the tale of two muses

Marais and Cocteau at the Venice Film Festival, 1947

There can be no denying that Jean Marais was Cocteau’s muse. But it must be said that Cocteau was equally Marais’ muse, as was clear both in their cinema collaborations and in the work that Marais turned to when his screen career was largely over. From the moment they met the artist was inspired to fresh creativity by the young actor’s beauty, charm and character. Cocteau effectively re-made Marais, educating and finessing him for the role of film star. It had been what Marais had yearned for since he was a boy, and with Cocteau’s help, he triumphantly fulfilled his dream.

Both on stage and in the cinema Marais became the perfect interpreter for Cocteau’s work as a playwright and director, and in the films we have the lasting examples of what they achieved together.

In La Belle et la Bête (1946), L’Aigle a deux têtes (1947), Les Parents terribles (1948) and Orphée (1949), we see the flowering of Marais as a film actor, and Cocteau as a visionary of cinema. (Cocteau always referred to himself as an ‘amateur’ in the matter of making films, though he clearly meant nothing pejorative by that term, using it instead to imply that he was an ‘artist/poet’ using film as an expression of creativity.)

Notwithstanding his homosexuality, during the second world war Marais was briefly married to the actress Mila Parély. With his relationship with Cocteau in the ascendency, the marriage failed, though in 1946 Parély appeared as Beauty’s sister Félicie in La Belle et la Bête.

Parély, left, as one of the two vain sisters in La Belle et la Bête. The actress was the last surviving cast member of the film when she died at Vichy in 2012, aged ninety-four.

Marais’ film career was a relatively long one. He made over twenty films in the 1960s, and though there was a sharp tailing off of acting roles through the 1970s – 90s, he continued to make occasional on-screen appearances up until his death in 1998.

In the early 1970s he reinvented himself as a ceramic artist, setting up a workshop in Vallauris where he made decorative objects, frequently in his trademark ‘gunmetal’ finish. Even in this field of the plastic arts, the mood of La Belle et la Bête haunted much of what he produced. So many of his ceramics look as though they could have been found in the Beast’s palace.

Ceramic owl made by Jean Marais

Marais was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honour in 1996.

Jean Marais is buried at Vallauris, where his tomb bears decorative testimony to the role he is most famous for:

la Bête

Jean Marais: actor, artist, muse

1913 -1998

12 thoughts on “the tale of two muses

  1. Was Marais involved at all in Magick or Wicca? The horned beast looks very like the horned Wiccan god…we know as Satan. What a delightful posting! I certainly agree with you about Cocteau’s fascinating marriage of theater, film, visual art, and poetry/visionary writing. And that he would quite possibly been a difficult person to like…or a least a challenging personality.

    • I don’t know whether Marais had an interest in Wicca. It’s evident that Cocteau was interested in many things, particularly mythology, and I’d say that Marais’ work as an artist reflected that.

      I’ve never read Marais’ biography, which I don’t believe has been published in translation. In profile the horned figure on the tomb has the body of a reclining beast, and as such falls into being a combination of Cernunnos and a Sphinx. To my eye it looks like a second cousin to some of the fantastical statuary in La Belle et la Bête.

      In his art Marais never moved very far from the imaginative worlds of La Belle et la Bête and Orphée that had made him so famous. In the Montmatre quarter of Paris, “Le passe muraille”, a bronze statue by him of a man passing through a wall, takes as its subject the short story by Marcel Aymé, though undoubtedly also references the iconic scene in Orphée in which Cocteau had Marais walk through a mirror.

    • From reading his diary for La Belle et la Bête, I’m not at all sure I would have liked Cocteau very much had I ever met him. I must confess a resentment born from the fact that his attachment to opium badly influenced the talented young British painter Christopher Wood, who was befriended by Cocteau and subsequently picked up the habit. Wood returned from France with the balance of his mind compromised, partially, it’s thought, by his addiction to the drug, and he fatally threw himself under the wheels of a train. He was evolving from a good painter into a magnificent one, as the fruits of his last troubled and frantic months of activity at the easel bear testimony. We can only guess at what he might have become.

      Best perhaps not to meet the people you most admire, as they may well not measure up to the anticipation. Nevertheless I have a great enthusiasm for Cocteau the polymath. I love the combination of poet, artist and film-maker, and experiencing his films in my early teens had an enormous effect and influence on me.

      La Belle et la Bête still dazzles me, and I even like the last chapter, where the Beast is reborn as the overly-primped and glittery Prince. Cocteau has the grace to allow Beauty to look taken aback, and then not a tad disappointed, though she finally simpers a little and is perhaps… though only perhaps… persuaded by the transformation. Candidly I’m quite sure she’s deluding herself, but I’m glad that Cocteau allows for all those complexities, which greatly add to the rich subtleties of the film. Life, as we well know, doesn’t generally meet our expectations, even when we get what we thought we wanted.

      There is no happy end save in the simplified world of fairy tales. L.B.e.l.B. takes account of that, and moreover in quite a subversive way. After all, Cocteau himself took an ambitious though unformed young actor and transformed him into a matinee idol, and so perhaps he shared Beauty’s unease at trading the thrillingly animalistic for a polished consort. Marais himself, thereafter, spoke slightingly of his Beast-to-Prince transformation, likening his appearance to a ‘sugarplum fairy’, and it must be admitted that the Prince’s costume and grooming suggest an overweening and disagreeable vanity. Even Avenant, the devilishly handsome brute who clumsily woos Beauty before her encounter with the Beast… played by Marais in a clever stroke of double-casting… seems preferable to the spangled fop in pantaloons that she ascends into the clouds with at the film’s conclusion. Like many others I used to hate the film’s ending, but now I just think it insightful and truthful. (Or am I reading too much into it?)

    • I wouldn’t be surprised. I know for a fact that he made the small lion medallion that’s between the two portrait busts of his likeness as the Beast.

  2. WOW! I had no idea of his later endeavors. Thanks for bringing this info to my attention… and also for these excellent few blog posts about my favorite film. They have been extraordinarily interesting and instructive. xo AM

    • There’s lots of his work to be found online, so at least now you can look it up.

      Our friend Rex Harley has a handsome little ceramic made by Marais, that he found in a junk-shop. He purchased it on impulse and later discovered the maker from the studio stamp.

      So pleased you’ve enjoyed what I’ve compiled here, because that indicates you’re going to like the birthday present that’s in the post, quite a lot.


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