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THE BLOOD OF A POET

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Lee Miller, Enrique Rivero, Jean Desbordes, Feral Benga
Director:  Jean Cocteau
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  50 Minutes
Release Date:  April 25, 2000

"Imagine what the cinema of poets could be." – Jean Cocteau

Film ***

One can only describe The Blood of a Poet the way one would describe Un Chien Andalou…by outlining the images within.  There is an artist who wipes a mouth off of his own drawing, only to find it become a part of his hand.   There is a statue who prompts the young man.   There is a mirror that he falls through, like water, and a dream world where he moves awkwardly down a hall, peering at strange imagery through keyholes.  And that’s just for starters.

Jean Cocteau, who has been called the poet of cinema, made this, his first film, in 1930.  It is a visually striking yet disconnected examination of the artist and his art, themes near and dear to the heart of Cocteau.  In some ways, it is the next logical step from Luis Bu˝uel’s Chien in that it borrows heavily from the surrealist tradition, yet moves forward by trying to convey certain emotions and attitudes within the free association style of the art form.

Blood plays like a silent film, with only effects, musical cues and voice over narrative to make it a “talkie”.  And if one watches it with no predetermined notions, he or she might walk away feeling they saw a show full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.  Understanding Cocteau’s background and use of visual vocabulary helps bring to life his strange use of symbolism, though even then, there is much room for interpretation.

The artist and his art are inseparable.  When he writes, paints or sculpts, his creations take on a life of their own, and that life force comes from the hands that create it.  The artist becomes his drawings, and vice versa.  In this film, we see him take his own life not once, but twice, and the second time meets with a smattering of approval and applause from an audience in the balcony.  Does an artist indeed have to die before he can be appreciated?

Before the second suicide, we witness a children’s snowball fight that destroys the artist’s statue as though it were made of snow itself.  One child, struck with a snowball, dies, and soon the artist is playing a card game with destiny right over the body.  He tries to cheat by reaching into the boy’s garment for the card he needs.  But the artist cannot succeed by cheating and stealing into childhood.   A guardian angel sweeps the boy away, and the artist is left facing his second death.

Cocteau used much of the same technical trickery made famous by Georges Melies in the early days of cinema:  simple jump cuts and camera placements could convey illusions of fantasy.  In the case of Melies, these images were simply to boggle and entertain.  Cocteau uses them in much more lyrical ways, creating a world that cannot exist apart from dreams.  While he would perfect these techniques and make better use of them in his storytelling in later films like Orpheus and Beauty and the Beast, his early experimentation was bold and fascinating.  In his very first movie, Cocteau proved himself to be an artist willing to think outside of the box, and more importantly, willing to take a chance on his audience’s imagination, making them part of the communicative process.

Interestingly enough, many modern students of culture believe that Cocteau, a consummate Renaissance man, may have spread himself too thinly.  He was gifted in painting, poetry and filmmaking, and the opinion is that had he focused on one field, he might have been considered a giant in it.  By dividing his attention, it becomes harder to place his cultural importance.

But to take away any part of his art would have made Cocteau incomplete…to watch The Blood of a Poet is to see the artist in all forms at once:  we experience the works of his hands, his voice, and his eye all at once.  This movie proves that a painter and a poet can express himself with a more technical medium, and that imagination, passion, and ideas make the art…not the tools.

Video **1/2

The Blood of a Poet is the oldest of the three films in Criterion’s Orphic Trilogy box set, and as such, it doesn’t look quite as good as the later ones.  Most of the image problem is age related; dirt, spots, scratches and such on the print itself.  The imagery and the black and white photography are represented with clarity and good contrast levels, so the disc is far from unwatchable.  All in all, a good presentation of source material that could never make for a reference quality DVD.

Audio **

Three years into the existence of sound, The Blood of a Poet shows its age in this department.  It dates back to when audio was recorded on scratchy gramophone records, and as such, despite Criterion’s efforts, it can only be cleaned up so much.  Surface noise, pops, hiss and other problematic elements are noticeable, particularly in the film’s quieter passage.  These are not related to the audio transfer; simply the unavoidable artifacts of age.

Features **1/2

The disc for The Blood of a Poet contains some rare behind-the-scenes photographs of Cocteau in action, plus a transcription of a 1932 lecture by Cocteau and a printed 1946 essay, both on the film.   There is also a 66 minute documentary “Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown”.

Summary:

The Blood of a Poet is, as Cocteau’s own assistant put it, “an hour in another world”.  This first film by cinema’s greatest poet is captivating and visually striking, original and passionate, and open for interpretation.  Understanding Jean Cocteau’s passion for art and the creative process is the key to unlocking the meaning behind the free flowing ideas and symbolism.   It is the perfect opening movement to Criterion’s Orphic Trilogy…to watch the later two films in succession is to witness how an artist developed his technique and his voice into a mastery of a new medium.