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Jean Cocteau on the Riviera


It wasn’t only through his films, or even through his advocacy on behalf of the art of the cinema, that Jean Cocteau was a crucial influence on the French New Wave. His diary of the making of “Beauty and the Beast” served the movie-mad youths of the Cinémathèque as a glimpse behind the screen, the way that an artist—novelist, painter, playwright, designer—experienced the making of movies. Above all, Cocteau was an artist of life whose presence was like a magnetic field that made his surroundings his reflection. For young people who thought of themselves as artists devoted to the cinema but who lacked the training of film school or professional experience, the story of how a relentlessly fruitful creator who was nonetheless not an industry insider made the recalcitrant machinery his own was a key inspiration. There’s now a museum devoted to the display of that sensibility, that lifetime of constant creation, in Menton, in the south of France, a few miles west of the Italian border and a few miles east of Nice. It opened its doors a few weeks ago, and glimpses of it—its architecture, its seaside setting, and its contents—are enticing.

Le Monde offers a slide show, and the dossier in Le Figaro features photos of the building as well as a portrait of Séverin Wunderman, the passionate collector of Cocteau’s work and whose donation of his collection of approximately two thousand items is the core of the musem. Wunderman, a Belgian Jew, born in 1938, survived the war hidden in a school for the blind, emigrated to the United States, and became a jeweller, then a designer of Gucci’s line of watches—all the while assembling his cabinet of Cocteau treasures, which he donated to the town where Cocteau spent lots of time in his later years and which commissioned many public works from him. (Cocteau died in 1963, at the age of seventy-four; Wunderman died in 2008.)

The galleries display the wide range of his work, featuring paintings and drawings alongside manuscripts, photographs, and film clips. The museum itself, designed by the architect Rudy Ricciotti, seems, from the photos, to be a distinctive experience, with its vast glass windows open to the sea and its undulating forms that suggest both a classic grace and a visionary modernism—a pairing that Cocteau himself accomplished with style. I haven’t been to the museum and am judging from photographs (here’s another, from ArtDaily), but am impatient to wander through the halls dedicated to the inner and outer life of one of the most inspiring creators—and self-creations—of the twentieth century.

P.S. There’s a new Criterion release of Cocteau’s 1950 masterwork “Orpheus”; unfortunately, the DVD of his final film, “The Testament of Orpheus,” is out of print. (Anthology Film Archives shows it every now and then, most recently, about a month ago.)

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