Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus – Jean Cocteau

The idea of film as pure art is something that divides so many views on the medium that it is seen to be part of a genre when a film tries to discuss anything artistically of merit.  So with the idea of art film as a genre itself rather than a creative perception, what is left is something that is both perceived as often difficult to watch and negated of any real enjoyment other than that of a highbrow connoisseur nature often occupied by bourgeois aestheticism and snobbery.

This is where Jean Cocteau enters the picture to blow away these dusty ideals often cemented even today with video artists in particular explicit in exemplifying what they do as Art and not Film.  Along with the likes of Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir and Carl T. Dreyer, Cocteau is a director obsessed with the poetry of image and yet able to create entertaining films built around the beautiful and the surreal.

Contained within this admittedly small collection (collection feels inaccurate to denote a mere two films) are both Cocteau’s first and last films allowing a visual progress of the artist to be seen.  The Blood of a Poet is his 1930 debut and imagining the initial wave of shock it must have generated stretches the cerebral cortex.  Made only three years after sound had even been put into practice in the mainstream, Cocteau took a surreal look at the life of an artist demanding a poetic conscience to be visible on screen.  A statue is brought to life and convinces the artist to jump into a mirror à la Through the looking Glass.  The artist is then sent to a world of symbolism with Inception like corridors and living artwork intent on further confusing matters for the artist.  Playing with notion of anything goes and mixing autobiographical events from Cocteau’s own life (including a recreation of a scene from his childhood where a boy in his school was killed by a snowball) we enter aNoir like street for the finale with a seated couple contemplating life before we travel back through to the reality of the artist’s studio which seems rather grey in comparison.

The second film, Testament of Orpheus, is a more mature work with better visuals and ideas.  Again coming back to the biographical elements with Cocteau playing himself in the main role, the film appears to be a contre-attaque against the many critiques he had garnered over the last forty years.  Cocteau puts himself on a trial with philosophical debates taking up a large chunk of film between the surreal twists and visuals.  Cocteau’s clear status as one of France’s best-loved and most successful artists (he was a poet, playwright, novelist, painter, director and every other creative executive imaginable) is defined by the calibre of cameo appearances made by friends and actors.  Jean-Pierre Laud, who would become an infamously fought over actor between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, is here preLes Quatre Cents Coups.  Yul Brynner is here too almost pre-empting is most famous role in Westworldas he pays a robotic like servant to Cocteau’s dreams.

However the most shocking and frankly flabbergasting cameo of the film appears when Cocteau begins an examination of his relationship with death.  Within an apparent sacrifice of himself in fire for the good of his art none other than Picasso himself appears to mourn the loss of the artist.  When it comes to art there was, and probably is no bigger name to have stroll on into your Mise-en-scène than Pablo Picasso showing just how enormous the Cocteau juggernaut had become.

Sitting these two films next to one another provides a wonderful contrast of time and its effect on an artist.  Though the obvious marketing behind naming this release a “Collection” still sends chills of sales figures down one’s spine, the fact that a journey of artistic endeavour is produced through the curating of these two films together means that this release is must have for those who share a love of the surreal and the poetic.

Adam Scovell

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