Take a new look at the world around you. Look through a mirror. What does it say about your world that is new? The cinema of Jean Cocteau is a world of mirrors and new ways of imagining the world. Looking at Cocteau’s movies is also a kind of gazing into a mirror, reality reflected back more fantastical, more fabulous, more than the real thing ever could. Cocteau made the prosaic profound.
Cocteau called mirrors the door from which death comes and goes. They are essential Georges Méliès-styled visual trickery. They stand for narcissism, of course, and are the poet’s tool for reassessing his relationship between imaginary space and the space of his reality.
“Perhaps you’re afraid?
“But this mirror is a mirror and in it I see an unhappy man. You do not have to understand. You just have to believe.”
Take a tuning fork and some very clever trick photography and you have enduring cinematic magic. The rest is literature.
Liquid mercury is used for the mirrors in Orpheus. We can take the mirrors in the film literally: they mean to reflect life. But they can also be full of metaphor. The men in the film can stand as homoerotic doubles and their charged energy, of life reflected against death, and sex mirrored back onto itself, say and show exactly what they seem to do. Mirrors in Orpheus are cinematic inversions. They are Cocteau subverting the norms of what is usually on screen and what he wants to show, to bring us into another world. What was once wholly original, a hand reaching into a mirror and opening up an entire other zone, is now cliche, out of the necessary utility of its effectiveness.
Cocteau said “mirrors should think longer before they reflected.” His cinematic creations are a means of making that happen. Cocteau wants the mirrors not only to reflect but to show everything to his characters.
In less literal terms (although maybe we ought to take Cocteau literally always), the characters of Les parents terribles are mirrors. The parents of the film are holding up their own projections, of their relationships and failings, and holding them against the young man at the center of the narrative. For those who like miracles, this is a masterpiece.
To be a writer is to write without writing. Again and again, that’s what Cocteau does. In his final picture, The Testament of Orpheus, he finishes his thesis on mirrored subjects. The artist now holds a mirror up to himself. It is a self-examination made for art’s sake. Watch it because you want to witness Cocteau’s reflection and live inside his mind and his mirror for a while.
Today we’ll explore all three, rounding out our retrospective on one of cinema’s greatest imaginations. Long live Cocteau, the multi-hyphenate who played with mirrors and every other way of telling a story.
Let’s hold up a mirror to a life’s work in the arts. A legend is beyond both time and place. Cocteau’s legacy lives on in the films. Into the mirror we go. The rest is literature.
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