Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Cocteau, Jean

(1889-1963) French artist, poet, writer, journalist and moviemaker who established a reputation before WWI as a dandy and enfant terrible, with volumes of poetry like La Lampe d'Aladin (coll 1909); but who came into his full fame – a fame he treated as a commodity to sustain his lifestyle, but which he mocked – with his involvement in Parade (1917), a ballet produced by Serge de Diaghilev (1872-1929) with sets by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), music by Erik Satie (1860-1925), and written and clamorously supervised by a Magician-like JC (see also Commedia dell'Arte). With its camp but sometimes searing iconoclasm, and its dismantling of any secure sense of Reality, this enterprise shared with the various artistic movements of the time – from Futurism and Dada to Surrealism – a defiant rejection of versions of the world that pre-dated the apocalypse of World War I, while also remaining bound to the Myths and Icons of that old world. For the rest of his long and prolific career (he wrote over 100 books in various genres), JC continued to espouse (and to be trapped by) this aftermath aesthetic.

His first fiction, Le Potomak ["The Potomak"] (graph 1919; rev 1924), a cartoon/text/cartoon presentation verging on Absurdism, centres on the eponymous aquatic monster, whose presence in Paris evokes responses of the utmost frivolity in those aware of its formless menace; a sequel, Le Fin du Potomak ["The End of the Potomak"] (1940), takes a similar attitude to a civilization lunging into World War II. Many of his plays are conspicuously full of elements of the Fantastic. The best selection is The Infernal Machine and Other Plays (coll trans 1963 UK), which contains: Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel, a ballet-script here trans as "The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party"; Bacchus (1952), in which the central figure in a German Carnival induces his own death; and La Machine infernale (1934; first trans as The Infernal Machine 1936 UK), which retells Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. His other works for the theatre include: Oedipe Roi (1927; trans C Wildman as Oedipus-Rex 1962 US), an earlier adaptation of Sophocles's play which was itself transformed into an opera-oratorio with music by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) (see Opera); and Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde (1937; trans as The Knights of the Round Table 1963 UK), in which a Trickster-like Merlin subjects "Artus" and his court to a malign Enchantment (see Arthur).

Today, however, JC remains most honoured for his work in Cinema, most importantly for those movies he both scripted and directed. (The nonfantasy Les Enfants Terribles [1950] was based on his Les Enfants Terribles [1929].) Three Screenplays (coll trans Carol Martin-Sperry 1972 US) contains his scripts for L'Eternel Retour (1943), which retells the Tristan story (see Arthur) but which he did not direct himself, La Belle et la Bête (1946) and Orphée (1949), which is based on the play Orphée (1926; trans as Orpheus 1933 UK). The sequel to the latter, Le Testament D'Orphée (1959), here trans as "The Testament of Orpheus", appears in Two Screenplays (coll trans 1968). These movies combine a sophisticatedly dreamlike intensity with genuine fantasy narrative structures, though the two devoted to a remarkably difficult-to-parse Twice-Told version of Orpheus-as-JC are not for the lazy viewer.

JC was not a significant narrative artist, but despite his uneasy contempt for the world which had died around 1914, he had a magpie love for the fragments of that world – for bits of Story, protrusions of Myth into mundanity – that did survive. In the end, he was a guardian of these fragments. [JC]

Jean-Maurice-Eugène-Clément Cocteau


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.