The Blood of a Poet

Film Review by Dean Duncan Oct 22, 2014

Every poem must be deciphered, says Jean Cocteau, the celebrated creator of this celebrated film. He further states that The Blood of a Poet is a realistic documentary of unrealistic events. More than anything, he says, he wants to “create a vehicle for poetry.” Did you get that? From the outset Cocteau is declaring the intentional opacity of his creation, its hard-to-penetrate and even impenetrable subjectivity. Just as much, and quite liberatingly, he is inviting the viewer to bring her own navigational methods to his film, her own subjective experience, her own collection of symbols and associations.

The Blood of a Poet, then, is simultaneously a milestone of high-modernist film artistry, and of the democratic destabilizing of the standard sender-receiver, sender-over-receiver hierarchy. It’s also a very striking muddle, an intimation of beautiful and important things that Cocteau and others will subsequently address more effectively. More effectively, but not necessarily more productively!

So much of Blood of a Poet‘s, so much of the avant garde’s resonance lies in that essential redistribution of power. Cocteau gave a speech (see supplements included in the Criterion edition of the film: in which he gave some fairly concrete hints about what Blood of a Poet might actually have meant, at least to him. His gloss is very illuminating, but it may well be that the film’s greatest success is in being sufficiently personal and obscure that we are required to reassess our entire approach to traditional author/audience transaction. In a wonderful way, the story here is us trying to figure out what the story is. Eventually it may occurs to the viewer that what Cocteau intends is only one of the options of spectatorship, and that in this case it might not be the best one. “What do you think it means?”

That famous thing they do with that mouth is very bold, so confidently naughty that it actually leaves the realm of naughtiness and enters that of raw, unprocessed dream imagery. Or, provocative surrealism (for years there’s been a lot of contrasting conversation, but The Blood of a Poet is as like Buñuel/Dali’s Un Chien Andalou [1929] as as it is unlike). The moment when our hero falls through the mirror is quite properly celebrated—it’s fantastic, amazing! Cocteau will return to the subsequent sliding along the walls thing in his 1950 film Orpheus (, where he almost certainly executes it more perfectly. But does he execute it more productively? Again, it’s a tremendous effect, especially as its accomplished with so many fewer resources.

Is it me, or him? It strikes me that Cocteau’s keyhole visions don’t quite fulfill their promise. Snow and suicide—they leave this viewer cold, or uncomprehending. I am won back over with this piquant bookend. Could it be? Now there’s a Pincher Martin (I guess we’d better add Inception too) possibility that all of this took place in the blink of an eye. And what does that mean? I don’t know, exactly. What do you think?