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Jean Cocteau in 1963: “I Hope You Have Not Become Robots”

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

In August 1963, just a few months before his death, Jean Cocteau recorded a message for the year 2000.

As Josh Jones perceptively writes in Open Culture, “Jean Cocteau was a great many things to a great many people—writer, filmmaker, painter, friend, and lover. In the latter two categories he could count among his acquaintances such modernist giants as Pablo Picasso, Kenneth Anger, Erik Satie, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Jean Marais, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and a number of other famous names . . .

As you’ll see in the short film above, Cocteau Addresses the Year 2000, the great 20th century artist considered the many awards bestowed upon him naught but ‘transcendent punishment.’ What Cocteau cared for most was poetry; for him it was the ‘basis of all art, a religion without hope.’

Cocteau began his career as a poet, publishing his first collection, Aladdin’s Lamp, at the age of 19. By 1963, at the age of 73, he had lived one of the richest artistic lives imaginable [though he was materially poor, and relied upon the generosity of others for his daily needs], transforming every genre he touched.

Deciding to leave one last artifact to posterity, Cocteau sat down and recorded the film above, a message to the year 2000, intending it as a time capsule only to be opened in that year (though it was discovered, and viewed a few years earlier). Biographer James S. Williams describes the documentary testament as ‘Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings.’

He reiterates some of his long-standing artistic themes and principles: death is a form of life; poetry is beyond time and a kind of superior mathematics; we are all a procession of others who inhabit us; errors are the true expression of an individual, and so on. The tone is at once speculative and uncompromising…

Portraying himself as ‘a living anachronism’ in a ‘phantom-like state,’ Cocteau, seated before his own artwork, quotes St. Augustine, makes parables of events in his life, and addresses, primarily, the youth of the future.

The uses and misuses of technology comprise a central theme of his discourse: ‘I certainly hope that you have not become robots,’ Cocteau says, ‘but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.’ The people of his time, he claims, ‘remain apprentice robots.’

Among Cocteau’s concerns is the dominance of an ‘architectural Esperanto, which remains our time’s great mistake.’ By this phrase he means that ‘the same house is being built everywhere and no attention is paid to climate, atmospherical conditions or landscape.’

Whether we take this as a literal statement or a metaphor for social engineering, or both, Cocteau sees the condition as one in which these monotonous repeating houses are ‘prisons which lock you up or barracks which fence you in.’ The modern condition, as he frames it, is one ’straddling contradictions’ between humanity and machinery. Nonetheless, he is impressed with scientific advancement, a realm of ‘men who do extraordinary things.’

And yet, ‘the real man of genius,’ for Cocteau, is the poet, and he hopes for us that the genius of poetry ‘hasn’t become something like a shameful and contagious sickness against which you wish to be immunized.’ He has very much more of interest to communicate, about his own time, and his hopes for ours.

Cocteau recorded this transmission from the past in August of 1963. On October 11 of that same year, he died of a heart attack, supposedly shocked to death by news of his friend Edith Piaf’s death that same day in the same manner.

His final film, and final communication to a public yet to be born, accords with one of the great themes of his life’s work—’the tug of war between the old and the new and the paradoxical disparities that surface because of that tension.’

Should we attend to his messages to our time, we may find that he anticipated many of our 21st century dilemmas between technology and humanity, and between history and myth. It’s interesting to imagine how we might describe our own age to a later generation, and, like Cocteau, what we might hope for them.”

It’s also remarkable that even in his last months, Cocteau remained dedicated to the future of humanity, and the humanities, and the need for poetry in the modern world, and that he created this last film entirely extemporaneously, speaking from the heart without notes or preparation, with a desperate urgency to communicate one last time with the youth of the future – albeit from beyond the grave. On his tomb, it says simply “I stay with you,” and so he does, more important now than ever, as one of the foremost humanists of the modern era.

This is an invaluable document; a real call for humanity to a future that desperately needs it.

Denis Côté’s Boris sans Béatrice (2016)

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

Denis Côté’s new film Boris sans Béatrice (2016) is a stripped-down, sharp tale of moral redemption.

As Brendan Kelly writes in the Montreal Gazette, “Denis Côté’s films may not make bazillions at the box office, but the Montreal auteur’s original, highly stylized offerings travel the world as much as the work of almost any other Canadian director this side of David Cronenberg. [You can watch an interview with the director by clicking here, or on the image above.]

Côté’s ninth feature, Boris sans Béatrice, had its world première in official competition at the Berlin International Film Festival [in February 2016], and then opened the recent Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois. James Hyndman stars as a successful Quebec businessman who enters a moral crisis after his wife (Simone-Élise Girard), a federal cabinet minister, falls into a coma-like state. It opens in cinemas Friday, including a version with English subtitles. [I asked the filmmaker a few questions] . . .

