Oct 21, 2016

Book Review--Jean Cocteau: A Life

Jean Cocteau: A Life
Claude Arnaud
Originally published: Gallimard, 2003
English translation by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell:
Yale University Press, 2016

Jean Cocteau never quite fit in with the human race. Lost in fairy land fantasies and opium reveries, with even his hair refusing to part right and standing on end in rebellion, he was an oddity who inspired rage and affection, but rarely disinterest. Unable to find a cohesive thread throughout his many pursuits: novels, poetry, plays, films and drawing, he would sometimes agree with his critics that he was nonsensical and not of this planet. He lived in his own world.

In 2003, Claude Arnaud drew on years of research to compose an epic take on the life of this misunderstood artist, giving him his proper due as a unique and influential artist. It is a dense work, full of daily details and a cast of characters more populated than a Russian novel. It takes great patience to navigate, but offers a rewarding history of a man, the great geniuses he knew and the time in which he lived. In its recent English translation the beauty and irritation of this massive work retains the feel of its culture, occasionally even taking on the otherworldly, fanciful voice of its subject.

Cocteau in 1923
It took me a while to engage with Cocteau. The first half of the book was jammed with so many quotes and references to various personalities that it didn't have room to breathe. Eventually Arnaud finds his flow though as he begins to trust his own voice and settles into more cohesive storytelling. Cocteau was a narcissist, in constant need of love and attention, and as a result he knew just about every creative soul of note and patron of the arts in early Twentieth-century Paris, and all of these relationships are important to his story. It's a complex tale to unwind.

In associating almost entirely with creative people, the sensitive Cocteau found himself surrounded by intense and ambitious personalities. The pressure of these dynamos molded him as much as they destroyed him. He counted among his allies major modern influencers like Coco Chanel, Marcel Proust and Igor Stravinsky. He was mentored by writers including the now mostly forgotten Anna de Noailles and nurtured new talents like the doomed Raymond Radiguet, who was also his great romantic obsession, and the eternal thief Jean Genet.

Jean Marais, 1947

Throughout his life Cocteau also made many enemies, irritating many with his unusual and erratic ways. Among his worst detractors were the Surrealists, who, led by movement founder André Breton, waged a public campaign against him in the twenties and thirties. The artist held no grudges though and his forgiving nature would often win over his most vehement critics, though notably not Breton, who hated him for life. Cocteau also had an enduring frenemy in Pablo Picasso, who was as loyal as he was toxic over the course of a decades-long relationship.

As Cocteau lived for other people, it is appropriate that his relationships form the core of his biography. While most attracted to the male physique, he could be fluid both sexually and with the nature of his friendships, which included platonic romances and a highly-satisfying threesome late in life that was more affectionate than erotic. He had a passion for young men and would mentor many to great artistic success throughout affairs that were sometimes romantic and always paternal. Along with Radiguet, his most famous "son" would be actor Jean Marais, with whom he would have a complicated, but essentially supportive relationship for the second half of his life. His rare romances with women are also examined, and in particular his love affair with socialite and princess Natalie Paley with whom he dreamed of having a child.

Natalie Paley
While I was fascinated to learn about the culture and creators who affected and formed Cocteau, I craved more detail about his process of creation. I found the text especially uneven and lacking detail when it came to the production of his films, which was especially disappointing as I approached the book with a particular interest in his cinematic works. For example, while the process of filming Blood of a Poet(1930) is described in satisfying detail, from conception to completion, there is very little space devoted to his marvelous post-war masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (1946). Given that film offered Cocteau the opportunity to combine so many of the different arts that inspired him, it surprised me that these unusual works did not get more attention.

Overall Cocteau is effective because it takes you under his skin, making clear his desires, motivations and dreams. He led a tortured existence, sensitive to criticism and hate, and plagued with skin ailments, allergies, insomnia and myriad other discomforts. For much of his adult life he dealt with his physical and emotional pain by self-medicating with opium. It is a habit that would take him out of the world to an alarming degree, and Arnaud captures that disconnect with reality effectively.

Cocteau offers a far-reaching, detailed history that cannot be recommended for a casual reader. Committing to this massive text offers many rewards, but it is a demanding book, with much to absorb and understand. It is well worth the effort for any fan of French culture of the early Twentieth century in addition to Cocteau devotees.

Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.


  1. Thank you for your review. I just ordered the book. Have you read the biography by Francis Steegmuller ?

  2. So sorry, didn't see your comment in my "to approve" list! I haven't read the Steegmuller biography. Is it good?