Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau (5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963) was a French writer, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker. Cocteau is best known for his novel Les Enfants Terribles (1929), and the films Blood of a Poet (1930), Les Parents Terribles (1948), Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orpheus (1949). His circle of associates, friends and lovers included Kenneth Anger, Pablo Picasso, Jean Hugo, Jean Marais, Henri Bernstein, Yul Brynner, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Erik Satie, Albert Gleizes, Igor Stravinsky, Marie Laurencin, María Félix, Édith Piaf, Panama Al Brown, Colette, Jean Genet, and Raymond Radiguet.
In his early twenties, Cocteau became associated with the writers Marcel Proust, André Gide and Maurice Barrès. In 1912, he collaborated with Léon Bakst on Le Dieu bleu for the Ballets Russes. During World War I Cocteau served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. This was the period in which he met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, artists Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, and numerous other writers and artists with whom he later collaborated. Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev persuaded Cocteau to write a scenario for a ballet, which resulted in Parade in 1917, with sets by Picasso, the libretto by Apollinaire and the music by Erik Satie. The piece was later expanded into a full opera, with music by Satie, Francis Poulenc and Maurice Ravel. Cocteau wrote the libretto for Igor Stravinky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus rex, which had its original performance in Paris on 30 May 1927.
Biographer James S. Williams describes Cocteau’s politics as “naturally Right-leaning.” During the Nazi occupation of France, Cocteau’s friend Arno Breker convinced him that Adolf Hitler was a pacifist and patron of the arts with France’s best interests in mind. Cocteau effusively praised Breker’s sculptures in an article entitled ‘Salut à Breker’ published in 1942. This piece caused him to be arraigned on charges of collaboration after the war, though he was cleared of any wrongdoing and had used his contacts to his failed attempt to save friends such as Max Jacob.
In 1940, Le Bel Indifférent, Cocteau’s play written for and starring Édith Piaf, was enormously successful. He also worked with Pablo Picasso on several projects and was a friend of most of the European art community. Cocteau’s films, most of which he both wrote and directed, were particularly important in introducing the avant-garde into French cinema and influenced to a certain degree the upcoming New Wave genre.
His final film, The Testament of Orpheus (1960), featured appearances by Picasso and matador Luis Miguel Dominguín, along with Yul Brynner, who also helped finance the film.