the same year, Cocteau directed the greatest achievement of his film career and, arguably, of his entire creative life. Orphée, loosely based on his 1925 stage play of the same name, can perhaps be regarded as the culmination of Cocteau’s artistic development, the ultimate merging of his preoccupations with mythology, melodrama and fantasy into a unified whole.


The film begins satirically. In a scene reminiscent of Cocteau’s youth, a group of passionate young poets sit in a café, talking art. They start to argue and eventually have to be separated by riot police. Suddenly a young poet called Cégèste is run down by two passing motorcyclists. He is taken into a limousine by a woman who claims to be his guardian. She insists that Orphée, an older poet also present at the cafe, accompany her. What follows is the ultimate Coctellian mixture of myth and autobiography, a fantastical story of death and rebirth, erotic obsession and travels through the afterlife. The film resurrects a number of figures from Cocteau’s previous works, most notably Orphée, Cégèste and the Heurtebise. It balances many of Cocteau’s favourite images (for example, magic gloves and the mirror as portal to another world) with realistic details and wartime iconography (for example, the afterlife is a bombed-out suburb, the messages that Cégèste relays from the beyond are broadcast over a radio). As in La Belle et la Bête, Cocteau’s cinematic trickery is unobtrusive and subsumes itself to the demands of the narrative. When Orphée puts on the pair of gloves that will allow him to walk through mirrors, the use of reverse-motion leads to the impression that they mould themselves to his hands through some supernatural force. When Orphée and Heurtebise make their final voyage into the afterlife, Cocteau again uses the technique of placing the back wall of the set on the floor and filming from above, so creating a sense of displaced gravity. However, this time he uses this trick discreetly – not as the self-conscious expression of filmmaking bravado that it was in Le Sang d’un poète but as a means of communicating the disorientating otherness of the afterlife.

Orphée encapsulates Cocteau’s life and work with definitive thoroughness. Perhaps sensing this, Cocteau did not direct another film for ten years. Instead, he slipped into semi-retirement, living off his reputation. He started painting, wrote a play, designed friezes for the interiors of buildings, continued his journalism (through which, among other things, he helped rekindle popular interest in Edith Piaf) and enjoyed his celebrity. In 1955, he was elected a member of the Académie Française; in 1956, he was given an honorary degree by Oxford University. Above all, perhaps sensing that his greatest achievements were in the past, he threw himself into the project of consolidating his personal myth. He released multiple volumes of autobiographical writing and personal essays, published conversations, and gave newspaper and television interviews on a regular basis. In doing this, he anticipated almost everything that any critic could possibly say about him, and interweaved all the strands of his life and work in such a way that nobody would ever be able to undo them.

When he finally returned to filmmaking in 1959 with Le Testament d’Orphée, it was to provide a coda to his career. “With hindsight,” Cocteau wrote in 1961, “I can see that the film is not properly speaking a film, but something that offered me the only means of expressing things that I carry within me” (18).

In it, Cocteau plays himself, no longer concealed behind a fictional persona, as a traveller wandering through a landscape synthesised from his previous works (19). Cocteau often ‘lost himself’ in his own imaginative world – for example, when he was taking opium, or when he was on set. During the filming of La Belle et la Bête he wrote, “I live in another world, a world where time and place are wholly mine. I now live without newspapers, letters, telegrams, without any contact with the outside world at all” (20). In Le Testament d’Orphée, the character of Cocteau literally loses himself in his own mythic world. The action begins on a film set, announcing immediately the meta-fictional nature of the film. Subsequent scenes occur either in locations from Orphée, in other typically Coctellian locations, or in real locations connected in some way with Cocteau’s life. Characters from Orphée make guest appearances, as do a number of Cocteau’s personal friends. The film culminates in an ‘interrogation’ set in the same location as the interrogation in Orphée. This time, however, the focus of the judges’ interest is Cocteau, not Orphée. The result is reminiscent of numerous interviews given by Cocteau over the decades, except this time he pens his own questions. With affected artlessness, he has himself accused of innocence and pleads guilty, a reminder that, despite his success as a filmmaker, Cocteau was above all a man of letters. It is also a reminder that most of Cocteau’s work is not primarily about romantic love, or death and rebirth, or space and time, but about Cocteau himself. In this, despite its self-indulgent longeurs, the film remains a fitting testament to Cocteau’s life’s work.

Cocteau died three years later, a few hours after providing an obituary for Edith Piaf. His posthumous reputation has ebbed and flowed, but – like Piaf – he has always remained a French institution. After almost two decades of relative critical neglect, there has recently been a resurgence of interest in Cocteau and his work, as evidenced by the 2003 massive retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and a new 864 page biography. Like his fictional poets, Cocteau’s work continues to endure in a cycle of death and rebirth.

