Contentious Collaboration: Cocteau, Melville, and 'Les Enfants Terribles'
Paul and Élisabeth yearn to savor the elixir of transcendent possibility, but know only the bitter taste of wretched futility.
The poet, painter, novelist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau specialized in giving his audiences access to the interstitial space, the liminal realm, between dream and reality. His characters speak a language steeped in reverie. Every utterance is poetic, elliptical, and deeply cryptic. For Cocteau’s protagonists, the metaphorical replaces the denotative. This is the speech of indirection, of elusive allusion. Suggestion replaces content. The dreamer’s language points away from the objects at hand; theirs is a determinedly impractical mode of communication.
Indeed, communication seems beside the point. These characters fail to speak of their own accord; they possess no linguistic volition. Rather, language speaks through them. They’re not subjects employing language, but rather subject to language’s whims. It’s as though language itself seeks that one word that would break the spell, that would call a halt to its own outsized prolixity.
Cocteau recognizes that the true dream state is inherently restless. His dreams are always ill-at-ease, replete with malaise. His dreamers long to awake, and yet perforce they would linger in the subcutaneous realm of the dream. The dreamer wishes to pierce the dream, to plunge irrevocably through its barrier, but fears what's on the other side. In the dream, language is a pure system of resemblances. A thought dissipates and gives rise to another. But this fluidity is deceptive. Each word is haunted by the specter of its own impermanence and falls into an allegorical array that threatens to calcify, to become a stultifying web that suffocates the dreamer.
Cocteau’s dreamers have a bad conscience. They move through their lives like somnambulists. Like somnambulists, they navigate their world with a preternatural confidence, an unfailing and unfeeling sense of direction, a paradoxically aimless teleology. They’re sleepers awake, beautiful but diseased. For Cocteau, beauty always involves sickness. The rose is most alluring, reaches its point of greatest redolence, as it decays. Sweet fragrance gently fades into pungency. Fair seekers seeking nothing and everything, Cocteau’s dreamers grasp at the nothingness that surrounds them. Dreams for Cocteau are fragile but pervasive. Every moment threatens their destruction; they constantly foreclose upon their own existence, and yet they remain stubbornly open, they persist and thrive in their own dissipation.
The liminality, the perduring ephemerality, that is Cocteau’s métier is precisely what makes it such a difficult subject for film, even when Cocteau himself was the director. The symbolic richness of the dream state can easily become cloying. What should be a cryptic gesture can become an overwrought bit of theatricality. Cocteau’s delicate beauty, imbued with a quiet horror, may devolve onto kitsch. The rarefied heights of the transient whisper may carelessly slip to the depths of grotesque banality. The trick, it seems to me, is the hold on to that other side of Cocteau’s dichotomy: that is, reality.
Cocteau’s imagination hovers within the realm of the irreal, and yet, it's ever mindful of its purchase upon a quotidian, average everydayness. This is the hardest part of Cocteau’s work to comprehend and the easiest to overlook, or even to deny. Yet, it's the vital element that allows his work to do the work that it does; this ever-slipping grasp upon reality is what forces his work beyond mere flights of fancy, beyond the fevered aspirations of imagination, and onto a plane of meaning that intersects with the ways in which we live our lives.
Despite his Wagnerian ambitions and obsessions, what's miraculous about Cocteau’s work is the manner in which it reverses the Wagnerian paradigm. If Wagner transmutes a lived experience of love onto the mythological level of the universal, then Cocteau reduces transcendence to the quotidian. For Wagner, Tristan and Isolde, starting as earth-bound lovers compromised by the fraught circumstance of their social obligation, dissolve into a spiritual remainder, a surplus-value of a volitionless love, a love beyond desire, a love that cancels out desire; in other words, an impossible and symbolic love. Wagner seems to hold that love is cheapened by circumstance and thus for love to remain, reality must wither. Our reality is shown to be untruth. To access truth, we must demonstrate that reality is a lie and thus eradicate it.
