Narcissus Sees Through Himself

Portrait of Jean Cocteau, Federico de Madrazo de Ochoa, c. 1910, oil on canvas.

Stuart Klawans

Vol. 33, 2011

 

Having chosen at different moments of his career to rewrite Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Romeo and Juliet, Beauty and the Beast, the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and the myth of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau placed himself among those convention-breakers who believe the best-known stories are the ones worth repeating. In his name, I begin with a familiar tale.

It concerns that most ingenuously avant-garde of aristocratic Parisian couples, the Vicomte Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, who in 1929 began to dabble in film production. From Man Ray, they commissioned Les Mystères du château de Dé, a fine, half-hour example of the absurdist house-party movie in which everyone plays dress-up. (That included the Noailles. It was, after all, their house.) Soon afterward they became more ambitious in their patronage, putting up a million francs, with no conditions, so that an artist with very little technical experience of the cinema and no great chance of appealing to a mass audience could make a feature-length sound film. Although the man was already celebrated for his ability to summon up arresting images, any movie of his that might be labeled a succès was also likely to be trailed by scandale.

So it was, when the film had its premiere in November 1930 amid right-wing riots, police censorship, a threat of excommunication for the Noailles, and (most serious of all) the loss of the vicomte’s membership in the Jockey Club. Yet for all the trouble the Noailles had caused themselves—quite innocently, according to the artist, who later described them as having been baffled by the uproar—they had given world cinema one of its greatest achievements: a work that continues to floor audiences today with its incomparable brashness, defiance, invention, and humor.

That film, of course, is L’Age d’or by Luis Buñuel.

 

 

 

 

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