Valérie Sonnier found herself instinctively drawn towards the Château Raray near Senlis whilst preparing for an exhibition, curated by Dominique Païni, that explored the relationship between contemporary art and the work of Jean Cocteau. The Château Raray has been synonymous with film and writing since 1945, when post-war cinema turned towards a new genre, realism. Cocteau decided to ignore this particular trend and examine an age-old theme found in Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s renowned fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, which he began adapting for the big screen. Cocteau consequently used the Château de Raray as the backdrop for a large part of the scenes in his film in 1945. Valérie Sonnier often alludes to Cocteau’s masterpiece in her own work. For three years, between 2007 and 2010, she worked meticulously on producing a series of paintings representing all the roses in the garden of her childhood home throughout the seasons. Through painting the roses Valérie Sonnier both stops the never ending passing of time and captures the ephemeral nature of the roses with precision whilst her omnipresent memories conjure up notions of loss and grief at the same time. With this in mind she entitled the series Everything except my roses, inspired by the following lines in Beauty and the Beast: “You have stolen my roses which are more precious to me than anything else in the world. You are most unfortunate as you can take anything from me except my roses and the price to pay for this theft is death.”
It is of course the uniquely decorative surrounding balustrades, built at the beginning of the 17th century by craftsmen one can presume to be Italian, that first drew Cocteau towards the Château Raray. Passionate about dreams and all their inherent themes, Cocteau fills his film with as much fantasy as possible whilst also injecting it with a certain amount of psycho-analysis and surrealism, no doubt inspired by the etchings of Gustave Doré. Cocteau was touched by the beauty of Raray and found the setting suitably “strange” for the fantastical nature of his film; through the art of film Cocteau evokes an appearance of “accidental beauty”. The long and monumental balustrades, to the North and South of the courtyard at the heart of the castle, with their many archways, plinths and sculpted characters all add to the enchanting nature of the setting. The stag, wild boar and numerous hunting dogs that sit guard make up a sculpted décor much like those depicted by Gustave Doré, a fusion between realism and fantasy. Cocteau sees his film as an imaginary machine, exteriorizing interior images and demonstrating his conviction that a spectator should be able to “dream whilst awake” in the darkness of the cinema.
The renascent and ghostly nature of the Raray balustrades inevitably caught the attention of Valérie Sonnier. The drawings of her childhood home on the Rue Boileau in Versailles, the garden surrounding it and other places such as the Bad Gastein hotel in Austria, are filled with ghosts.Valérie Sonnier voluntarily searches out the ghosts of childhood, creating illusions both magical and entirely real in their appearance within a world of fantasy. With the apparition of a ghost in the film Footsteps in the snow, filmed in 2011 (in reality a friend hidden under a bedsheet and then a few very simple effects added when editing) one’s reminded of George Méliès’ work and his comical ghosts in Château du diable, 1896, and the evanescent ghosts rising up in enchantment above The Infernal Cauldron, 1902. Both are masterpieces from a time when the confrontation between ghosts and photography, acts of magic, ghostly presences and advances in cinema left spectators both shocked and stupefied. The special effects and filmic procedures of Beauty and the Beast –Josette Day appearing to glide towards the camera, no doubt on some form of travelling board with a subtle change of camera frame – bear witness to the freedom and limitless invention of Cocteau, uniting him with Méliès and the spectacular origins of cinema.
Ghosts also appear at Raray in Valérie Sonnier’s drawing of the balustrades and the same deer and dogs that spring to life in Jean Cocteau’s film, intentionally using the balustrades as a framework as if “at the cinema”. Much like in her drawings of a skeleton ballet dancing with a doll, the other themes that follow her in her work, the inert – in this case, stone – and life become one. Whilst Cocteau shows Beauty and the Beast appearing on either side of the stag in the archway, Valérie Sonnier has no need to. Their ghostly presence, and the individual and collective memories they evoke, can be felt within the drawing and draw upon the spectator’s imagination. When Yves de la Bédoyère, owner of the castle in 1945, spoke of the weeks during which filming took place, he observed , “I lent him my playground. I used to play with my toy cars along the balustrades. Within the main courtyard there were holes left by bombs that I would use as garages for my toy cars. I used to tidy them away indoors but my preferred playground always remained out there”. He went on to the discuss the film, “It’s so much more than a childhood memory. It’s an emblem so strong it still strikes me today when I see the film”. Raray has consequently become Valérie Sonnier’s playground. Just like Cocteau, she too exteriorizes internal images.The ghost she captures in photo could be that of Beauty, of the Beast, of Cocteau, of the film she discovered as child, of the fairytale she read or indeed of all fairytales. It is in fact the ghost of all the ghosts of her past. Her impeccably precise drawing, covered and protected with wax, catches our attention and immortalizes the stone balustrades that surround Raray. Having said that, one can be in no doubt that one evening the stag and the dogs captured in her drawings will come to life and disappear off into the neighbouring forest.