Jean Cocteau’s dramatic canon is characterized by an obsessive attention towards the myth and the role of the poet. Even in the plays and films where these themes are not explicit, such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Eternal Return,” implicitly they are there. Perhaps the most widely known work by Cocteau is his film, “Blood of a Poet.” This is Cocteau’s first film work, its main focus being the relationship of the poet to his art, to his life and to his death. Indeed, it is Cocteau’s statement of his “poetic self.” In this way it is a kind of introduction, a prologue to his entire canon. It is also a lesson in how Cocteau uses myth. Our examination of the film will highlight some of the recurring themes in Cocteau’s work.
There are five sections to “Blood of a Poet:”
- Prologue – “Every poem is a coat of arms. It must be deciphered.”¹ The protagonist enters, a doorknob is tried and a chimney begins its collapse.
- First Episode: “The wounded hand, or the scars of the poet.”² The protagonist is revealed to represent Cocteau, symbolized by the five pointed star. Important aspects of this scene include the costumes and the wound, with its narcissistic eroticism.
- Second Episode – “Do the walls have ears?”³ The wound is transferred to the sculpture which brings it to life. The poet enters into the world of the mirror, in which he peers into the four rooms. He is then prompted to commit suicide. With the resuscitation of life the poet struggles down the hotel corridor through the mirror and back into the studio. The episode ends with the poet demolishing the statue. Important aspects of this episode include the transference of the wound, the descent into the mirror, the four rooms and the destruction of the statue.
- Third Episode – “The snowball fight.”4 A simple and realistic scene. School children are participating in a snowball fight. One of the children is killed by a blow from one of the snowballs. Important aspects of this scene include the snow-statue of the poet (the snow is comparable to marble), the attitude of the children towards the statue of the poet and their destruction of it and the murder of the child.
- The Fourth Episode – “The profanation of the host.”5 The murdered child is met by his guardian angel. A card game is played between the poet and the statue with an audience looking on. The scene ends with the suicide of the poet. Important aspects of this episode include the audience reactions, the ace-of-hearts, costuming, the interaction between the poet and the statue and the suicide.
- The Metaphorical Climax – With the suicide of the poet, the statue leaves. The resulting deluge of symbols becomes a statement of Cocteau’s “poetic self.” Important aspects of this scene include the bull, the disjointed map of Europe, the globe, the busts of Diderot, the lyre and the statue in its reclining fragmented form.
- Completion of the chimney collapse.
In the prologue to ‘The Blood of a Poet,” we see the masked protagonist, his arms draped by a cloth, holding a plaster hand. A door is then shown, someone on the opposite side attempting to open it. A struggle to “open up” or “get inside” is thus suggested by the image. Afterwards, the film formally begins. Even with it’s “sickening slowness,”6 the body of “The Blood of a Poet” is an instantaneous event, taking place between the initial destruction of a chimney and its imminent collapse. Thus the films occurs on two levels – during the actual realistic duration of the film or during the instant the chimney collapses. Cocteau wishes to reveal the impressions of the timeless relationships of the poet’s psyche. The dichotomy which is drawn between the two worlds is described by Cocteau in his notes to “Orpheus:”
…time is a purely human notion and, in fact, does not exist at all.7
We leave the world of reality and plunge into the world of the poet. The timeless aspect of the world we enter means that everything we see is co-existent, showing the interweaving relationships of the poet’s mind.
The first episode, entitled “The scars of the poet,” reveals Cocteau to be the identity of the protagonist (the actor wears the star of Cocteau). The poet, in Louis XV wig, draws a picture (in Cocteau’s own style) in which the mouth animates itself. The animation of the art work startles the poet and he finds it necessary to “quieten” the drawing. Possibly the art work reveals more than the poet intended or makes him aware of a painful memory. This is strengthened by two other references in Cocteau’s work, one from Cegestius in “The Testament of Orpheus:”
One doesn’t always revive what one likes.8
The other reference comes from Cocteau. On “The Blood of a Poet” Cocteau says,
Exegesis, which is a Muse, is still examining it, and the psychoanalyst is discovering what the shadow part of me unknowingly expressed long ago.9
The pain of revelation through art, through the dredging up of past pain, is the wound that the poet must bear. Note that the wound is a mouth and is located on the hand, two tools of the poet.