Jean Cocteau


As director:

Jean Cocteau fait un film (1925) short

Le Sang d’un poète (Blood of a Poet) (1930) short, also writer

La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (1946)

L’Aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle Has Two Heads) (1948) also writer

Les Parents terribles (1948) also writer

(1950) also writer

Le Testament d’Orphée
(1959) also writer


La Comédie du bonheur (Marcel L’Herbier, 1940) cowriter

Le Baron fantôme (Serge de Poligny, 1943) dialogue and actor

L’Eternel retour (Jean Delannoy, 1943) scenario and dialogue

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson, 1945) additional dialogue

Ruy Blas (Pierre Billion, 1947) scenario, adaptation and dialogue

L’amore (Roberto Rossellini, 1947–48) two-part film, first part an adaptation of Cocteau’s monologue La voix humaine

Ce siècle a cinquante ans (Roland Tual, 1949) cowriter

Les Enfants terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950) writer

Intimate Relations (Charles Frank, 1953) based on play Les Parents terribles

Le Bel indifférent (Jacques Demy, 1957) short, story

La Princesse de Clèves (Jean Delannoy, 1961) adaptation and dialogue

La Machine infernale (Claude Loursais, 1963) made for television, based on Cocteau play

Thomas L’imposteur (Georges Franju, 1964s) based on Cocteau novel

The Human Voice (Ted Kotcheff, 1967) made for television, story

Le Bel indifférent (Jacques Duhen, 1975) made for television, story

L’Aigle à deux têtes (Pierre Cavassilas, 1975) made for television, based on Cocteau play

La Dame de Monte Carlo (Dominique Delouche, 1979) short, writer

Les Parents terribles (Yves-André Hubert, 1980) made for television, based on Cocteau play

The Mystery of Oberwald (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1980) based on Cocteau play

Les Parents terribles (Jean-Claude Brialy, 2000) made for television, based on Cocteau play

Les Parents terribles (Josée Dayan, 2003) made for television, based on Cocteau play


Henri Alekan, La Belle et La Bête, Paris, Editions du Collectionneur, 1992.

Jean Cocteau, Diary of a Film, London, Dennis Dobson Ltd, 1950.

Jean Cocteau, Difficulty of Being, The, London, Peter Owen, 1966.

Jean Cocteau, Cocteau on the Film, New York, Dover Publications Inc., 1972.

Jean Cocteau, The Art of Cinema, London & New York, Marion Boyars, 1992.

Margaret Crosland (ed.), Cocteau’s World, London, Peter Owen Limited, 1972.

Arthur B. Evans, Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity, Philadelphia, The Art Alliance Press, 1977.

Michael Popkin, “Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast”, Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, 1982, pp. 100–109.

Francis Steegmuller, Cocteau, London, Constable and Company Ltd, 1986.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Blood of a Poet by Julia Levin

Jean Cocteau by James S. Williams review by Patrick Ellis

Web Resources

The Official Jean Cocteau Website

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles here.

Jean Cocteau Page
Website with bio, select filmo, bibliography and excerpts of his writings.

Poetry in Motion
Chris Fujiwara’s review of the MFA’s Cocteau retrospective.

The Jean Cocteau Website
An unofficial page where you can purchase books, posters and DVDs.

Click here to search for Jean Cocteau DVDs, videos and books at


  1. Francis Steegmuller, Cocteau, London, Constable and Company Ltd, 1986, p. 6.
  2. Jean Cocteau, Difficulty of Being, The, London, Peter Owen, 1966, p. 37.
  3. The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring were all premiered by Dhiagilev’s company.
  4. Quoted in Steegmuller, p. 160.
  5. Despite numerous overtures towards Dada and Surrealism in the early 1920s, Cocteau remained on the fringes of these two movements. A major factor in this was André Breton’s irrational hatred of him. For many years, Breton would attend Cocteau’s openings just for the chance to heckle his enemy.
  6. Steegmuller, p. 247.
  7. Arthur B. Evans, Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity, Philadelphia, The Art Alliance Press, 1977, p. 36.
  8. Evans, p. 36.
  9. Quoted in Steegmuller, p. 325.
  10. His only previous experience of filmmaking was a short amateur piece entitled Jean Cocteau fait un film, made in 1925 and conveniently ‘lost’ soon after.
  11. Jean Cocteau, Cocteau on the Film, New York, Dover Publications Inc., 1972, p. 36.
  12. Cocteau, 1972, p. 34.
  13. Henri Alekan, La Belle et La Bête, Paris, Editions du Collectionneur, 1992, p. 17.
  14. Cocteau, 1972, p. 23.
  15. Jean Cocteau, Diary of a Film, London, Dennis Dobson Ltd, 1950, p. 27.
  16. Cocteau, 1950, p. 87.
  17. Cocteau, 1950, p. 64.
  18. Jean Cocteau, The Art of Cinema, London & New York, Marion Boyars, 1992, p. 173.
  19. The film was partially financed by François Truffaut from the profits of Les Quatre Cent Coups. This startling fact again draws attention to the paradoxical role that Cocteau played in French cultural life. At the same time as being reviled as one of the old-fashioned ‘literary’ filmmakers who needed to be swept aside, he was also clearly respected by at least some the new generation of avant-garde filmmakers.
  20. Cocteau, 1950, p. 40.

About The Author

Richard Misek is a film-maker and Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of Bristol. He is the author of Chromatic Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

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