Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet


Jean Cocteau was a very multi-talented artist, yet considered himself to be a poet first and foremost. Le Sang d'un Poete, or The Blood of a Poet was Cocteau's first foray into film, created in 1930 when Cocteau was 40 years old. However, due to controversy transferring over from Luis Bunuel's L'age D'or, released around the same time and both funded by Le Vicomte de Noailles, it was not released in Paris until 1932. There are quite a few themes prevalent throughout the film, such as that of mythology, the trials and tribulations of a poet, and using death as a metaphor.

Le Sang d'un Poete was to be the first installment in what would be later referred to as his "Orphic Trilogy", comprised of Le Sang d'un Poete, Orphee, and Le Testament d'Orphee. In English they are The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, and The Testament of Orpheus, respectively. They would come to be known as "Orphic" due to their alignment with the mythology of the Greek figure "Orpheus". Cocteau's fascination with Orpheus would be manifested in his works starting with his 1927 play Orphee leading up until his 1961 film Le Testament d'Orphee. The story of Orpheus is one which has many similarities with that of the life of Jean Cocteau, or at least Cocteau would like the public to believe. Evans states, "Ultimately, Cocteau desired that his public identity would become so sufficiently infused with that of Orphism, that the two would be indistinguishable from the mythic" (66). Orpheus was the Greek god of poetry and the lyre, who took a nonviolent stance, making some immediately identifiable parallels to Cocteau. Orpheus was persecuted by many, but his poetic and musical creations were magnificent enough to charm his way out of harms way quite often. In myth, Orpheus was killed by a group called the Maenads due to his refusal to worship any god but the sun, thus practicing monotheism. This is one of the reasons Cocteau may have taken on an Orphic identity, feeling that this persecution is similar to that of perhaps what he had taken from his critics, harsh reception from the public, or other criticisms in life. Evans states, "Due to their prophetlike teachings, both Cocteau and Orpheus were unjustly "murdered" by those who opposed religious and/or artistic "innovation" (74). Perhaps the biggest relation to Cocteau however, given his association with death and rebirth, the real world and the enigmatic, is the story of Orpheus going to Hades to save his wife, Eurydice. In myth, a snake bit his wife, and Orpheus played music that was able to charm Hades, lord of the underworld. This allowed Orpheus to come down to save his wife, so long as when they leave, he not look back. Orpheus did look back, making Eurydice stay in the underworld. At this point, Orpheus was never the same again and had sworn off women and spent much time in solitude. This draws many parallels to what Cocteau is portraying in several scenes in The Blood of a Poet, most notably the scene in which the hand comes alive and the poet, left alone, is seemingly falling in love with the wound on his hand, which is his art, or an extension of himself. Much like the figure of Orpheus, the poet is left alone with his art, about to go through many transitions from the real world, life, into the enigmatic post "death" realm of poetry.

The film is considered to be autobiographical, and demonstrates what Cocteau feels are the trials of being a poet. The film starts with a chimney collapsing, the result of a battle as we can hear Cocteau's voice stating "while the cannons of Fontenoy thundered in the distance, a young man in a modest room . . . ", followed by which we see the young man. The young man is played by Enrique Rivero, and is painting, not writing poetry, however it becomes quite apparent that this main character is indeed a representation of Cocteau, who considers himself a poet, due to the fact that Cocteau has always considered all creations to be poetry. Evans states: "One sees a young man-he is a "poet". Cocteau defines this in the largest sense-he who creates" (89). This is also evident in a piece of symbolism, a scar on the poet's shoulder, resembling a star. Evans states: "After seeing the star-shaped scar on the shoulder of the young man and the star on his belt, it becomes clear the central "hero" or subject of the film is Cocteau himself; for the five-pointed star was, for many years, used by Cocteau as his pseudonym in signing letters, autographs, and art works". (89) It is centered solely on the poet, as was stated previously, there is battle occurring around him, the only real story is him and his thoughts. Fowlie says the following as the poet paints during the crumbling of the chimney. "While the world is engaged in violent events, the poet is attentive solely to what is transpiring within himself" (102). The film is generally recognized as being divided into four episodes from this point, that are segued into by the main character, that of a poet, transferring into dreamlike worlds via mirrors, or peering through keyholes into his own subconscious. These visions, and the film itself are considered to be highly autobiographical of Jean Cocteau. Through these four episodes, Cocteau is showing us four periods of his poetic life, each with their own "deaths", transitions that result in a change into the next episode, before ultimately, the poet reaches immortality. These episodes chronicle the trials of the poet, the main underlying theme of the film. Fowlie states, "in watching the film, it is imperative not to forget Cocteau's preface, where he says that poetry is a coat of arms whose symbols can be deciphered only after a loss of blood", hence the title of the film.

