Friday, April 4, 2008

the blood of a poet, by jean cocteau

After a one-week hiatus from Film Club (Spring Break!), we returned with Skunkcabbage's pick to follow up Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, Jean Cocteau's 1930 wonderment The Blood of A Poet.

From the title, Cocteau's film sounds like it's going to be another film about the life of a writer—it isn't, really. One could possibly argue that the film is about writing: there is, for instance, a brief moment where a some of Cocteau's own [untranslated!] writings are inserted directly into the film:

That's not the only place writing interrupts the film, either: it breaks into the narrative a number of times (especially early on) in the form of intertitles. It's not incredibly notable for early films to use intertitles, of course, but Blood of a Poet isn't a silent film, so the intertitles here aren't serving a traditional function, such as conveying dialogue. Instead they're operating in a manner one could describe, perhaps, as "poetic" (Cocteau himself refers to them as "commentaries"). So you get stuff like this:

So possibly about writing, yes, but not really about a writer: although the main character (Enrico Rivero, chosen for his "dispassionate appearance") identifies himself as a writer once, we never actually see him doing any writing, although we do see him working on some drawings:

This would seem to imply that the film is more about the visual than it is about the linguistic. It's probably not an accident that the film's opening shot has a ton of lighting gear visible in the background:

And, indeed, one way that we can enjoy The Blood of a Poet is to disregard the (disjointed) narrative and (indecipherable) allegory and to enjoy the film solely as a series of arresting and enigmatic images. Cocteau, for all his inscrutability and pretention, seems legitimately interested in giving something to the audience: using the cinema generously, by making us see things we haven't seen before. Towards this end, the film ends up being something of a special effects tour-de-force, using illusionistic makeup, cleverly constructed sets, composite shots, expressive processing, editing gimmickry, reversed film, and basically every other cinematic and theatrical trick available in the 1930s to make us see the unseeable. From a modern perspective, it's not too hard to figure out how some of the images and effects were created, but many of them remain pretty arresting:

And it's this tendency towards optic weirdness (and psychosexual ferment) that ultimately bears out the Cronenberg parallel that Skunkcabbage had in mind. At one point, early on in the film, our "poet" ends up with an extra orifice on his hand—not really world's away from the vaginal slit that opens in Max Renn's abdomen in Videodrome (1983):

And our protagonist responds to this bodily mutation with a mix of disgust...

and fascination...

and, eventually, aroused pleasure...

...which is pretty much the key three-way Cronenberg mix right there. Long live the new flesh!

Next week: short films by Maya Deren.

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