After the wound is transferred to the poet’s hand, the man dressed in Louis XV garb visits him. On seeing the wounded hand (which bears the essence of the poet’s sensibility, his attitudes toward conventions) the visitor is shocked and retreats. The meaning is clear. The artist, especially Cocteau, plays a unique role in society. The artist’s role causes him to reject some old and some new conventions, while accepting others. While Cocteau is “…very much a nineteenth century romantic…,”10 the visitor is nonetheless repulsed by what he sees. (Indeed, a Romantic audience would be at a loss viewing “Blood of a Poet.”) While accepting some of the conventions of the Romantic period, Cocteau must nonetheless reject most of their attitudes and conventions. The poet thus casts off his own Louis XV wig (expressing the artistic need for originality). This iconoclastic role of the poet works in reverse, also. By accepting some Romantic traditions, Cocteau is rejecting modern artistic attitudes. Thus the themes of iconoclasm and timelessness are repeated in the timeless persona of the poet, accepting neither old or new.
If I can’t please everybody / I might as well not please nobody at all.*
When the poet washes his hand, the mouth / wound gasps for air. The poet complies with its gasps by putting his hand out the window. The mouth / wound responds by caressing the poet and providing sexual stimulation (purgative relief). The interaction between the mouth / wound and the poet can be compared to the poet and his reflection in a mirror. Indeed, the whole scene is grounded in the myth of Narcissus, the god who fell in love with himself.
[Seeing] his own image in the water…[Narcissus] brought his lips near to take a kiss…. Because the image was not to be had, all he could do was stare, constantly admire the reflected image…. He cherished the flame that consumed him, so that by degrees he lost his colour, his vigor, and the beauty…. He pined away and died; and when his shade passed the Stygian river, it leaned over the boat to catch a look of itself in the waters.11
For Cocteau, the mirror represents the entrance into the Realms of Death and Mind. The superficial qualities of mirrors are expressed by Heurtebise in “Orpheus,”
“Beside, spend your life looking at yourself in a mirror, and you’ll see Death at work like a swarm of bees storing up honey in a hive of glass.12
Cocteau himself has made the assertion that mirrors
…show us growing older and bring us closer to death.13
Orpheus enters into the Realm of Death through a mirror. On the other hand, the mirror acts as an entrance into the poet’s mind. In “Blood of a Poet” the poet enters into the mirror and proceeds to peer into four rooms. These rooms each represent an important aspect of Cocteau’s psyche. These two Realms of Death and Mind are equivalent.** This is an old concept, Socratic in origin (to live within the Mind being the ultimate good). This combination of Mind and Death is the source of Cocteau’s obsession, both with the poetic role and the desire to possess the inner world of the mind.
The second episode being after the poet transfers the mouth to the statue. Entitled “Do the walls have ears?” it begins with the statue speaking,
Do you think it’s that simple to get rid of a wound, to close the mouth of a wound?14
The poet has created his art in this scene and the manner in which he does it suggests the myth of Pygmalion.
