October 22, 2012

Queer Review: Blood of a Poet (1932)

Blood of a Poet
Director: Jean Cocteau
Writer: Jean Cocteau
Cast: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller, Pauline Carton, Odette Talazac, Jean Desbordes, FĂ©ral Benga, Barbette, Fernand Dichamps, Lucien Jager

A surreal trip into the mind of an unnamed poet, Cocteaus' non-narrative debut feature succeeds entirely on the strength of its' visuals.

A poet/artist (Enrique Rivero) creates a drawing that comes to life and starts to speak to him. He tries to silence it but ends up going on a strange journey, where he finds himself peering through key holes, witnessing a deadly snowball fight, and partaking in a card game where he must literally gamble with his own life.

The Queering
Generally speaking, I do not like surrealistic motion pictures that abandon a coherent narrative early on. Blood of a Poet was an exception. Personally, I was able to remain engaged and interested throughout the entire running time.

There are three reasons for this:
1) A relatively short running time (the entire film clocks in under 1 hour).
2) With no pretense of a narrative, the audience is free to focus on the images and therefore put the bulk of their efforts into interpreting the underlying meanings of that imagery.
3) The vivid imagery Cocteau has created is both memorable and symbolically meaningful.

Cocteau has created here the best example of cinema attempting to create filmed freestyle poetry. This is reflected not just in Cocteaus' stylistic choices and the short length, but in the lack of coherent narrative as well. Like many poems, this is not intended to be understood on a literal level, rather Cocteau is presenting the audience with a series of related images.

Blood of a Poet is known for its' homoerotic and gender bending scenes (Jean Cocteau was openly gay) but those images that struck me the most strongly were those with a strong feminist subtext. There is plenty of commentary going on here, with Cocteau offering up commentary on how hegemonic masculinity is dangerous for both men and woman.

Blood of a Poet is bookended with shots of an obviously phallic tower being demolished. We then move on to the artist himself, who gets upset when the female face that he's drawing starts to talk back to him. He tries to erase her mouth but the mouth ends up on his hand. Naturally, he has to make out with this creature. All I could think of during this were the lyrics by Pink, "It's just you and your hand tonight!" Art as masturbatory naval gazing indeed.

This is followed by a scene where the poet, after the hand is transferred to a nearby statue, follows the statues instructions and jumps into a mirror. Freud, with his "all human action is motivated by the desire to return to the womb" theory would have had fun interpreting this bit. Eventually of course, the poet is reborn in a memorable shot that is simply the scene of him entering the pool/mirror shown in reverse.
Then there is the shot of a female figure adorned with make up to make her look like a living sketch, a reflection presumably, of mans desire to draw women as he pleases.
Guns (another phallic symbol) of course feature prominently in several sections where a person is either shot or kills or attempts to kill themselves. These bits emphasize as well the destructive nature of unbridled machoism.

The climactic scene, where the poet/artist plays a card game in front of a royal audience where the stakes end up becoming quiet literally, a battle for his life. Here, the thematic subtexts are the broadest and include commentary on class, race, and the creative process itself.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "writing is easy, all you do is sit down in front of a typewriter and bleed." In the final scene of Blood of a Poet the sacrifices an artist must make are made perfectly clear when the poet/artist loses the card game and commits suicide. His death causes the bourgeois audience to clap politely. The image invokes the idea of the artist as a sacrificial offering to an audience that does not understand or care about what they are consuming. A fitting image indeed for this particular work.

For those who enjoy (or at least do not mind) surrealistic, non-narrative films, Blood of a Poet is worth seeking out. I would argue enduring bad poetry would be a reasonable price to pay, but this is not a film worth shedding any actual blood over.

The Rating
*** out of ****


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