Du cinématographe by Jean Cocteau


“I am rather surprised whenever I hear people chatter on about poetry in cinematography, the fantastic in cinematography and, particularly, ‘escapism’,
a fashionable term which implies that the audience is trying to get out of itself, while in fact beauty in all of its forms drives us back into ourselves and obliges
us to find in our own souls the deep enrichment that frivolous people
are determined to seek elsewhere.”

Escapism is a word I have often been reluctant to use when talking about the experience of watching films, exactly from the reasons stated above by Jean Cocteau. Before reading his book, The Art of Cinema, I hadn’t expected to find some of my fundamental concepts about cinema in Cocteau’s collection of writings on the subject. But I did. ‘Cinema as art’ is another one. Cocteau was one of the most individualistic of the French directors and promoted the idea of cinema as art – distinct from what is usually known as ‘art cinema’. He disliked the elitism of art cinema. So do I. His cinema as art is about motion pictures which are full of a myriad of artistic possibilities, something that is rarely explored in contemporary cinema today. To be honest, I have always been of the opinion that art movies are made for critics. And, as Cocteau said, “critics have no hold over it [beauty]. […] Critics can not hear it because the roar of current events clogs the ears of their souls.”

A brilliant mind and visionary artist, Jean Cocteau thought the heart presided over the intellect. And so it should, shouldn’t it? He often referred to his work – an unequalled variety of artistic expressions (from filmmaking, to theater, sculpting, painting and literature (he even designed sets and ballets)) – as poetry, “but not that which relates to verse, but rather a lyrical sensibility rooted in intellectual integrity and hard work”. That kind of poetry, I understand. His films had an ethereal beauty and elegance and he wanted them to appeal through images rather than words. He was not inspired by facile anti-Americanism and his writings show his eclectic taste in movies. He disliked the word cinema, preferring to use the already obsolete term cinématographe, which Robin Buss translated ‘cinematography’ in the book – “Cinematography is an art. It will liberate itself from industrial slavery.”

But here are some of Cocteau’s most eye-opening words on films. Bold, witty and discerning.


“I attach no greater importance to the text –
which I always try to reduce to a minimum – than to the visual style.
This is the real style of the film, since it is primarily a matter of writing for the eyes.”


“The best films arise in difficult circumstances. Russia, Germany and Italy conquered the screen
at the worst moments in their history. As soon as countries recover, and get rich,
the standard of their films declines. […] there is no such thing as film production.
It is a joke, as much as the production of literature, pictures or music. There are no good years
for films, like good years for wine. A great film is an accident.”


“Yet, as we all know, art has survived only because of little volumes
with small sales in their time, little newspapers distributed by hand and magazines with minimal print runs. This is where the world
later finds the names that it respects and loves.”


  “People use the word ‘genius’ with too much restraint.
It is not the sole prerogative of the Goethes and Shakespeares of this world.
Genius extends through the whole range of humanity. Stendhal uses the word
in referring to the exquisite ease with which some beings move and act.”

photo by me

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