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'The Blood of a Poet': Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau's The Orphic Trilogy: The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, Testament of OrpheusI recently got The Orphic Trilogy of films written and directed by Jean Cocteau: Le Sang d'un poète / The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orphée / Orpheus (1950), and Le Testament d'Orphée / The Testament of Orpheus (1960).

I decided to start with the first film, Le Sang d'un poète / The Blood of a Poet, which runs about 55 minutes. I was dubious about Cocteau as a filmmaker since, as a poet, he was one of those laughably bad frauds produced during Europe's decadent interwar years. While attempting to be Surreal, Cocteau's writing was puerile, half-hearted, and soaked with clichés. He loathed the king of the Surrealists, André Breton, whom he sought to displace, and their antagonism has gotten both bad writers more play than anything either one ever wrote.

So it was no surprise that Cocteau's initial film offering was as bad as – or worse than – his verse. Perhaps the only valuable thing that such a pretentious, self-conscious hodgepodge can offer is some historical context for the later 'student art films' and the Warhol Factory films of the 1960s, which were, it should be stated, far more evocative. As 'art,' however, The Blood of a Poet is virtually worthless.

Apologists claim that such a film is beyond like or dislike or good or bad, but having recently watched Werner Herzog's early Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen / Even Dwarfs Started Small, I can say that The Blood of a Poet is not like Herzog's film at all because Even Dwarfs Started Small a) presented itself as art, b) was not a vanity project, and c) was well made – despite a limited budget. The Blood of a Poet, on the other hand, is amateurish even for its day. Silent filmmakers had done wonders onscreen that dwarfed what Cocteau did – despite the excuse of a limited budget. Cocteau was content to take the lazy way out, tossing meaningless faux symbolisms at the screen so the viewer has to do all the work. This is an old tactic many bad artists employ, making The Blood of a Poet a work of bad art – if it's art at all.

As in any 'art film' one must endure, there is no real script, there is no plot, there are no real 'actors.' Instead, there are only caricatures put on by hammy amateurs, plus a hodgepodge of 'found' images designed to be deeply symbolic so as to compensate for a total lack of originality at the film's core. Of course, apologists take this mess as a sign of 'genius' because this is what they claim the artist intended – a mess. If I desire to write a bad book then, it becomes critic-proof by virtue of the fact that I intended to write poorly. The term 'logical dissonance' comes to mind, but then, to those apologists, art is about emotion, not logic.

The Blood of a Poet has no visual power – it looks just as cheap and dated today as it did over three quarters of a century ago. There are a few episodes within – a bare-chested 'poet' (Enrique Rivero, a poor imitation of Rudolph Valentino) frolics about his loft, constantly sucking in his gut, and then passes through a mirror, falling through it when it becomes a pool (the scene is filmed from overhead).

He then discourses with a statue come to life, after a drawn mouth crudely superimposed on his motionless hand, is smeared on her, and makes her come to life after he's wiped it off a charcoal drawing. The 'poet' bounces around the screen as silly images, bad poetry read by Cocteau, and sexual voyeurism take over the screen. Then, we get a snowball fight, where a boy is killed, while a black male angel, with oiled body, does some crudely homoerotic things to the child (Cocteau's bisexuality was legendary) whose body he covers.

Cut to a scene of the female statue playing cards with the poet and driving him to suicide with taunts, forcing him to cheat. The black angel foils the poet's cheating, and the poet, inexplicably but melodramatically, chooses suicide. The statue gets vengeance for the poet's earlier smashing of her form after the mirror episode. The film then ends with dissonant imagery and trite ideas, such as 'mortal tedium of immortality' being a bane of sorts.

In a sense, this film is too disjointed to be considered a true example of Surrealism, Expressionism, or even Symbolism. Being such a mess, however, puts it in the realm of Proto-Postmodernism. Yet, the effects are so bad, and the film so poorly edited, that there is not a moment of magic or awe in the film. It is almost like a badly drawn cartoon with human actors. (Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr, made the previous year, shows exactly what a great filmmaker could do with special effects, even with a limited budget.)