Cocteau, at his best (and he's not always at his best, of course), countermands this trajectory of transcendence. He starts with the transcendent realm. Love, contempt, honor, betrayal -- all of the concepts to which language refers occupy an ideal, noetic, quasi-Platonic sphere. These concepts are eternal and immutable. Indeed, the term “concept” is misleading here because it implies there's someone doing the conceiving. But for Cocteau, Love and Hate inhabit a supra-human and sempiternal identity. They are not merely the conceptual labels we employ to make experience fungible, but rather they are the foundations on which all experience is predicated.
Yet, these pure, static forms, in order to have any veritable existence, must of necessity become corrupted by our use and our experience. They must become exchangeable. The Wagnerian surplus becomes a medium of exchange. This partially accounts for the elegiac quality of Cocteau’s language. Its lyricism is partially ironic -- not in the sense that it “doesn’t really mean what it says”, but rather in the sense that it's aware that all meaning crumbles in the necessary transition from the ideal to the real. Language here points hesitantly beyond the real. It longs to connect with the ideal, with the eternal, with the transcendent. The poetic nature of Cocteau’s discourse is the poetry of failure and of collapse. This is why his characters often sound so desperate. They yearn to savor the elixir of transcendent possibility but know only the bitter taste of wretched futility.
But it is this degraded, fallen state of language, this traffic in the disenfranchised ideality of speech, that vouchsafes its efficacy. This is Cocteau’s irony. The originary value of the word lies in its ideal existence, its surplus value, but such value is meaningless in that it lies outside the circulation that would make it vital. To do work, language must move; the static ideal must perforce become the dynamic real. By falling into disrepute, language gains a foothold in meaning, in consequence. Wagner starts with the real, exposes it as a lie, and finds the truth in the ideal. Cocteau starts with the ideal, reveals it to be a bloodless lie, and makes reality a quest for some fractured, debilitated truth.
Film is, perhaps, the perfect medium to body forth Cocteau’s vision insofar as film is itself situated at the nexus of reality and illusion. Film, like the Schopenhauerian or Freudian conception of the dream, projects a phantasmagoric image, alternative to reality. The penetrating light of the movie projector casts its shadows, brilliant and alluring, onto a dream screen that enchants and entrains us. We are locked into a passive partisanship, just like in the dream. We observe as the sequences unfold, anticipating their movements, registering the shocks of the unanticipated. We invest ourselves in these images that we know not to be real. They’re just bits of light floating through particles of dust, flashing on a blank screen of possibility.
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On the other hand, as Walter Benjamin has shown in his celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, there's a deeply documentary quality to film and to the photograph in general. The picture seems to show the real as it actually is. A photograph always seems to utter: “This is the way it is.” The photograph bears the stamp of reality. In a sense, the photograph is more real than real. Our experience only allows for the vestiges of reality owing to our ineluctable entrainment to the fugitive nature of temporality’s flux. The photograph arrests time, freezes it, insists that it endure. Through the dominating force of the photograph, we are able to glimpse reality in its stark rigidity, in its flat insistence on duration.
Film, of course, returns the photograph to time’s inexorable flow. Yet something of that rigidity remains. We might see through the filmic apparatus, to recognize the illusory nature of the images, and yet something of that “this is the way it is” quality persists. Theodor Adorno, in his famous essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, worried that this element of film’s mode of being was precisely what made it so effective as a form of cultural propaganda and social control. Film approximates the real so closely that the line between reality and illusion is blurred. Illusion colonizes the real so that mass entertainment becomes mass delusion.
What Adorno sees as a threat works to the advantage of Cocteau’s vision. The ideal is degraded to the status of the illusion of the real, the impenetrable haze of disconnection that pervades our existence. Film, perched precariously on the border of illusion and reality, the ideal and the quotidian, lays open the foundations of our compromised existence.
This balancing act requires careful handling, a cautious equilibrium between realism and poetic escapism. Arguably the finest example of a film that strikes this balance is not one of the many directed by Cocteau himself but rather one directed by a then-young and unestablished French filmmaker who would soon emerge as a dominant force in film -- but not for the dreamscape he conjured on behalf of Cocteau but rather for his take on film noir. That director is, of course, Jean-Pierre Melville and the film, only his second feature film, is Les Enfants terribles (1950), based on the eponymous 1929 novel by Cocteau.