I just watched Jean Cocteau’s 1930 art film The Blood of the Poet, read a lecture by him on the same, and watched about ten minutes of a documentary about his life, and you know what? i’m really beginning to tire of the old boy. He’s a jabbering French aesthete who seems more than anything to be not so much a poet as he is someone in love with the idea of being a poet, or what it means to be a poet, or what a poet is.
The first film it makes you think of is Bunuel’s 1928 Un Chien Andalou and his L’Age d’Or and it bears some similarity to both; like them, it’s a somewhat crude, somewhat amateurish attempt to give filmic life to abstract ideas, and it bears some of the same images involving identity, sexual or otherwise, and hands. Bunuel had ants crawling out of one of his; Cocteau’s artist-figure wipes a mouth off a portrait he’s drawing — it becomes attached to his palm and the lips talk to him, not unlike those celebrity figures in those Robert Smigel segments on Conan.
I could detail other things that happen in the film — which is, basically, a very metaphoric film about an artist who tries to penetrate the nature of himself, so some such thing — but why bother? It’s an art film where a guy falls into a mirror, people writhes on walls, and you hear irritating little apercus like “By breaking statues one risks turning into one oneself,” which also happens.
I could see someone having the same reaction to Bunuel’s early work, although I don’t. To me those films were genuinely inspired and witty and anarchic. Cocteau taikes himself too seriously; he’s too cerebral, too pretentious. You know, the first you do in watching a movie like this is tell yourself not to laugh, because it’s kind of immature to laugh at something so old that is made with such serious intent; to try to meet the artist at least half-way, to see beyond the limitations of his actors or a technique imposed by a small budget. On the other hand, it’s so insular that it tends to short-circuit whatever fascination it might provoke.
I don’t know if I’ll get around to finishing the artsy little docu-thing about his life, which he finds more fascinating than I do.
Do I want to sit through more Cocteau? I have Orpheus and The Testament of Orpheus to go yet. Sometimes you have to approach these things like a student — suffer to learn. Actually, I saw Orpheus and the super-imaginative Beauty and the Beast years ago and liked both. Maybe Cocteau at his artsiest just isn’t triple-feature material for any but the committed. Maybe he’s preferable on, say, a piecemeal basis.
Addendum: Marginally interesting historical note: Had Cocteau actually seen Un Chien Andalou before making Blood of a Poet? I glanced through my old Bunuel notes. Cocteau says he didn’t, others say he did but they conflict as to when, exactly.
In his memoir My Last Sigh Bunuel says Cocteau was there on opening night, part of a “sprinkling of well-established artists” that included Picasso, Le Corbusier, and the composer Georges Auric.” Also in attendance: Andre Breton’s Surrealist group – a notoriously tough crowd. They loved Bunuel’s film, and would later loudly hoot at Cocteau’s.
Cocteau’s biographer, Frances Steegmuller, says he saw Bunuel’s film at the home of the Vicomte Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, the wealthy art patrons who would finance both Cocteau’s film and Bunuel’s follow-up, L’Age d’Or — which was so blasphemous it would end their movie-making career. Cocteau would later cite Un Chien Andalou as one of the great works of cinema, along with The Gold Rush, Sherlock Holmes, Jr., and Potemkin.
“Hollywood was becoming a deluxe garage,” Cocteau wrote, “and its films were becoming more and more like sumptuous makes of automobiles. With Un Chien Andalou we were back at the bicycle.”
Still, give Cocteau his due:
“And surrealism? Wasn’t it, too, born from the work of Poe as much as from Lautreamont? That school of literature certainly had an enormous influence on film, especially around the years 1925-1930, when surrealism was brought to the screen by Bunuel with L’Age d’Or and Un Chien Andalou; by Rene Clair with Entr’acte, by Jean Epstein with The Fall of the House of Usher and by Jean Cocteau with The Blood of the Poet. I was influenced by all this, as you can tell by certain dream and fantasy sequences in some of my films . . . ” – Alfred Hitchcock, from Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius.
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