Le sang d’un poète
“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”–T.S. Eliot
FEATURING: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller
PLOT: A man sketches a face on a canvas; when he sees the mouth he has drawn beginning to move, he smudges it out, but finds that the orifice has affixed itself to his hand. He eventually gets rid of it by wiping it onto the face of a statue; the statue comes to life and sends him through a mirror into a strange hotel where he spies on surreal scenarios through keyholes. Returning through the mirror, he smashes the statue, is transformed into one himself, then finds himself playing a card game and shoots himself in the head when he realizes he cannot win.
- Jean Cocteau was already an established playwright, artist and novelist before creating this, his first film.
- Le sang d’un poète was financed by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also produced L’Age d’Or. They were both filmed in 1930, but first public screening of Blood of a Poet was delayed for over a year until the scandal caused by ‘s sacrilegious film had died down. (This history explains why the Blood of a Poet‘s date is sometimes given as 1930, its date of production, and sometimes 1932, based on when it was first screened.)
- De Noailles and his wife and friends originally appeared in the film as members of the audience, but they did not know what they were supposed to be reacting to. When the Vicomte discovered they were applauding a suicide he demanded the scene be cut. Cocteau re-shot it with a different audience composed of his friends, among whom was the female impersonator and acrobat Barbette, an underground Parisian celebrity.
- Elizabeth Lee Miller, who plays the statue, was the student and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray. She later became a successful photographer in her own right and never again appeared onscreen.
- Blood of a Poet is the first in Cocteau’s loose “Orphic” trilogy, followed by Orpheus (1950) and concluding with The Testament of Orpheus (1960).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau recommended that we view his movie as if it were an enigmatic painting, which leaves us with a plethora of surrealistic frames to consider. We picked a particularly bizarre composition: the “desperate hermaphrodite” in Room 23. The scene begins with a chaise lounge with a spinning hypno-wheel, and with a periodic drum roll new elements are added: a pancake makeup face, line-drawn breasts, a white fright wig, stars and various pieces of clothing strewn about the scene. In a final gesture he/she pulls off a black cloth to reveal the words “danger de mort” (“danger of death”) labeling his/her crotch region.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Collapsing tower; hand mouth; desperate hermaphrodite
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blood of a Poet is Jean Cocteau’s initial attempt to translate poetry—or rather to place one inside the trancelike state enjoyed and suffered by the poet—on film. Simultaneously quaint and avant-garde, it’s raw, primitive opium-dream weirdness; pioneering in its day, but still capable of startling today’s viewers with its irrational exhuberances.
Trailer for The Blood of a Poet made for a 2010 screening with a new score by DJ Spooky
COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau denied making a Surrealist film as vehemently as René Magritte denied painting a pipe. (“It is often said that The Blood of a Poet is a Surrealist film. However, Surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it,” he objected.) But this is French black and white movie from the 30s, nearly a silent film except for the occasional abstruse pronouncements from an unseen narrator (“documentary. Interminable. That’s how the cheat imagines his gesture…”). It is essentially plotless, with vignettes involving a persistent animated mouth that appears on a hand, a hotel where various keyholes show the execution of a Mexican and a girl taking flying lessons, and an opera crowd applauding a suicide. Its mise-en-scène is largely jumbled collages of arty bric-a-brac, and it’s implied that the events all take place in the instant it takes a smokestack to collapse. It is avowedly not symbolic, though the author cheerfully invites the viewer to take whatever meaning from it he wishes. If Le sang d’un poète is not a classic Surrealist film, it’s difficult to see what would qualify.