[Pygmalion] was a sculptor, and had made with wonderful skill a statue of ivory, so beautiful that no living woman came anywhere near…. Pygmalion admired his own work, and at last fell in love with the counterfeit creation…. He caressed it, and give it presents such as young girls love…. He laid her on a couch…and called her his wife….15
Venus later instilled life into the sculpture for Pygmalion. Pygmalion’s falling in love with the statue parallels Narcissus’s falling in love with his own reflection. This enhances the art-as-mirror theme. After the statue speaks, the poet gropes along the now windowless walls and comes to a mirror which has replaced the door. He tells the statue, “Open it for me,”16 to which the statue replies,
There is only one way left. You must go into the mirror and walk through.17
Again the theme of “trying to open the door” is repeated. Entering into the mirror is equivalent to the poet entering deeper into the mind. The poet enters into a deeper level of poetic reality. (This distinction between the two levels is apparent in the soundtrack. When the poet enters into the mirror, the music changes. When the poet exits, the mirror, the previous music picks up where it left off, once again indicating the timeless nature of these worlds.)
The four doors through which the artist peers each contain an aspect of Cocteau’s psyche. The first door shows the repeated execution of an Hispanic figure and the repeated destruction of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The execution suggests the political execution of Emperor Maximillian.18 However, the repetitive destruction of these two icons suggests the separation of the poet from political and religious affairs. The constant repetition perhaps suggests the nature of art itself, ritualizing the mundane. Individual art works remain constant through time, repeating the same aesthetic qualities each time the art is experienced. The best examples of repetitive art are drama, music and film. The second door shows the shadows of an opium smoker preparing his opium and smoking it. What occurs behind this door refers to Cocteau’s own experimentation with the drug. The third door with its “Flying Lessons” focuses on the relationship between the teacher and pupil in the learning process. Cocteau looks upon this relationship with distaste. The child does not wish to participate in the lesson but is forced to do so by the beating which the teacher administers. This positive attitude towards childhood was an aspect of the avant-garde movement prior to and during the time of Cocteau:
…these traits grew out of the cult of childhood established by the romantics. Wordsworth and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Blake and Nerval reasserted the virtue and happiness of childhood as something inevitably stifled by education and society….After romanticism, and starting long before Freud, a mood developed which re-examined a child’s candor our most basic values: beauty, morality, reason, learning, religion, law.19
Cocteau’s reverent attitude toward childhood is repeated later in the film in “The Snowball Fight” episode in which the pupils are burdened with the weight of their school books. Cocteau’s attitude towards youth and adolescence are further expounded upon in the “Infernal Machine” and “Bacchus.”
Behind the fourth door is the hermaphrodite and alludes to Cocteau’s sexual ambivalence. (Cocteau was gay.) Along with this sexual ambivalence the scene also expresses the confusions that exist between art and reality, the fragmentation between art and the artist. The parts which make up the hermaphrodite are human, sculpted and drawn. Female breasts are drawn on a slate, while real, masculine legs and sculpted arms adorn the body. A masked face peers through the slate to form the head of the female trunk. The figure suggests the “art as a mirror of the artist” theme as well as the obvious sexual manifestation. The artist is revealing himself to his public, and the artist’s sensibility is exposed. Male and female garments are strewn about the couch. A sign appears which reads, “Danger of Death.”
After peering past the threshold of the final door, the artist is given a gun and prompted to commit suicide. The suicide is fake and the artist quickly revives. The suicide once again alludes to Cocteau’s obsession with death – the actual death of the poet comes later. Cocteau sees death as an entrance into the world of the poet within the Realm of the Mind. After the suicide the poet rushes back down the hotel corridor and is ejected back into the studio through the mirror. Entering the studio the poet goes to the statue and destroys it. We hear as narration,
By breaking statues one risks turning into one oneself.20
The film cuts to an exterior shot of a statue of the poet. The masochistic destruction of the statue once again echoes the theme of iconoclasm.
“Episode Three – The Snowball Fight” begins with the children throwing snowballs at the statue and each other. In “Two Screenplays” Cocteau describes the children in the scene,
Their moleskin satchels full of books weigh them down, deform them, giving them an almost crippled air.21
Again the theme of childhood happiness destroyed by education is stressed. The children take the snow from the statue and use it to destroy the statue of the poet. Cocteau describes the snow as having the qualities of marble. This childhood disregard for the important things of the “grown-up” world (education, iconography, poetry) suggests a parallel to the poet’s own iconoclasm.