Ostensibly, The Blood of a Poet could be said to take place between the first and final images of a factory smokestack falling to the ground – but this could also merely be repetition, and not symbolic of a frozen moment in time. The film also fails on the claim that it represents dream logic. It does not. Dreams can shift in tone, but they do not have the jagged and ragged feel these images do, or the pontificating somnolence that most of Cocteau's words inflict upon the viewer.

Viewers and critics also interpolate what they've read of Cocteau's alleged past into what they see on-screen, but with absolutely no reason to do so (except for, say, the meager homoeroticism). The images and words found in The Blood of a Poet offer nothing to the apologists, save the opportunity to apologize for it.

This stilted film was clearly a vanity project made by a man with an ego out of control – Cocteau was a self-described 'mad genius' – and unlike dreams it is shorn of any emotional coherence and the logical continuity that dream-like films like Solyaris / Solaris or The Shining might offer. That Cocteau was the ultimate bourgeois poseur, sort of art's equivalent to Che Guevara, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his writing or The Blood of a Poet.

Perhaps, as I watch his later films, The Blood of a Poet will then be justified as a 'dry run' for tactics that would manifest themselves in better, more serious, works. Even so, that still does not justify this film's place in cinema for the masses, any more than the drip paintings of a Pollock or the masturbatory excesses of language poets do for their increasingly dwindling audiences. This sort of art is not even explained by its apologists, merely sustained by them, for the art immanent within them is sparse – if not nonexistent.

Even Cocteau seemed to be winking at his audience when he opens the film with this title card: A realistic documentary of unreal situations. On a related note, perhaps the latter two films of this 'trilogy' will actually involve Orpheus, but both the 'poet' within this film and the film itself have absolutely nothing to do with poetry or the Orpheus and Eurydice mythos – much less the varied misinterpretations of that mythos the film's apologists try to twist into reasons for the 'greatness' of The Blood of a Poet.

And the film in no way, shape, or form, recapitulates the true creative process, which is – as should be expected from such a limited purview – in the most over-the-top and puerile manner tritely seen as coming from the Muse rather than being the result of genuine and earnest – let alone competent – work. Yes, the idea of a Muse is classical, but it's also wrong. Reality may be more boring, and this is why we don't have films about writers at their desks, only those who do things like drinking, carousing, cursing, or committing suicide.

The Criterion Collection version of The Blood of a Poet is surprisingly bad, especially for such a usually top-notch company. Blotches and scratches are abundant, and the sound quality is quite poor. Included as extras are still photos, a transcript of a Cocteau lecture, an essay by him in the insert, and a 66-minute 1984 documentary on Cocteau by Edgardo Cozarinsky, Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d'un Inconnu / Autobiography of an Unknown. The documentary is, predictably, more hagiography than a sober documentary, and its insights into art and Cocteau are at best fleeting.

The truth is that The Blood of a Poet feels more like a rejected Monty Python or early Saturday Night Live skit, or something that, were it not for its dogged and pretentious defenders, would make great fodder for the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd. Yes, the poseurs (you know who they are) will masturbate over this unabated tripe, but even worse than its pretentiousness and banality is that the film is just plain dull.

One needs only look to America, a few years earlier, to see the silent films of Buster Keaton, and to get a sense of a true Surrealist filmmaker who learned to tame that tendency into real storytelling – i.e., to have a philosophy serve a greater purpose than its mere claims. Having long known and loved Keaton, I can state definitively that Jean Cocteau is no Buster Keaton. After watching The Blood of a Poet I'd even settle for this film and its maker being Diane Keaton. Ah, such things that dreams are made of.

© Dan Schneider

The Blood of a Poet / Le Sang d'un poète (1930). Director and Scr.: Jean Cocteau. Cast: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

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7 Comments to 'The Blood of a Poet': Jean Cocteau

  1. victory furniture

    Luckily Cocteau will live on forever and Dan Schneider will be quickly forgotten. BoP is a film novice's investigation into his own psyche and the struggles with his muse. Too bad Schneider is too limited to see past his own short comings as BoP has influenced many of the great film masters of today. It has been cited as a major influence on many of the films of Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and many others.

