Le Sang d'un Poete

 (Jean Cocteau, France, 1930) 55 minutes


Director: Jean Cocteau
Producer: Jean Cocteau
Screenplay: Jean Cocteau
Cinematography: Georges Périnal
Editor: Jean Cocteau
Music: Georges Auric
Enrique Rivero: The Poet
Lee Miller: The Statue
Pauline Carton: Child's Tutor
Feral Benga: Black Angel
Jean Desbordes: Louis XV, masked
Barbette: Woman in Box
Jean Cocteau: Narrator

Reviews and notes

It must be placed among the classic masterpieces of the seventh art.
- Revue du Cinéma.

Cocteau's film, supreme expression of decadence, was the pillar of salt left beside the ruins of the surrealist avant-garde.
- Georges Sadoul.

The first film by the wonderfully idiosyncratic Cocteau is historic in so many respects. Aside from marking his brilliant shift to cinema from the visual arts and poetry, The Blood of a Poet is also one of the key films of the surrealist movement, alongside Buńuel's L'Age d'Or the most extended exploration of the aesthetic on the screen - and one of the first French sound films. Over the years there has been much twittering (not least by Cocteau himself) about whether or not The Blood of a Poet is strictly speaking a Surrealist work, but given the content and visual style of the film, the time and place it was made, and even the funding source, what's the alternative?

Cocteau's first film was suppressed for nearly two years because it was associated with the only other film commissioned by the Vicomte de Noailles, Bunuel's scandalous L'Age d'Or. When it was eventually exhibited in Paris, in 1932, Cocteau introduced it with a charmingly candid apologia: "... the poet is very unskilled when he speaks, as he is awoken from the sleep in which he composes his works. It is like a medium speaking out of a trance. The poet's work detests and devours him. There isn't room for both the poet and his work. The work profits from the poet. Only after his death can the poet profit, from the work. And anyway, the public prefer dead poets and they are right. A poet who isn't dead is an anachronism". However "unskilled", Cocteau spoke more often about Le Sang d'un Poete than about most of his other works, and his observations, and explications evince very much the same apparent clarity and actual opaqueness that the film itself does.

It is clear that he was right to deny any connection between his film and the Surrealist movement (the film aims to seduce, not to provoke), and to stress that his interest lay outside dreams and dream-symbolism (the sleep in which the poet composes his work is a daze of exhaustion, not a liberating slumber). The film is constructed as a suite of imaginary events and transformations, many of them clearly autobiographical in origin, which are so elaborately self-referential that they effortlessly achieve the status of "enigma" that Cocteau claims for them. There are no symbols: symbolism is predicated on consistent reference to exterior realities; and such reference is as rigorously as possible excluded. Instead, there are what Cocteau calls "allegories": images, events and entire scenes centred on a set of fairly well-defined motifs, with a consistent inner 'logic' of their own, whose precise meaning remains as obscure to their author as to any viewer.

If there is a 'way in' to the film, it is doubtless through these motifs, some of which are certainly richly suggestive. The most striking one - as signalled by Cocteau in the remarks quoted above - is the presentation of an artist's relationship with his own work. This is explored in a number of related ideas: the work having a 'life' of its own (the drawing and the statue that come to life); internecine war between the artist and the work (the statue sends the artist through an assault course of his obsessions, and the artist retaliates by demolishing the statue); the artist being subsumed by his work (shots of the actor are often replaced by Cocteau drawings or plaster casts, especially in the first episode); the artist killing himself to liberate his work (he shoots himself twice, the second time earning warm applause for his action). Almost equally striking - if a great deal more oblique - is the motif of repressed or guilty homo-eroticism: the poet is first seen half-naked, and the constant emphasis on his hands evokes masturbation; the poet discovers a hermaphrodite in the final room of the Hotel des Folies-Dramatiques and finds behind its loin-cloth a sign that reads 'Danger de Mort'; the story of Dargelos (a key incident in Les Enfants Terribles) is retold in the third episode, this time explicitly as a statement about a masochistic attraction to a schoolmate; and Cocteau's recurrent 'sadistic angel' fetish Heurtebise puts in an early appearance as the stricken schoolboy's guardian angel, played with a well-oiled physique by the Negro jazz dancer Feral Benga.

There is already plenty of material here to begin constructing an interpretation of the film, but each line of thought that presents itself snaps as soon it reaches the multiple paradoxes of the finale: the poet dies by his own hand, his public applauds, his work 'lives' on, passes through one or two 'mythic' incarnations but then also dies the death of immortality. These closing scenes are staged with an awesome serenity that matches the mood of what has gone before and effectively trumps it, but their actual significance remains almost wholly obscure. The most teasing element in the film - and probably the real source of its mystification - is the fact that Cocteau refuses to allow the central figure of 'the poet' to represent him unequivocally. There is a primary level of obvious identification (the poet draws Cocteau drawings, shares Cocteau memories like the Dargelos episode, and Cocteau obsessions like the fascination with opium), but there is a secondary level of equally obvious detachment: Cocteau's voice on the soundtrack produces a stream of gnomic aphorisms which reflect as ironically on the poet as on anyone else; and the plotting traps the poet within snares of Cocteau's devising rather than his own.

This detachment is present from the very start: one of the opening shots reveals that the poet's naked back has been 'signed' by Cocteau with one of his five-pointed stars, thereby marking the character as a fictive creation alongside all the rest. As such, he is clearly a direct ancestor of Jean Marais' Orphee, and his love/hate relationship with his work (the statue) is a detailed anticipation of Orphee's encounters with the Princess. This alone is enough to make Le Sang d'un Poete fascinating as a source-film for many of Cocteau's later images and themes. But even if it were divorced from any awareness of what it led to, the film would still exert a pull of its own for all its opaqueness. Its elusive and probably insubstantial meaning is concealed behind images of pellucid clarity (thanks to Perinal), and the masks that its cast offer for inspection have their primary beauty as masks.
- Tony Rayns, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1977.

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