In his debut, Jean Cocteau uses film like a kid uses a Christmas present: he tosses the instruction manual aside and plays with the wrapping paper and box as much as the toy. (“There is no film technique. There is the technique that each person discovers—you sink or swim. In the circumstances, you invent your own swimming style.” ) He would expand upon some of the techniques he developed here in future films (especially Orpheus): the illusion of passing through a mirror, and the trick of painting walls on the floor and filming prostrate actors pretending to walk in order to make the characters’ perambulations dreamlike and unnatural. He uses a similar trick to make a girl seem to fly and walk about on the ceiling. Frames are spliced inside of each other to create the illusion of a mouth moving inside a hand or on a statue. Film is reversed so that an executed Mexican and a shattered statue spring back to life. Jump cuts are frequent; new objects pop into existence within scenes. The moment when the guardian angel absorbs the soul of the dead boy is the earliest use of solarisation in film that I can point to. Cocteau’s playful love of camera trickery, optical illusions and magic tricks shows debt as much to as it does the Surrealists, and although the special effects are now primitive, they remain magical.
Because Blood of a Poet is difficult, if not impossible, to interpret, much of the critical literature about the film restricts itself to providing context for the film. Observers have noted elements from Cocteau’s personal biography making their way into the narrative, which sometimes leads to charges of narcissism, or even the accusation that the entire movie is merely a vanity project. Cocteau was forthcoming that the snowball incident arose from a childhood memory that made an impression on him: he transformed the image of a playmate’s bloody nose dripping onto the white snow into the gruesome picture featured here (transforming the kid into an unintentional poet in the process). The shadow of an opium pipe seen through a keyhole recalls Cocteau’s own addiction, which he had only recently conquered. Scenes of suicide by a gun to the head occur twice; Cocteu’s father killed himself in the same manner. Today, much attention is paid to the homoerotic content in the film, although it’s not clear whether this scandalous material was much noted by his contemporaries. The eroticism consists mainly in the shirtlessness of the poet-hero, and the guardian angel in tight undies (Senegalese jazz dancer Féral Benga), whose torso and thighs are pretty well-oiled for a supernatural being with wire-frame wings. Perhaps the “hermaphroditic” figure also hints at a what today’s intellectuals would call a “gender-fluid subtext.” And of course, all of the film’s objets d’art are by Cocteau himself, with sketches in his line-drawing style, decorated with his signature five-pointed stars (the kind every schoolkid learns to make in first grade).
The poet in Le sang d’un poète is never explicitly identified as Orpheus; he’s more likely simply a stand-in for Cocteau himself. (The Testament of Orpheus, on the other hand, is a proper sequel to Orpheus, even answering the question of the fates of the Princess and Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise.) I’m not sure when Blood was declared the first of a trilogy, but it was surely not until after Testament was completed. The final image of the film does include a lyre, suggesting Cocteau had the Orphic myth on his mind, but otherwise connections are speculative. Cocteau was taken by the idea of the Orpheus dying, voyaging to the afterlife, and then returning to this world bearing poetry as a metaphor for the process of artistic creation. This poet visits the other world through one of Cocteau’s mirror portals, although rather than an afterlife it is a mysterious hotel through which the poet spies ideas through keyholes. In Blood, the poet “dies” twice. The first time he shoots himself in the head and is crowned with a laurel as the narrator declares “glory forever!” The movie continues. The second time he shoots himself, he dies for good: but his card-playing opponent is transformed into a living statue who parades through the snowy square, a triumphant work of art birthed from the poet’s bloody sacrifice. Cocteau is consistent with the titular blood imagery, which appears from the poet’s head twice and also flows from the young boy’s head. Blood represents the artist’s effort: “You think it’s so easy to get rid of a wound?,” asks the statue. Cocteau himself would later explain: “Poets, in order to live, must often die, and shed not only the red blood of their hearts, but the white blood of their souls…”
