I recently got The Orphic Trilogy of films directed and written 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). Dir. 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.