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BLOOD OF A POET, THE (SANG D’UN POETE, LE)(director/writer/editor: Jean Cocteau; cinematographer: Georges Périnal; cast: Enrique Rivero (The Poet), Pauline Carton (Child’s Tutor), Feral Benga (Black Angel), Jean Desbordes (Louis XV), Lee Miller (Statue); Runtime: 60; Vicomte de Noailles; Criterion: 1930-France-in French with English subtitles)
“There has never been a film quite like Le Sang d’un Poete.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Mirrors should reflect a little before throwing back images.”

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)

The information I derived on Jean Cocteau (The Eternal Return/Beauty and the Beast/Les enfants terribles/Orpheus), French poet, artist, novelist, playwright, and movie director was gathered from several books with Parker Tyler’s “Classics of the Foreign Film,” in particular, being an invaluable source.

Cocteau was born in Maisons-Lafitte into a wealthy Parisian family. His father was a lawyer and amateur painter, who committed suicide when Cocteau was nine. Cocteau’s father had a lasting influence on his son, but according to psychoanalytical reports this tragic event also created his desire to put himself in the service of the arts and the mysterious forces in the universe. In secondary school, Cocteau was only a mediocre student who was unsuccessful after repeated attempts to pass the graduation examination. His first volume of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp, was published at the age of 19 and he gained further fame with his involvement as writer and supervisor in Parade (1917), and he also did a ballet which was produced by Serge de Diaghile, with sets by Pablo Picasso and music by Erik Satie.

The idea of a film came about during a house party given by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles at Hyeres in 1929. Georges Auric, Cocteau’s lifelong musical collaborator, said that he wanted to compose the score for an animated cartoon. Cocteau was asked to provide a scenario. The Noailles (who also bankrolled Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or) agreed to give Cocteau a million francs to make a live-action film with a score by Auric. This became “The Blood of a Poet,” still one of the most widely viewed of all Cocteau’s screenworks.

Cocteau described this first film of his as “a disturbing series of voyeuristic tableaux, a descent into oneself, a way of using the mechanism of the dream without sleeping, a crooked candle, often mysteriously blown out, carried about in the night of the human body.”

The Blood of a Poet, was based on his own private mythology. Typical for Cocteau’s films was the use of mirrors as a door into another world and the play between reality and the underworld or the inner world where poetry is made. The hostility of the surrealists to this project led Cocteau to make a film that is sometimes in structure a lot closer in resemblance to neo-Romantic classicism than surrealism (Andre Breton was “king” of the surrealist group and was afraid Cocteau would dethrone him).

There has never been a film quite like Le Sang d’un Poete. Cocteau used all his energy and his diverse talents in a medium that was new to him, as this film represented an aesthetic milestone in his career.

Was it nonsense or serious film-making? In my opinion a little of both, though the result is a serious work. This 60-minute film is ostensibly, a work on the nature of creating art. It shows the artist in the first part of the film struggling to find his identity, vowing to free himself from his present confinement by becoming a martyr for his art. He symbolically kills himself to attain a new relationship to tradition. In the second part, he dredges up events from his young life and tries to honestly see himself for the first time without being conditioned by the world he grew up in. Playing a card game with a lady the poet snaps and starts recalling distresses from his childhood, and again symbolically shoots himself. His opponent turns into his muse, her long black gloves simulating a statue’s absence of arms.

Technically, The Blood of a Poet reflects Cocteau’s trials and errors as a novice filmmaker who had to turn irreversible mistakes to his advantage and had to constantly improvise. During shooting, he used the dust raised by studio cleaning men to enhance the mysterious atmosphere of the final scenes. Special weightless effects were obtained by camera trickery to show the little girl flying up to the ceiling and the poet moving painfully along the corridor wall. Once Cocteau discovered that he could turn shooting disasters into excellent footage, he was off on a career of making films that carried his trait of creating trick shots: the miraculous mirror and mercury scene in Orphee, the live arms holding the candelabra from the walls of La Belle et la Bete, and the accelerated time sequences of flowers opening in Le Testament d’Orphee are only a few examples of the trick shots he used in his later films.

Basically, in The Blood of a Poet, Cocteau shot four episodes in the life of an artist by trying to get into the artist’s head. Cocteau, as narrator, boldly states, “When an expression of art collides with a layman’s view of things, if the work is not understood, it is a question of which of the two is at fault.” For Cocteau, poetry is a coat-of-arms.

In the first episode, entitled: “The Wounded Hand,” the poet (Rivero) has his thoughts surrealistically swirling in the air and a mouth forms in his hand begging for air to breath. The following morning the poet decides that it is not a crazy idea to awaken a statue (Lee) even one that has been around for thousands of years, as he struggles to bring it to consciousness.

In the second episode he enters the mirror and it opens up a reality he never saw before, as the film’s theme revolves around the fears and joys and obsessions of the artist who has opened himself up for analysis–covering the filmmakers’s homosexuality.

In the third episode, the dreams and events in the poet’s life come back to haunt him. Most notable, is the famous scene of the poet as a child being knocked out when hit by a snowball. The child must learn how to handle the obstacles in his life, such as the bully in his class.

The fourth episode, entitled: “Stolen Card,” a black angel (Feral) hovers over a dead child (the poet when growing up). There is also the scene where the boy is growing up to be the artist who commits suicide at the card table. This is perhaps a reminder that Cocteau’s father committed suicide or of Cocteau’s artist friends who live an impoverished life and are forced to make life and death decisions. The film ends with the message: Mortal tedium of immortality. In the last frame, an industrial chimney shown in the beginning of the film, finally collapses and all material things are crushed. Only the poet remains and is considered to be eternal.

So much of this film is mysterious and vague, undoubtedly autobiographical in content and motif: Cocteau himself always denied the presence of hidden symbolism in the film, but word got out that it had anti-Christian undercurrents. This was really not so, according to Cocteau, but the rumor did its damage. It greatly distressed the Noailles. It caused a scandal and the Viscount was on the verge of being expelled from the elegant Jockey Club, and was even threatened with excommunication from the Church. The Noailles forbade Cocteau to allow public release of “The Blood of a Poet” for over a year. Later on, they gave the rights of the film to Auric and Cocteau, allowing them to do whatever they wanted with it.

The life-line of the movie is its imagery which can be interpreted many different ways, emphasizing Cocteau’s view that art disclaimed the world of ordinary appearances and projected vision to be a symbolic representation that must be continually changing because if it doesn’t it will be dead like classicism is and it will cease to be important. The director was afraid that the avant-garde movement would die one day like all other artistic movements have. To continue to be viable, the artist must break the “natural” laws that govern appearances and these strategies for breaking down appearances are the very gist of the film. The avant-garde art must be a kind of “public affront.”

Because of its unusual theme and style and unpredictability, this is a film that deserves the high accolades many film critics have bestowed upon it. It resolutely shows how the filmmaker communicates in the spirit world.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”