Many have suggested that Cocteau’s disavowal of any connection to Surrealism was disingenuous. If we are looking for a technical aesthetic distinction, it may be that Cocteau does not consider himself to be channeling the unconscious, but rather acknowledges the artist’s (semi-)active role in giving shape to the dreams and fantasies of the subconscious mind. “At the time of The Blood of a Poet, I was the only one of this minority to avoid the deliberate manifestations of the unconscious in favor of a kind of half-sleep through which I wandered as though in a labyrinth,” he explains. The real reason for distancing himself from the circle may have been that Cocteau was too egotistical to join a movement, preferring to be thought of as an independent poetic force arsing spontaneously. Although a contemporary of the official Surrealist circle and well-acquainted with the Parisian intelligentsia, Cocteau was a bit older than that crew, and famously quarreled with (and made fun of) their difficult founder and self-appointed leader, Andre Breton. The enmity between Cocteau and Breton was not unique; it was shared by novelist Georges Bataille, who unsuccessfully tried to form a counter-movement espousing the same artistic principles. Many members of the official circle, like Antonin Artaud and Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or and Blood of a Poet as all flowing from the same artistic well—or, as it may be, spouting from a shared artery.eventually left or found themselves officially expelled after violating Breton’s dogmas. These differences often involved personality clashes or politics more than artistic disputes, and often came down to whether one supported the Communists ardently enough, or was too sympathetic to the Fascists. Arch-Surrealist even officially resigned from the group on the grounds that if one was a Communist, there was no reason or room to be a member of another organization. Still, the viewer unacquainted with the petty politics of Parisian artists in the early 1930s would doubtlessly recognize
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an enigmatic account of a poet’s dreams and ecstasies and obsession with the unknown, composed in four illogical, timeless sequences that happen in the instant that a chimney topples… although it may seem to have no depth, you’re not likely to forget it—it has a suggestiveness unlike any other film.”–Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies
“…bizarre imagery abounds, from the artist (Enrique Rivero standing in for Cocteau) passing through a mirror, to a talking mouth that appears on his hand, to a wealthy couple inexplicably playing cards on a snowy street while a dead boy lies at their feet… Despite such complexities, and the freshness of much of Cocteau’s imagery, Blood of a Poet is ultimately something of a period piece, more a fascinating curio redolent of the era of such ‘shocking’ bad boys as Dali, Bunuel, and Andre Breton than a convincing, coherent work of art.”–Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal (“Orphic Trilogy” DVD)
IMDB LINK: Blood of a Poet (1932)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Blood of a Poet (1930) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s page has a link to comments by Cocteau on the film (which are included in their “Orphic Trilogy” release)
Jean Cocteau’s Avante-Garde Film From 1930, The Blood of a Poet – Background on the film from Open Culture
Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, 1930 – More background from Paul Gallagher at Dangerous Minds
The Blood of a Poet – Julia Levin’s essay for Senses of Cinema is as much a mini-biography of Cocteau as a film review
The Blood of a Poet 1930 – YouTube video essay focusing on the classical elements of the film
1932, The Blood of a Poet, Set Design, Cinema – Behind the scenes photos of Cocteau working on set
“Two Screenplays: The Blood of a Poet / The Testament of Orpheus” – Cocteau’s original screenplay (plus the screenplay for the third part of the trilogy, Testament), with supplementary essays and stills
HOME VIDEO INFO: For a public domain movie, it’s surprisingly hard to find a decent version of The Blood of a Poet. The gold standard is the version included in the Criterion Collection’s “Orphic Trilogy” triple DVD set (buy), an out-of-print limited edition that is somewhat expensive (though you can sometimes find individuals selling copies of this disc separately). The film is in desperate need of a restoration—particularly the soundtrack, which is full of crackle and hiss—although the print is watchable, and some may feel the imperfections serve the archaic atmosphere. Blood is the shortest of the three films, and its disc holds the most supplementary goodies: a gallery of behind-the scenes photos, a selected Cocteau “blibliofilmography,” and the text of the informative and erudite introduction the filmmaker gave at a 1932 screening. The most substantial extra is the feature-length documentary Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown, which is in itself in poor condition and is presented in better shape as a bonus on their later single-disc release of Orpheus. The booklet reprints an essay on the film by Cocteau himself. The Orpheus and Testament of Orpheus discs do not contain notable extras.
Various region-free public domain DVDs can be found (search), but we can’t vouch for the quality of any of them.
Of course, as a public domain movie, uploads of Blood of a Poet can be found on YouTube and other video-sharing services. We’ve embedded the version available on the Internet Archive below (click here to visit the download page). Unfortunately this upload has no subtitles, but there is little dialogue and most of it is fairly nonsensical (if “poetic”) anyway.