  2. Aidan Anstey

    I agree with you regarding many of the lines in his films, which tend to fall flat. “I wish I could drink” would clearly be better than his line ending in 'vivons'. Cocteau tended to forget that film characters are still persons even when symbolic, and should be allowed to speak as people rather than pontificate like statues. He tended to focus on the poetry of visual images when making films and regarded the texts as mere scaffolding. At the same time, it is a stretch to conclude from this that he was a bad poet. His writing was admired by a number of literary greats, including Rilke and Proust for his early works, Auden and Mauriac for the later, and the critic Edmund Wilson throughout. His collection “Plain-Chant” (c. 1923), in particular, is considered to be excellent erotic poetry in a somewhat classical style. Perhaps the best way of summing up his overall work is “versatile, though uneven.” Nevertheless, his supreme creation was undoubtedly his life, as one writer noted.

    A. Anstey

  3. Grant

    Mr Schneider's “review” of Cocteau's Blood Of A Poet is my first encounter with the Alternative Film Guide website, but his unwarranted vitriol and complete misunderstanding of Cocteau's aesthetic may well mean it could be my last. Monty Python? Saturday Night Live? Please, website moderators, ensure you publish contributions from responsible and informed critics.

  4. Casper

    It seems to me that anyone who would write so much (and yet so little of worth) about a film they disliked is saying more about themselves and their prejudices than the actual film.

  5. Dan Schneider

    AC- I object to Cocteau's claim of being an artist- period, when his art is more wan that flowery Romantics.

    Anon- No, art need not fully explain a thing, but the explanation is immanent within. The artist merely has to make the audience want to dig. JC was one of these types who'd say, 'It's art cuz I say so,' while pointing at a piece of shit.

    As for mass appeal. No, it does not, but art should have meaning for more than the artist alone. Hermeticism is not good in communication; which art is the highest sort of.

    As for its being dated- it's called video- VHS & DVD. I am a fan of the silents, and the visual composition of this film is amateurish. Buster Keaton did all and more this film did, and better, a few years earlier.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Some food for thought:

    “Cocteau was content to take the lazy way out, tossing meaningless faux symbolisms at the screen so the viewer has to do all the work.”
    - Can art only be good if it fully explains itself? Are you sure you are not confusing art with entertainment?

    “Even so, that still does not justify this film's place in cinema for the masses”
    - Does all of cinema have to have mass appeal?

    “The Blood of a Poet has no visual power —  it looks just as cheap and dated today as it did over three quarters of a century ago.”
    - I agree it certainly looks dated today. But how do you know it already looked dated in the 30s? Were you alive back then?

  7. A.C.

    We live about a century after the surrealist movement began, and yet it is funny to me that some people can't seem to let go of petty jealousies within this influential clique. Yes, Cocteau did not consider himself a filmmaker, got on Breton's (as well as Dali's and Bunuel's) nerves, and wrote less than beautiful verse; that said, the imagery in 'Blood of a Poet' is faaaaaaaar more perfect, more ethereal, and less outlandishly provocative than anything Bunuel ever committed to film (not that Bunuel isn't as fantastic as Cocteau, but he simply is not as POETIC, and poetry is pretty much what this film is about).

    Mr. Schneider seems to have an objection to Cocteau as a person rather than an artist, labeling as some kind of poseur who wasn't fully committed to the “surrealist” cause or idea. If you want to restrict art to socio-political lines (yes, he was bourgeosie), or look for people clearly heralding an anti-religious, anti-authoritarian message, then Cocteau is not for you; however, he is a million times more subtle and thoughtful than those young, romantic surrealists that so many headstrong critics fall in love with. I beg any prospective viewers of this movie who read this silly “in depth” review to give it a chance - judge it for its art, not for the petty one-upmanship that the artists a century ago might have had toward each other.