If Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet feels like an experimental student film, all arty mannerism and incoherent message, that credits the average student film too much and Cocteau not enough. To be sure, Poet is arty, mannered and incoherent, but it is also undeniably original and at times disturbing. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference is to recognize that Poet is the work of a proven talent who can be forgiven the occasional pretentious gesture, whereas the average student film is, in the most generous description, at most a foretaste of potential.
Begin with the fact that Cocteau, despite obviously caring not one whit about story, nonetheless self-consciously structures the film in four distinct parts, suggesting a discipline and plan that most experimental filmmakers righteously refuse to value. The film follows an artist/poet (Enrique Rivero) through a series of incidents that are best understood as evocative images more than anything else. After passing through a mirror, he peeps through the keyholes of rooms in a hotel, then turns into a statue, witnesses a snowball fight between some adolescents and then returns to human form to have a card game that he loses as a group of society types watch and applaud.
The images revealed during this oneiric journey are never less than interesting, quite uncanny, more striking than beautiful. In one of the hotel rooms, for example, with a sign reading a “School for Flying” (Leçons pour vol), the poet sees a young girl wrapped in cowbells, viciously beaten by an older woman. The girl escapes a whipping only by fleeing to the ceiling of the room. In another, an hermaphrodite’s limbs pop out of a sketch, while the Poet’s trip through the mirror is encouraged by a talking statue, which he eventually shatters only at the cost of becoming a statue himself…
This unpredictable, disconnected, sometimes astonishing series of events would be familiar at least in feel to anyone who has watched an experimental student film. What is fresh, inspired and spontaneous in Cocteau however in today’s “avant garde” is contrived, often more planned display than anything else. (Given the familiarity of their techniques, one has to wonder just how “avant” this “garde’s” tricks are.) Where the two do intersect, all too perfectly, is in the clichéd depiction of the artist as a self-destructive depressive. Cocteau’s poet commits suicide twice, with loving close-ups of his head as the blood drips ever so photogenically over his handsome face. (Cocteau seems to like this image so much, he does it a third time, albeit with a different character.)
Cocteau leavens this masochistic self-pity with considerable wit and he certainly cannot be held responsible for the subsequent postures of less talented individuals. Nonetheless, the similarities to much inferior work are real enough to raise a question. Is Blood of a Poet worthy of its reputation as a masterwork, or was it just lucky to be one of the first in an amateurish tradition?