The students bombard the statue and destroy it. One of them jumps up onto the pedestal and grabs the head.22
Iconoclasm now develops into a dominant theme. This theme began with the collapse of the chimney, perhaps suggesting a pervasive presence of destruction. However, the temporal halting of this destruction indicates an even more powerful and overarching iconoclasm – the destruction of the human notion of time – a truly filmic destruction of this dimension.*** This iconoclasm, the disrespect of the poet towards existing convention, is constantly repeated throughout the film. It is present in the suppression of the drawing, in the execution of the Hispanic political figure, in the shattering of the statue of the Virgin Mary and in the “Flying Lessons” sequence. It is present in the poet’s suicide, in the destruction of the talking statue and in the destruction of the statue of the poet. It will also be present in the upcoming torn map of Europe. All of this iconoclastic activity leads to a fragmentary assimilation of images in the end, in a fashion very similar to the depiction of the hermaphrodite. The art work becomes a pastiche of poet, art, reality and death as it takes on its own existence. This attitude represents the nature of the poet, his need to destroy and re-create. This ultimate creation, this pastiche, cannot fully manifest itself until the poet himself is destroyed – until the poet dies.
The murder of the child is based on an event from Cocteau’s childhood,
A story from my childhood still haunts me…. A young boy wounded by a snowball. In “Les Enfants Terribles” the child does not die…. The bleeding child, in reality, had a nose-bleed and bled very little…. I didn’t want to film a realistic scene, but the distorted memory of the scene….23
When the child is murdered, a poem is recited which reveals Cocteau’s childhood reaction to the incident. The poem expresses a loss of innocence,
That blow of marble was a snowball,
And it shattered his heart,
And it shattered the conqueror’s tunic,
Shattered the black conqueror whom nothing protects.
He stood there, stunned
In the watch-tower of loneliness,
Naked legs under the mistletoe, the golden berries, the holly,
Shattered like a classroom backboard.
This is often how these blows
Leave school, making blood flow,
These hard snowball blows
That a fleeting beauty gives to the heart.24
The “Fourth Episode: The Profanation of the Host” involves a card game between the statue and the poet, an elucidation of an earlier encounter between the two in the first episode. This interaction once again echoes the mirror scenes. As before, the artwork, like a mirror, reveals the essence of the poet and, in turn, his death. The statue in the scene stares at the poet. During these interactions between the statue, the poet and the dead child, the audience is noticeably bored. During the card game the poet takes the ace-of-hearts from the child and uses it. The child’s guardian angel comes forward, a black and shiny being, and “absorbs” the child. Before the angel leaves she removes the ace-of-hearts from the artist’s hand. The statue speaks,
If you don’t have the ace-of-hearts my dear, you’re a lost man.25
Cocteau elucidates on the scene,
…when he plays the card game with his Glory, with his Destiny, he cheats by drawing from his childhood instead of from within himself.26
The statue then bears down on the poet,
She fixes her eyes on him. He turns away, no longer able to stand her gaze…. The poet, under the gaze of the motionless woman, puts his hand in his pocket. He brings out a revolver, puts it to his right temple and shoots.27
Thus the poet dies. Under the pressure of his own created image, his confrontation with death, he relinquishes his life. This is the real death of the poet. At the sight of his death the audience applauds,
Poets, in order to live must often die, and shed not only the red blood of their hearts, but the white blood of their soul, that flows and leaves traces which can be followed. That is the price of applause. Poets must give their all in order to obtain the slightest approval…. The poet’s work detests and devours him. There isn’t room for both the poet and his work. The work profits from the poet. Only after his death can the poet profit from the work. And anyway, the public prefer dead poets and they are right. A poet who isn’t dead is an anachronism.28
Death frees both the poet and his work. The poet is allowed to live in the poetic realm of the mind and his art is allowed to achieve its own separate existence. Death validates poetic work. The poet martyrs himself for his art.
