Jean Cocteau was a jack of all trades -- poet, novelist, playwright, actor, director, choreographer, painter, stage and dress designer. Today, he is best known for his movies “Beauty and the Beast” and “Orpheus,” both with Jean Marais, his lover, in the lead.
With the income from “Beauty and the Beast,” Cocteau bought a country house in 1947 at Milly-la-Foret near Fontainebleau, some 40 miles south of Paris. That’s where he died in 1963.
The house has just been opened to the public.
Cocteau bequeathed it to Edouard “Doudou” Dermit, his last protege, a miner first hired as gardener, who quickly became his indispensable companion and also appeared in several of his films. They are both buried in a nearby chapel decorated by the artist.
Cocteau’s bust by Arno Breker, next to the altar, may remind you of the embarrassing puff piece he wrote in praise of Hitler’s favorite sculptor during the Occupation.
Thanks to the efforts of Pierre Berge, Yves Saint Laurent’s partner, Dermit’s heirs sold the house to a public-private group. The task to oversee the conversion into a museum fell to the architect Francois Magendie and the team of Dominique Paini-Nathalie Criniere, who had organized the Cocteau exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 2003.
Only three rooms have remained intact -- the parlor on the ground floor and Cocteau’s bedroom and study on the upper floor. They demonstrate that even an avant-garde artist eager to keep abreast of the latest trends preferred old-fashioned, darkish coziness at home. The leopard-skin wall covering may raise some eyebrows.
The show at the Pompidou Center was chaotic and way too discreet, and so is the presentation of Cocteau’s life and work here. No attempt has been made to separate the wheat from the chaff and give the uninitiated a coherent idea of Cocteau’s biography.
This is an exhibition for cognoscenti, who know the story of his life and come to venerate the relics of their idol.
Sure, some of the highlights of Cocteau’s career are well documented -- his contribution to composer Erik Satie’s surrealist ballet “Parade,” which caused a scandal at its premiere in 1917, his movies and “The Human Voice,” his 1930 bravura piece for solo actress and telephone, which later became an opera by Francis Poulenc.
That Cocteau was, for many years, an opium addict is hinted at only through his own, playfully uninvolved drawings. Not a word about his troubles with the law and how close he was to suicide in 1938 when he lacked enough money to buy the drug and his friend Coco Chanel refused to help him out.
His turbulent love life also is touched upon only in passing. You would never guess from this display that his relationship with Marais was full of betrayals and disappointments.
There is no lack, on the other hand, of portraits: Cocteau was an egomaniac and inordinately proud of his -- repeatedly lifted -- face and elegant hands. He always found painters and photographers -- Bernard Buffet, Andy Warhol, Man Ray, among others -- to capture them for eternity.
The Maison Jean Cocteau is at 15 Rue du Lau, Milly-la-Foret. Information: http://www.jeancocteau.net or +33-1-6498-1150.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)