Tribute to a Renaissance man

The eccentric personality of one of 20th century’s most complex artistic figures, namely that of Jean Cocteau, unravels in a tribute to the cinematic part of his oeuvre, during the Ninth Athens International Film Festival. Known as Premiere Nights, the festival runs to Sunday. A multifaceted artist, Cocteau was a poet, a playwright, a painter and a director – a true Renaissance man. More than his work, however, his entire life can be defined as artistic. Throughout his work one finds reflections of surrealism, psychoanalysis, Catholicism and substance abuse (in the form of opium). Put together, these make up the dreamy universe which was Cocteau’s: Based on his subjective truth, one enters through a mirror – his favorite symbol. Commemorating 40 years since his death, the tribute began last Friday, in collaboration with Media Desk. The following screenings have been scheduled: «Beauty and the Beast» (1946), starring Jean Marais, Josette Day and Marcel Andre at the Attikon at 10 p.m. today and the Danaos at 11 p.m. Sunday; «The Eagle Has Two Heads» (1948), featuring Jean Marais, Edwige Feuillere and Silvia Monfort at the Danaos at 10 p.m. Friday; and «Testament of Orpheus» (1960), featuring Cocteau and a plethora of uncredited celebrities ranging from Pablo Picasso, Luis Miguel Dominguin and Serge Lifar to Yul Brynner and Charles Aznavour, at Danaos at 10 p.m. Saturday. Self-portrait For Cocteau, realism was all about showing rather than using words, and he was constantly amused by audiences’ agony to distinguish between the various forms of symbolism. In «The Blood of A Poet,» for instance, Cocteau was not really aware of the fact that he was making a movie, but simply trying to express himself through a vehicle which other poets didn’t have access to. In this way, and without realizing it, Cocteau was actually making a self-portrait. Born to a wealthy family living in the Parisian suburb of Maisons-Laffitte, in 1889, Cocteau’s lawyer/amateur artist father committed suicide when his son was only 10. The dramatic event haunted Cocteau throughout his life. Publishing his first poems at the age of 19, Cocteau later met Pablo Picasso and they became friends. Through this friendship he met Sergei Diaghilev, the powerful director of the Russian Ballet, who commissioned him to write something for the troupe. Cocteau came up with «Parade,» based on music by Erik Satie and set designs by Picasso. This became the rite of passage for his career in writing. At about the same period, he became addicted to opium. While substance abuse became a recurring theme in his life, Cocteau made various attempts to put an end to this kind of excess. In the beginning of the 1930s, Cocteau turned to film. «The Blood of a Poet» was his first long feature film, with a story based on his very own mythology. In 1937, he met Jean Marais. His relationship with the handsome French actor is reflected in the adoring way Cocteau presents him in most of his films. In «Orpheus,» Cocteau dealt with death – a notion which concerned him greatly and one which he linked to inspiration. He referred to death as his «female lover.» «As I grow smaller, she grows bigger, taking up more space, worrying about small details, dealing with insignificant, shallow matters,» he used to say. «She is making fewer and fewer efforts to deceive me. But her moment of triumph will come when I cease to exist. That’s when she will consider that her problems are over and will go away, closing the door behind her.» In the last decade of his eventful life, Cocteau turned to the graphic arts, dealt with growing older by having a facelift and became the most eccentric member of the French and Belgian academies, by sporting a wardrobe of leather trousers and toreador capes. Cocteau died in 1963, in a surreal way yet one well-suited to his life-long obsessions. He was in the middle of preparing a radio broadcast on Edith Piaf when he heard that the legendary French singer had just passed away. «Ah, Piaf is dead, I can die,» he explained and collapsed.

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