After the death of the poet, the artwork begins is own existence. The statue gets up from the card table and leaves. She wears the cape that once belonged to the Louis XV friend. She exits through the previously locked golden door. As the statue comes through the doors, she passes two busts of Diderot, a French encyclopedist, representing the acceptance of the artist into the intelligentsia. A bull comes into view with a “torn, dismembered map of Europe”29 pasted to its side with cow dung. Representing the “age of anxiety,” and the decadence and factionalism of the modern world. The bull’s horns are transformed into a lyre, the classical instrument which accompanied songs and recitations – the words of poets. The final scene brings together many of the symbols used previously, the hermaphroditic mingling of the statue and the human aspects of the artist, the lyre and the globe. The death of the artist has released his art to its own existence. The art is therefore a pastiche of all the thoughts and activities of the poet while he was alive.
With the final visual and metaphorical definition of the poet complete, “reality” re-enters with the completion of the chimney collapse. “The Blood of a Poet” has happened in an instant, a statement about the pain of the creative experience and the blood that must be shed in order to become an artist.
* Quote by Bob Dylan, a modern poet much in the style of the Romantic poet Arthur Rimbaud.
** Possibly the best literal translation of this concept is in “Murder in the Cathedral” by T. S. Eliot,
The white flat face of Death, God’s silent servant,
And behind the face of Death the Judgement
And behind the Judgement the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell;
Emptiness, absence, separation from God;
The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land
Which is no land, only emptiness, absence, the Void,
Where those who were men can no longer turn the mind
To distraction, delusion, escape into dream, pretense,
Where the soul is no longer deceived, for there are no objects, no tones,
No colours, no forms to distract, to divert the soul
From seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing,
Not what we call death, but what beyond death is not death,
We fear, we fear.
*** This opening sequence is comparable to the opening sequence of “An Andalusian Dog,” in which Luis Bunuel slices open the eyeball. Bunuel wishes to destroy our old manner of seeing and replace it with a new one, the manner of seeing represented in the film.
1Jean Cocteau, “Two Screenplays: ‘The Blood of the Poet’ and ‘The Testament of Orpheus,'” translated by Carol Martin-Sperry (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 8.
2“Two Screenplays,” p. 9.
3“Two Screenplays,” p. 18.
4“Two Screenplays,” p. 39.
5“Two Screenplays,” p. 46.
6“Two Screenplays,”, p. 4.
7Jean Cocteau, “Three Screenplays: ‘L’eternal Retour,’ ‘Orphee,’ ‘La Belle et la Bete,'” translated by Carol Martin-Sperry (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1972), p. 191.
8“Two Screenplays,” p. 95.
9“Two Screenplays,” p. 73.
10“Two Screenplays,” frontispiece.
11Thomas Bulfinch, “The Age of Fable” (New York: Heritage Press, 1942), pp. 101-102.
12Jean Cocteau, “‘The Infernal Machine’ and Other Plays, various translators (New York: New Directions, 1967), p. 128.
13“Three Screenplays,” p. 191.
14“Two Screenplays,” p. 18
15“The Age of Fable,” p. 64.
16“Two Screenplays,” p. 18.
17“Two Screenplays,” p. 18.
18Lincoln F. Johnson, “Film: Space, Time, Light and Sound” (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), p. 275.
19Roger Shattuck, “The Banquet Years (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 31.
20“Two Screenplays,” pp. 36, 39.
21“Two Screenplays,” p. 39.
22“Two Screenplays,” p. 40.
23“Two Screenplays,” p. 66.
24“Two Screenplays,” pp. 45 – 46.
25“Two Screenplays,” p. 52.
26“Two Screenplays,” p. 65.
27“Two Screenplays,” p. 52.
28“Two Screenplays,” pp. 66 – 67.
29“Two Screenplays,” p. 56.