In the first episode, "The Wounded Hand", we see the mouth of the poet's drawing begin to move, and transfer to the palm of his own hand as he tries to erase it. The mouth is magically still moving, speaking to the poet and enticing him. At this point, a visitor enters the poets room, to become naturally, quite shocked and leave. The artist falls asleep to awaken to a classical Greek statue of a woman, and he transfers his "wound" to the face of the statue, while all windows and doors are gone, leaving only a mirror, ending the first episode. At the beginning of the second episode, the statue asks if he believes it is really so easy to simply get rid of the wound like that. This wound, the mouth, may generally represent the art of creating, or poetry. At this point the young artist is very weary of this newfound gift or place in life, that of a poet. At this point, he sees the loss of a peer, and disgust in the advent of the mouth, or poetry, finding him as a vessel in which to speak and tries to rid himself of the burden.

Further into the second episode, the episode which most likely is the most effective in portraying the trials of the poet, the statute prompts the poet to enter into the mirror, to which he replies that people cannot walk through mirrors. The statue then responds, "you wrote that people go through mirrors and you do not believe it", after which he walks through, entering "The Hotel of Dramatic Follies". Again, the movie is highly introspective, and The Hotel of Dramatic Follies can be considered as the poet's subconscious. This is because the mirror itself is a metaphor for the artist walking into himself. Evans deciphers both the Greek statue that dictates orders to the poet, and the mirror he is asked to walk through: "the destiny of the poet (personified by the statue) obliges him to plunge "into" himself, in order to be "mortally" aware of his true poetic identity" (92). In this hotel, he peers into four keyholes to see scenes of what may be interpreted as the past, present, and future trials of the poet, and by extension, Cocteau himself. The first door reveals a Mexican man in front of a firing squad, being killed, then revived, then killed again. The death and subsequent rebirth will lead to a transition, and may be descriptive of the many transformations Cocteau has already had in his artistic life by age 40. "During this scene, the hero hears a voice: In regards to this, Evans quotes the film and also states, "Mexico, the trenches of Vincennes, the boulevard Argo, and a hotel are all the same…". That is to say, death is universal and is present in any given location of the world. This scene therefore evokes a portion of the poet's destiny: to be a true poet, one must die, then be reborn, then die again so that each time he creates he can become immortal through his art" (93). The second keyhole contains a young girl being scolded and whipped, until she eventually flies and sticks to the ceiling, unable to be whipped by the adult woman anymore. This is perhaps an allusion to Cocteau's relationship with critics and the public, remaining outcast because of his strange works, but still maintaining his position as poet, and not refusing as the young poet had refused the mouth in the first scene. The third door is an opium smoker peering back at the poet through the keyhole. Unlike the previous keyholes, this opium smoker looks back at the poet. Evans states, "As a mirror reflects the exterior image, opium reflects the innermost image of those who partake of it" (94). At a rough point in the mid-1920s after beloved friend, young author Raymond Radiguet's death, Cocteau turned to opium. One of the results was Cocteau making increasingly introspective works, especially while locked in a sanatorium. Cocteau praised the use of opium, while others derided him for it. The fourth and final scene in the Hotel of Dramatic Follies occurs when the poet is peering through the last keyhole, to a see a strange drawing on the wall, which is apparently a hermaphrodite reclining with the words "danger of death" written on it's loincloth. This recalls the first episode of the film in which the wound on the poet's own hand romantically entices him. "The necessarily self-loving poet is truly hermaphroditic, for his love is directed towards his "other self" deep within him." This is perhaps a metaphor that a poet must ignore such desires of love as it is usually defined, and focus on what is within himself, and love his art, as becoming occupied with love of anything other than that could spell the death of his identity as poet. At the end of the fourth vision in The Hotel of Dramatic Follies, the poet produces a pistol in his hand, and shoots himself in the head to solidify that these four visions would be the images to his identity as poet, making these particular definitions of the poet thus far immortal. After which the Greek statue, representing the destiny of the poet, replies "glory forever". The poet however, is not satisfied with this outcome himself, and magically is revived of his life, seemingly by his own will, at which point he goes back through the mirror, to live again, and be able to transform himself again into a new version of the poet, to add to those four visions. As he exits The Hotel of Dramatic Follies and reappears back in his own room, he begins smashing the statue. The statue tells the poet "by destroying statues one risks becoming one oneself." Evans interprets the smashing of the statue as rejection of the established, and ironically, counterproductive to achieving immortality. Evans states, "the destiny of the poet (personified by the statue) obliges him to plunge "into" himself, in order to be "mortally" aware of his true poetic identity" (92). This is perhaps a reference to a phrase Cocteau's previously mentioned close friend, Raymond Radiguet had said to him. When founder of the Ballet Russe, Sergei Diaghilev asked Cocteau to write for his ballet and said "astonish me", Radiguet told Cocteau "elegance consists in not astonishing".

