Cocteau was born at Maisons-Laffitte, near Paris, in 1889, but his father, a lawyer and amateur painter, committed suicide in 1898. He left school young, and became friends with the actor Edouard de Max who encouraged his poetry writing. A first book, La Lampe d’Aladin, was published in 1909. The same year also saw the arrival of Ballets Russes and Sergey Diaghilev to Paris, who involved Cocteau in the theatre world. During World War I, Cocteau served as an ambulance driver; he also encountered many other writers and artists who had gathered in Paris.
In 1917, Cocteau met Picasso and they went to Rome where they joined up with Diaghilev and worked on a ballet called Parade, with music by Erik Satie and choreography by Leonide Massine. After the war Cocteau founded a publishing house which published his own writings and scores by Stravinsky, Satie and a group of composers known as Les Six. By 1923, and possibly because his intimate friend Raymond Radiguet had died from typhoid, Cocteau had become addicted to opium. While trying to recover, he produced various works, such as the play Orpheus, the novel Children of the Game, and a first film, Blood of a Poet.
Les Enfants Terribles, which is considered Cocteau’s finest work, was published in 1929. The same year, he was admitted to hospital with opium poisoning. In the 1930s, Cocteau focused increasingly on films, although in 1936 he undertook a journey round the world, one similar to that described in Jules Verne’s story. In the following year, he met the actor Jean Marais, with whom he had a close and fruitful friendship for the rest of his life.
During World War II, the Vichy government branded Cocteau a decadent; but he also took some unwise actions that led to claims he was a German collaborator. After the war, he made Beauty and the Beast and turned both Orpheus and Les Enfants Terribles into films. He died of a heart attack on 11 October 1963, apparently on hearing of the death of his friend Edith Piaf. Further biographical information is readily available on the web, try Wikipedia, the official site of the Jean Cocteau Committee, Kirjasto, or the French Film Guide.
Cocteau, it seems, often kept diaries, and many of these have found their way into publication, in French, obviously, and sometimes in translation. The two most well-known of his diaries translated into English are Diary of a Film (also Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film), first published in English in 1950 by Dennis Dobson; and Opium: The Diary of a Cure. More recently, in the 1980s, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in New York and Hamish Hamilton in London have published two volumes of Past Tense: Diaries, being Cocteau’s diaries from the last decade or so of his life.
The following extracts come from Diary of a Film, as translated by Ronald Duncan and published by Dennis Dobson Ltd. Some of this book can be read online at Googlebooks, and a review by Tennessee Williams can be found in a 1950 edition of The New York Times. The first long extract comes from Cocteau’s own introduction
‘I have decided to write a diary of La Belle et la Bête as the work on the film progresses. After a year of preparations and difficulties, the moment has now come to grapple with a dream. Apart from numerous obstacles which exist in getting a dream on to celluloid, the problem is to make a film within the limits imposed by strict economy. But perhaps these limitations may stimulate imagination which is often lethargic when all means are placed at its disposal.
Everyone knows the story of Madame Leprince de Beaumont, a story often attributed to Perrault, because it comes from ‘Peau d’Ane’ between those bewitching covers of the Bibliothèque Rose.
The story requires faith, the faith of childhood. I mean that one must believe implicitly at the very beginning and not question that the mere gathering of a rose might involve a family upheaval, or whether a man can be changed into a beast, and vice versa. Such beliefs will offend the grown-ups who are always ready to condemn with derision those whose humble faith offends them. But I have the impudence to believe that the cinema which can depict the impossible may convince even them and turn such dreams into realities.
It is up to us, (that is, to me and my unit, in fact, one entity) to avoid those particular things which can break the spell of a fairy story, for when it comes to sequence, the world of make-believe is at least as susceptible as the world of reality.
For fantasy has its own laws which are as rigid as those of perspective. One can focus on what is distant, and hide what is near, but the style remains defined and is so delicate that the slightest false note jars. I am not saying that I have achieved this, but that is what I shall attempt within the means at my disposal.
My method is simple; not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The very word whispered will frighten it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you to eat at it, to criticize it, or to chop it up for firewood.’
30 August 1945, 7am
‘I woke up with a start in the night. It was raining. I suddenly realized a mistake I had made, which I must correct without anybody noticing it. If they did they would lose confidence in me. I am not a real director and probably never shall be. I get too interested in what is happening. I begin to watch it as though it were a play. I become a part of the audience and then I forget all about the continuity. I have forgotten the continuity of movement where Marcel André mounts his horse. So that we can still use that shot, I shall have to cut a bit of Nane Gernon at the window. She will have to say her lines again and then leave the window, so that Marcel in the next cut can make his movement. This means I shall finish up behind the horse when he mounts it and says ‘And you, Beauty, what shall I bring you?’
30 August 1945, 7:30pm
‘First day that I have actually done what I wanted to do. Splendid sunshine and clouds. We took advantage of the clouds after lunch to work behind the house, and produced the effect of evening by using lamps.
But this morning we nearly lost the little time that we’d gained on our schedule owing to the flying school students looping the loop above us. Darbon went to the officers. They are to pay us a visit at ten o’clock. One of them is Mangin’s son. They’ve promised to make the pilots fly further off.
I’ve nearly finished the linen scene. With a bit of luck I should be through with it tomorrow, between nine and one o’clock. (Ludovic and his watering cans, Mila’s shadow; Beauty’s arrival in her Princess’s dress in the lanes of sheets, discovered by Jean Marais who lifts up the first sheet as though it were a stage curtain a l’Italienne to reveal the background behind the bench.)
In order to make sure of Mila and Nane’s laughter in the close-up (on Josette’s line, ‘bring me a rose . . .’) I asked Aldo to dress himself up as a hag. He made up his face under a veil, and wore long blond curls made of woodshavings. He was grotesque and looked like an old witch. I pushed him out in front of them after the clapper-boy. But they told me they laughed only because they didn’t find him funny.
After the linen tomorrow I shall go on to the orchard, and do the scene of Beauty appearing with her father, to link up with the settings of the sheet and the house. Lebreton is recording sounds of chickens and running water for me, so that the background noises have the correct atmosphere.
1 June 1946 (the last entry in this published diary)
‘Am writing these last lines of this diary in a country house, where I am hiding from bells of all kinds. Door bells, phone bells, and the Rouge est mis.
Decided to quit as soon as the film was finished. And it was yesterday that I showed it for the first time to the studio technicians at Joinville. Its announcement, written on a blackboard, caused quite a stir at Saint-Maurice. They had filled up quite a theatre with benches and chairs. Lacombe had even postponed his shooting so that his unit and artists could attend.
At 6:30 Marlene Dietrich was seated beside me. I tried to get up to say a few words, but the accumulation of all those minutes which had led to this one moment quite paralysed me and I was almost incapable of speech. I sat watching the film, holding Marlene’s hand, crushing it without noticing what I was doing. The film unwound and sparkled like a far-off star - something apart and insensible to me. For it had killed me. It now rejected me and lived its own life. And the only thing I could see in it were the memories of the suffering which were attached to every foot. I couldn’t believe that others would even be able to follow its story. I felt they too would become involved in these activities of my imagination.
But the reception of this audience of technicians was quite unforgettable. And that was my reward. Whatever happens, I shall never get such a touching reception as I did from this little village whose industry is the canning of dreams.’