When Jean Cocteau’s name surfaces most of us think of the visionary artist, poet and director who made films such as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946), BLOOD OF A POET (1930), LES PARENTS TERRIBLES (1948) and ORPHEUS (1949). Cocteau is all these things and more but he also happens to be one of my favorite film critics. I hesitate to call Cocteau a critic because it’s a term I’m not particularly fond of. Cocteau was first and foremost a film fan. A genuine cinephile and a champion of the cinematic arts. His deep affection for the medium is self-evident in the many journals and letters he left behind. He wasn’t ashamed of expressing his outright devotion to the cinema and his passions and prejudices shine like beacons on the printed page pointing readers towards great films and great performances. Cocteau is one of a handful of writers that inspired me to start writing about film and I often return to his work for inspiration.
Today I thought I’d let Cocteau share some of his most insightful and interesting comments about classic films and their stars. These quotes were compiled from various sources including Past Tense: The Cocteau Diaries Volume One, Opium: The Diary of a Cure, and the essential Art of Cinema.
On Marlene Dietrich: “Marlene Dietrich: your name starts with a caress and ends with the lash of a whip. You wear feathers and furs which seem to belong to your body like the fur of a wild animal or the feathers of a bird. Your voice and your look are those of the Lorelei; but the Lorelei was dangerous. You are not, for the secret of your beauty consists in taking care of your heartline. It is this heartline that sets you above elegance, above fashion and style: even above your reputation, your courage, your manner, your films and your songs. Your beauty speaks for itself, so I do not need to speak about it; I shall salute your goodness of heart. It shines out, illuminating from within the long tide of glory that you are, a transparent flood that comes from afar and generously deigns to extend as far as us.”
On Ramon Novarro: “Leaving aside Ramon Novarro’s beauty which is associated with the beauty of chariots or Roman galleys – his acting is close to the style of modern acting and makes the minor actors look old-fashioned. But this is because it burns with a brighter, higher and more intense flame, which finds expression in directness and simplicity.”
On Cecil B. DeMille: “Cecil B. DeMille was a crank, one of those wonderful madmen who think they have a mission and want to convey it to the world at any cost. But it was not this naïve ambition, which extended to ordering himself a pitchfork worthy of King Mausolus that makes Cecil B. DeMille a prince of the screen. It is his style, his bold, childlike handwriting, his downstrokes and capital letters.”
On Robert Wiene’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI: “Caligari is not one of those works that take its place in the anthology of great exploits. We did not admire this film: it even irritated us in more ways than one. But – and this is better – we loved it and keep the memory of it inside us. Thus certain works circulate within us like magic blood and were charmed, enchanted, enraptured, provided these words can regain their original meaning: charm being a deadly bond between beings, enchantment a sort of scourge that stuns everything and rapture a grasp that tears us out of ourselves.”
On Orson Welles’ MACBETH: “Orson Welles’ Macbeth is a work of casual and savage power. Wearing horns and cardboard crowns, dressed in animal skins like the drivers of the first motor cars, the heroes of the play move down the corridors of a kind of dreamlike underground railway, in ruined cellars oozing moisture and through an abandoned coalmine. Not a single shot is left to chance. The camera is always at the spot from which the eye destiny would choose to follow its victims.”
On Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET: “Robert Bresson was absolutely right to choose Lulli to accompany the ballet of pocket-picking and the terrible anxiety that accompanies the novice catpurse. The acting that he managed to coax from a non-professional is miraculous: not only does he bring long hands that might belong to a pianist to the filching of wallets, but he has also endowed his hero with the sort of existential terror of an animal stalking its prey and fearful of being stalked in its turn.”
On Greta Garbo: “Lunch at Vefour with Greta Garbo (Nov. 29, 1951). Paul-Louis comes with her to the house first. Oddly enough, no one in the restaurant seems to recognize her. Oliver (restaurant chef) will tell me the next day that he’s been asked if Garbo wasn’t Madeleine Solonge! … The sense of greatness, of the sacred monsters, the sense of the legendary are lost.”
On Charlie Chaplin: “An American lady, a friend of Roosevelt’s, said to me at Mme Cuttoli’s: Isn’t there a little too much fuss about Chaplin? After all, he’s only a clown. I answered her: I hope you are fortunate enough to have many clowns like Chaplin, or like Garbo, or like Einstein. They’re not your compatriots, but you owe them what prestige you have.”
On Laurel and Hardy: “I love them. They are children at play. There are times when their slapstick is rent with uncontrollable lyricism and collapses into heaven and death. I doubt whether audiences here in the unassuming rue du Poilu, ready to laugh at the least sign of nobility or suffering, can appreciate the magic charm of these two American clowns.”
On Brigitte Bardot: “I have always preferred mythology to history. History is composed of truths which become lies, mythology is composed of lies which become truths. One characteristic of our age is that it creates instant myths in every field. The press is responsible for inventing people who already exist and endowing them with an imaginary life, superimposed on their own. Brigitte Bardot is a perfect example of this odd concoction. It is likely that fate set her down at the precise point where dream and reality merge. Her beauty and talent are undeniable, but she possesses some other, unknown quality which attracts idolaters in an age deprived of gods.”
On James Dean: “In my view, James Dean is a sort of archangel of rebellion against custom: was not death his finest act of disobedience, in its terrible rejection of his promised fame? It is as if he left the world like a schoolboy escaping from the classroom through the window and poking his tongue out at his teachers.”
Is there another writer who manages to capture the absolute magick and pure unadulterated joy of cinema better than Jean Cocteau? I don’t think so. And if there is I’m not sure I want to know. For me Cocteau is the ultimate film fan and his love letters to the movies he admired and the creators he adored are little treasures that he was kind enough to leave behind for us all to enjoy.
– by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published in May 2012 at TCM.com