Even as a teenager, Jean Cocteau tried to calm worries about his future even as he would fly off in new and illogical directions stemming from his interests of the moment. “Never fear,” he wrote to his worried mother, “there is beneath my seeming frivolity something great and profound, which I have wanted to mask.” After that letter, he went on to create a career of incredible breadth, becoming at one point or another, a novelist, director, artist, social climber, and influential figure in queer history, to name a few. While he is best known stateside for films like 1946’s Beauty and the Beast or the popular 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles, critics, especially in France, often continued the accusations of frivolity, labeling him a “jack of all trades” and rarely situating him among his peers, the greatest artists and writers of the 20th century.
In the late 1990s, Prix Femina Essai-winning French writer and essayist Claude Arnaud wanted to create a short, conceptual book exploring identity and reinvention in a public figure. He chose Cocteau for his many sudden transitions between movements and mediums as well as his surreal aesthetics. But Arnaud was quickly drawn in by the vast number of works Cocteau produced and his paradoxical, chameleonlike personality; four years later, the project had metamorphosed into Jean Cocteau: A Life, a thousand-page study of Cocteau’s numerous evolutions. “This small book I wanted to write became a kind of monster,” Arnaud says. “It was stronger than me; I had to do this book and he deserved it.”
Cocteau’s wealthy bourgeois childhood in turn-of-the-century Paris gave him access to painters, musicians, writers, and elite salons. He sought refuge from early tragedies in his German nanny’s dark fairy tales and soon brought that sense of magical escapism to his own poetry. Even though he never finished school, the literary elite celebrated and groomed him as the prodigious successor of the Symbolist movement. Cocteau however, would never follow the trajectory these early mentors envisioned. Instead, he flitted from one avant-garde movement to the next, dedicating just as much energy to writing operas with Stravinsky or to painting alongside Picasso as he ever would to poetry.
Romantically, Cocteau was equally unlikely to fit into one role, or even one orientation. He fell madly in love with princess Natalie Paley, who rejected his proposal because she was already married, just as easily as he lusted obsessively after doomed novelist Raymond Radiguet, an undeniably straight young man. Cocteau would eventually find a cinematic muse in his actor Jean Marais, and together they became the first publicly celebrated homosexual couple of the century. But even that relationship would change into something platonic and more difficult to define over time.
Arnaud delved into these personal histories through journals, letters, and even interviews with people who knew Cocteau and his associates personally. Each story he found better illuminated Cocteau’s tendency to blur the lines between lover or collaborator and friend or rival. “Every time I looked even a little bit into what had happened with Proust, with Stravinsky, or with Jean Genet,” Arnaud says, “there was something extremely powerful and vivacious….So with each important encounter I made the most out of it, shedding a new light on him because he did transform himself with each relationship.”
In intimate detail, Arnaud narrates these relationships, explaining how Cocteau would adapt to the current object of his affection, romantic or otherwise. He profited from knowing seemingly every great artist active until his death in 1963, forming symbiotic friendships that would influence both artists and spur Cocteau’s latest transformation. While traveling with Picasso he suddenly became a Cubist, but when on good terms with Tristan Tzara, he would join the Dada movement. These stories provide an enlightening context for Cocteau’s artistic acrobatics and also bring to life a specific Paris that will make any Francophile giddy. (In particular, instances of Cocteau tormenting Proust were so exquisite that Arnaud expanded them into a separate book, Cocteau Contre Proust.) Although often mutually beneficial, these numerous attachments were not without their consequences.
Montparnasse artists would hide their latest creations when Cocteau and Picasso visited, labeling Cocteau a “thief.” Disregard and distrust haunted Cocteau throughout his life and even after his death. For Arnaud, this fact is unfair. “Like all artists [Cocteau] takes, cites, reproduces, distorts….what is really of interest is what they do after they take something. It’s seeing how they transformed what they stole,” Arnaud adds. “We cannot reduce him to a thief...he was extremely sensitive and extremely impressionable, but he was a true inventor. There is no doubt he had a world unto himself.”
Arnaud brings us into this singular world inhabited by numerous incarnations of one man by focusing on his personal co-dependency and celebrating his astounding professional fearlessness. “You feel mesmerized by a personality that is so strong and at the same time so weak,” Arnaud says, “Cocteau invades your life, and you become a puppet in his hands….[he was] so weak personally, but at the same time he was never afraid….It’s a sort of madness that I found extraordinary and marvelous.”
Thirteen years after the book was published in France, Arnaud has seen opinions shift, noting that the France’s prestigious National Modern Art Museum, the Centre Pompidou, has since held a full retrospective. More French critics acknowledge Cocteau as “someone major from the 20th century...he had been considered a joke or a clown, but after the book people saw that he was a serious poet, completely engaged.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator currently based in Paris.