YouTube video

Inveterate surrealist and playwright, artist, and writer polymath Jean Cocteau said that his first feature film, The Blood of a Poet (1929), wasn’t a work of Surrealism — he wanted to “avoid the deliberate manifestations of the unconscious.” But, I have to say, it’s pretty surreal.

The 47-minute-long film begins with a bare-chested artist figure drawing a portrait. Suddenly, the mouth of the face he’s depicting begins to move and speak. He gets freaked out and erases the mouth with his hand — only to find it has taken up residence on his palm, still moving.

That kicks off an avalanche of scenes that include a young girl wrapped in chains of bells writhing on the ceiling of a classical mansion, mysteriously rotating wire sculptures, and a group of kids destroying a statue made of snow. The artist attempts to shoot himself in the head and doesn’t die.

It seems like Cocteau was going for a kind of pre-Surrealism, inducing in the viewer a blank, open state without being overly concerned by the interpretation of his imagery. The filmmaker described it thusly:

The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols. As far as the former are concerned, it initiates their mechanism, and by letting the mind relax, as in sleep, it lets memories entwine, move and express themselves freely. As for the latter, it rejects them, and substitutes acts, or allegories of these acts, that the spectator can make symbols of if he wishes.

Check out more work by Jean Cocteau on the Open Archive.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

One reply on “Watch Jean Cocteau’s Nightmarish First Feature Film”

  1. Hardly ‘pre-Surrealism’! The film was made in 1930 (not ’29), and in the thick of Surrealist Paris of the time. Perhaps he claimed it wasn’t a Surrealist film because of the way Andre Breton & others slagged him, in part because they couldn’t deal with his brand of right-bank ‘slumming’ of the avant-garde, and also because of Breton’s own deeply ingrained homophobia.

    Cocteau was a brilliant pickpocket–If you watch the film, before the bare-chested drawing session, there’s a quick shot of a factory smokestack being demolished, a beautiful image of detumescence….straight out of George Bataille’s Documents. And then the talking statue was played by none other than Lee Miller, which caused noise between her & Man Ray & Breton.

    Blood of a Poet isn’t Cocteau’s best film, by a long shot, but it is an interesting window onto his magpie process!

Comments are closed.