Q: There has been a debate here for a while about whether we should be making popular films or more artsy films. What do you think of this whole discussion?

A: Look, I’m 42 years old. I’ve made nine features. At a certain moment, I’m allowed to get up in the morning and just be Denis Côté, no? I’m not capable of making a commercial film. It’s not that I don’t want to do it — I’m not able to do it. If you ask me to film a bank robbery, I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to conventional filmmaking. I can’t make a film for M. or Madame Tout le Monde. I’m a cinephile, I was a film critic, and I’ve seen loads of films. I’m a bit obsessed with being different and having my own signature. So by definition, you lose a certain audience because of that.

And I’ve been encouraged to keep my signature. People in the business said, ‘Wow, you made Carcasses [a strange, low-budget 2009 film about a man who has a bunch of burnt-out cars on his land] and you went to Cannes.’ They said, ‘Wow, you filmed animals in Bestiaire [a 2012 film shot at Parc Safari] and you went to 100 festivals around the world and it was sold in seven or eight countries. So at a certain moment you start to believe in Denis Côté. You don’t think of la madame in Verdun.

And the business continues to support me. I didn’t need to fight for four years to make Boris sans Béatrice. I had one meeting at [Canadian provincial film funding agency] SODEC, and it was supported right away by [federal film agency] Telefilm. The agencies are sensitive to two things: box office and international exposure. With me, everyone knows I’m the guy who represents Canada internationally. They like that and they need that. And they don’t expect me to blow up at the box office. So if you ask me if Boris sans Béatrice is an art-house film, I’d answer, ‘Yes it is, and I’m proud of it.’”

The film marks something of a departure, at least for me, from Côté’s other films, in that it’s much more human, and humane, and also about human fallibility, than some of his darker films, like Vic and Flo Saw A Bear, a minimalist masterpiece with a heavenly happy ending, but only after the characters in the film go through all sorts of earthly Hell.

In Boris sans Béatrice, the protagonist’s Hell is of his own making; neglecting his wife for his hyper-successful business, tumbling from one meaningless affair into the next, and most of all behaving with an overpowering sense of arrogant entitlement for most of the film, Boris is clearly headed straight for the wall, in one sense or another.

This all changes when he receives a mysterious summons in his mailbox from a mysterious, otherworldly judge, billed appropriately as “l’Inconnu” in the film’s credits, played superbly by Denis Lavant, who calls Boris to account for his hubris, neglect, and his failure to take care of his wife, his mother, or even his daughter, other than bailing her out of jail after she’s arrested during a protest action.

In a sense, Lavant’s character resembles a more severe version of the character Heurtebise (as played by François Périer) in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), who aids but also chastises the poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) when he similarly neglects his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa).

Immaculately photographed, superbly acted, and entirely the work of someone who – for once – wants to please himself and no one else, Boris sans Béatrice gives us a indelible portrait of an utterly selfish, self-involved man who finally, through the agency of some supernatural guidance, is restored to the ones he truly loves, after realizing that the rest of his life, without love, is meaningless.

In this, the film is perhaps Côté’s most accessible work, despite his protestations to the contrary. Unlike the fashionably death-obsessed and self-conciously brutal allegories offered up by, for example, Michael Haneke, Boris sans Béatrice – which starts out with an unrelenting coldness – shifts gradually into a film that exudes a palpable sense of realistic hope, becoming a study of a life examined, found wanting, and reclaimed – a spectacle all too rare these days.

My thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to this beautiful, thoughtful film.

David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Les Parents Terribles (1948)

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Jean Cocteau’s 1948 film – his best work as a director – isn’t available on DVD in the US.

It’s something of a mystery to me, since the film is so accomplished, and since the earlier adaptation of Les Enfants Terribles, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is so readily available in a superb transfer on DVD here, but Les Parents Terribles remains missing in action. It was released on VHS in the early 1990s with English subtitles, and there are still a few copies of that version kicking around on Amazon – and the quality is passable – but a fully restored DVD and Blu-ray of this exquisite film, based on Cocteau’s play of the same title, is long overdue – most critics agree it’s his finest moment as a filmmaker.

As an anonymous contributor to Wikipedia notes, the famed critic “André Bazin wrote a detailed review of the film in which he took up the idea of ‘pure cinema’ and tried to analyze how Cocteau had succeeded in creating it out of the most uncinematic material imaginable. Bazin highlights three features which assist this transition. Firstly the confidence and harmony of the actors, who have previously played their roles together many times on stage and are able to inhabit their characters as if by second nature, allow them to maintain an intensity of performance despite the fragmentation of the film-making process.