The third scene of the movie is "The Snowball Fight" and occurs in a city street in front of a school. In the scene, a statue of the poet appears, and is then destroyed by snowballs thrown by school children.

The final scene of the movie, "The Profanation of the Host", occurs in the same setting as the snowball fight after the child is killed by the thrown snowball. From here, an audience magically appears, and the poet appears again, playing cards with a woman who looks like the previously destroyed Greek statue. He tries to cheat in the game, and takes an ace of hearts from the coat of the boy who died in scene three. He is interrupted by the boy's guardian angel,

Throughout the film, there are many instances of death, only for the deceased to often, but not always, appear later in the film, or perhaps even in the next scene. There are many different concepts of transformation, all under the umbrella of the metaphor of death. This theme of death goes hand-in-hand with Cocteau's feelings of Orphic identity. Just like his preoccupation with the myth of Orpheus, he has applied much of his figurative take on death to poetry, and the life of a poet. The deaths in the movie play a role as transporter for the poet from the everyday world to his inner world, where the creativity lay. Evans states "Cocteau designated as "death" the transit made by a poet from the outer reality of the everyday world to his interior realms of the beyond, where his "angel" resided". (72) The "angel" being Cocteau's feeling that the poet's subconscious is similar to some kind of state of being possessed, for example, the mouth choosing the poet as a somewhat unwilling host in the first episode. Another concept of death, is somewhat more literal, that when an era in the poet's life ends, by willing change or otherwise, it is somewhat of a death of that era. Cocteau changed his styles quite often throughout his life as a poet, perhaps one of the most notable was again, that after the death of his friend Radiguet, and subsequent opium addictions. On this era of Cocteau's life, Evans states: "It was during this portion of his turbulent life that Cocteau "found himself" - at least in the measure where it relates to his identity as a poet. The metaphor of "death" became an integral stepping stone towards the comprehension of his life and his theories of poetry. It is from this vantage-point of death and rebirth, therefore, that one can begin to see the "Orphic" nature of Cocteau in his more autobiographical works" (39). Thus, Cocteau felt that these concepts of death were necessary to comprehend where one stands in life.

--Mark Oeding, 2006.

Jean Cocteau