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In August of 1963, two months before his death, Jean Cocteau recorded on film a “speech to the year 2000” in which he mused on his creative process. He drew a line between his mundane and artistic personas. He said, “A poet is in a way the work-hand whose act engages a self more profound than himself, which he doesn’t know too well, mysterious forces which inhabit him and which he knows poorly.”

This dichotomy is a recurrent theme found in his “Orphic trilogy” consisting of this film, Orphèe (Orpheus, 1950) and Le testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960). In each, death is seen as an unavoidable doorway to the realm of dreams and visions, country that only be entered by forfeiting the conscious self. Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet) is Cocteau’s first expedition into the amorphous landscape of his subconscious, a dredging operation that brings up gems of possible meaning. The images it posits would recur, refined, over the course of his career.

At the time of making Le Sang d’un poète, Cocteau was already established as an enfant terrible of French culture due to his work as a poet, playwright, novelist, librettist, visual artist, designer, and tastemaker. (He popularized the group of French modernist composers known as Les six: Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Tailleferre — Auric composed the score for Le Sang d’un poète.) His movement into the realm of film was sparked by the efforts of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, who released the revolutionary, and some would say incomprehensible, experimental films Un Chien Andalou in 1929 and L’age d’or in 1930. (Le Sang d’un poète, completed in September of 1930, would be held out of circulation for 15 months due the cultural uproar caused by Buñuel and Dalí’s work.)

Le Sang d’un poète is an allegorical autobiography. It is what Cocteau describes as “only 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 human body. There the actions link as they please, under so feeble a control that one could not ascribe it to the mind,” in a “realist documentary of unreal events.”1 Freed from the desire for linear narrative, Cocteau’s images float and flow across the screen, devoted only to their own obscure internal logic. “I’ve always preferred mythology to history because history is made up of truths which eventually turn into lies, while mythology is made up of lies that eventually become truths,” Cocteau stated.

The film is not a story but a series of images that refract each other. Cocteau’s artist protagonist, played by Enrique Rivero, is a noble struggler. He angrily wipes off the mouth of a portrait he is painting only to find it lodged in the palm of his hand, needy and crying for air. He touches himself with his mouth/hand, a masturbatory gesture. Finally, he wipes it back onto a classical sculpture, which instructs him to go through a full-length mirror into a deeper dream realm. Initially lost in darkness, the Artist becomes a voyeur, creeping down a corridor and peering through keyholes.

What does he see? A Mexican revolutionary is executed, over and over again. A woman with a whip forces a child to learn how to fly. A man’s shadow prepares an opium pipe. (Cocteau would struggle with an addiction to opium throughout his life.) In stop-motion a tableau half-organic, half-symbolic flowers into life. These visions of escape drive him to a suicide which he then rejects and reverses, canceling out his act of self-destruction and in essence rebirthing himself.

The Artist returns from his trip to the other side and destroys the statue. “By breaking statues one risks becoming one oneself,” the film intones, and that is precisely what happens. At the statue’s feet schoolboys play and fight in the snow until one is slain. Suddenly, an upscale couple is playing cards over the boy’s body, as rich people in opera boxes overlook the scene. The male card-player (our Artist) pulls the ace of hearts out of the dead boy’s pocket, and a black angel appears and “absorbs” the boy, making him vanish.

Finally, the female card-player (formerly the statue) takes the ace of hearts from the man’s hand, and he shoots himself again. The audience applauds. In the end, the statue/Muse enters into repose, cradling a globe and lyre, as Cocteau makes reference to “the moral tedium of immortality.”

What are we to make of all this? Cocteau is unhelpful in this regard. He writes, “The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols . . . Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering.”2 Poet short-circuits the viewer’s mind. It is a puzzle that exits on its own terms, both wide open and completely resistant to interpretation. It is a visual poem that rhymes but does not reason.

Again, Cocteau, in blissful self-contradiction: “There is no such thing as a synopsis of such a film. I could merely give my own interpretation of it. I could tell you that the Poet’s solitude is so great, he lives what he creates so intensely, that the mouth of one of his creations remains in his hand like a wound, and that he loves his mouth, loves himself really; that he wakes up one morning with this mouth pressed like a stranger’s against his body, that he tries to get rid of it, and that he does so by transferring it to a statue, and that this statue comes alive, takes its revenge, and leads him into terrible adventures. I could tell you that the snowball fight is the Poet’s childhood, and that when he plays a game of cards with his Fame, or his Fate, he cheats by taking from his childhood what he should be taking from himself. Then I could tell you that having tried to create his earthly fame, he falls into that ‘mortal weariness of immortality’ inspired by every illustrious tomb. And I would be right to tell you these things, but I would be wrong too, for it would be a text written after the fact, after the images . . .  if each of us finds in this film a meaning of his own, I consider that I have achieved my purpose.”3

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Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1932 France 55 mins)

Prod. Co: Vicomte de Noailles Prod: Vicomte de Noailles Dir: Jean Cocteau Scr: Jean Cocteau Phot: Georges Perinal Ed: Jean Cocteau Mus: Georges Auric

Cast: Enrique Rivero, Lee Miller, Barbette, Pauline Carton

Endnotes:

  1. Jean Cocteau, The Difficulty of Being (New York: Melville House Publishing, 2013): 45.
  2. Jean Cocteau, Two Screenplays: The Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus (London: Marion Boyars Publishing, 1985).
  3. Jean Cocteau, At the Theatre du Vieux-Colombier, January 1932, via the Wellington Film Society.