Secondly, Cocteau shows unusual freedom in his choice of camera positions and movements, seldom resorting to the conventional means of filming dialogue with reverse angle shots, and introducing close-ups and long shots with a sureness of touch that never disrupts the movement of the scene; the spectator is always placed in the position of a witness to the action (as in the theater), rather than a participant, and even that of a voyeur, given the intimacy of the camera’s gaze.

Thirdly, Bazin notes the psychological subtlety with which Cocteau chooses his camera positions to match the responses of his ‘ideal spectator.’ He cites an example of the shot in which Michel tells Yvonne about the girl he loves, his face placed above hers and both facing the audience, just as they had done in the theater; but in the film Cocteau uses a close-up which shows only the eyes of Yvonne below and the speaking mouth of Michel above, concentrating the image for the greatest emotional impact. In all of these aspects, the theatricality of the play is preserved but intensified through the medium of film.”

Get the VHS if you can; this is a film that should not be missed.

New Frame by Frame Video: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on the 1945 films Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne by Robert Bresson.

I have blogged about this film before; as I wrote then, “one of Robert Bresson’s most incandescent works, this early film also marks the teaming of two of France’s most personal and idiosyncratic artists: Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau (whose 1949 film Orpheus [Orphée] mesmerized post-World War II audiences), in addition to his numerous other accomplishments, wrote the dialogue for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, loosely based on Denis Diderot’s short story Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître. Elina Labourdette plays Agnès, a young woman who has been forced into a life of prostitution in wartime Vichy, France, in order to support herself and her ailing mother (Lucienne Bogaert).

At the same time, Hélène (the serpentine Maria Casarés) is breaking up with her longtime lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), and, feeling jilted by him, concocts an elaborate plot for revenge. Contacting Agnès and her mother, Hélène offers to take over their debts, move them out of the brothel they call home, and set them up in a sleek, modern apartment, with no strings attached. We discover too late Hélène’s true motives; she is doing all of this so that Jean will ‘accidentally’ meet Agnès, fall in love with her, marry her, and then become the subject of public ridicule because of Agnès’s past. All of this goes off with clockwork precision, but Jean, when confronted with the monstrousness of Hélène’s treachery, shakes off his bourgeois prudishness, embraces Agnès despite her fall from grace, and the film ends on a note of hope and Bressonian redemption. This film never fails to stun me with its sheer, vibrant beauty and psychological insight; I return to it again and again, and it never disappoints.”

I wrote an essay on the film in Senses of Cinema 46; you can read it here.

Jean Cocteau on Cinema, Art, and Immortality

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a documentary on Jean Cocteau.

It should come as no shock to readers of this blog that Jean Cocteau, the multi-talented French artist — filmmaker, poet, novelist, sculptor, muralist, librettist, painter, playwright, memoirist — is one of my favorite cinéastes. Here’s the first part of an excellent documentary on his life and work, which you can easily follow by clicking on the other links that present themselves after the first section. Cocteau is, as always, simultaneously quixotic and absolutely transparent in his various pronouncements, and his opening declaration that he “detests” frivolity and fantasy might seem at odds with much of this work, but then again, perhaps not — as one can easily see, Cocteau was absolutely serious about everything he did, as he makes manifestly clear in this film.

The Testament of Orpheus

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

A few thoughts on Jean Cocteau’s last feature film, the 1960 Testament of Orpheus (full title: Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!), which the poet/painter/director/playwright/novelist/muralist and all stops inbetween.

Cocteau was never wealthy, unlike his contemporary Pablo Picasso, though both shared the same level of artistic mastery (Picasso, a lifelong contemporary of Cocteau’s, has a cameo appearance in Testament), and so he turned to François Truffaut, as well as longtime patron Francine Weisweiller, to help him finance this, his final work.

The cast includes such luminaries as Charles Aznavour, Yul Brynner, Claudine Auger, María Casares and Jean Marais (who both appeared so memorably in Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus), Serge Lifar, Jean-Pierre Léaud and numerous others, but Cocteau dominates the film, as he looks back on his long and multifaceted career.

Written, directed and starring the poet, some have called Testament an indulgent work, and perhaps it is; Cocteau is unabashedly celebrating himself and his accomplishments, and simultaneously gathering about himself for one last time those whom he loved and cherished as fellow artists, for a final bow.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Testament is a film that should never have been made; I, for one, can’t imagine the world without it. Indeed, the luster of the film only increases with the passing of years. As Cocteau himself observed of the act of creation, “art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.”

Cocteau was sometimes fashionable, sometimes ahead of his time, but never afraid to trust his own instincts as an artist. As he often advised young artists, “listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work.  Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like – then cultivate it.  That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” Cocteau did just that.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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