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The Criterion Collection presents
Orphic Trilogy: The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d'un poéte) (1930)

"Such is the role of poetry: It unveils, in the strict sense of the word. It lays bare, under a light which shakes off torpor, the surprising things which surround us and which our senses record mechanically."
- Jean Cocteau

Review By: debi lee mandel   
Published: March 09, 2001

Stars: Lee Miller, Enrique Rivero, Jean Cocteau
Other Stars: Jean Desbordes, Féral Benga, "Barbette"
Director: Jean Cocteau

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (seeping blood; line drawing of the breast of an inferred hermaphrodite)
Run Time: 00h:50m:00s
Release Date: April 25, 2000
UPC: 037429148327
Genre: experimental


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A BB-B- B

DVD Review

The gentle muses that bade Criterion to gather this thematic trio as a boxed set never thought about its lowly reviewers. The three are inseparable, and the extras included - as well as the elegantly designed box - tie them irrevocable together for eternity, and rightly so. However, as each of the titles included are important and complete cinematic features on their own, I have chosen to separate them into their own reviews. Please note that they are not available individually, but under the collective title, Jean Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy.

Disc One: The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d'un poète)

Jean Cocteau was an artist, novelist, playwright, cinematographer and above all, a poet. Underlying his famed versatility, poetry is the essence of everything he created; every curve gestured on a page, every line of dialogue written down, every cinematic venture reads as an expression of poetry, or the attempt to manifest that essential quality that is bred in a poet's bones. It is common to call certain works "poetic", but this not the case with Cocteau. His work is meant to be poetry and his most genuine example is this first of his feature films.

Le Sang d'un poète is dreamlike without being a dream; the series of images came to Cocteau in that state of half-sleep that comes before dreaming, or just after. These allegories begin and end with a smokestack imploding, and are meant to have occurred in the blink of an eye in between. In a stark room, a young poet (Rivera) draws an androgynous portrait and is stunned to see the mouth moving. He wipes it off with his hand but it transfers to his palm, still moving. He attempts to rid himself of this atrocity, but soon succumbs to his curious state in an auto-erotic interlude before he contrives to shift the mouth to a female statue. The commentator warns, "Is it not crazy to wake up statues so suddenly from their secular sleep?" but it is too late. Part two begins as the sculpture commands the young man to walk through a mirror, which leads him to a strange corridor of the "Hotel of Dramatic Follies," where he witnesses various inexplicable situations. At the end of the hallway, he is commanded again - this time, to commit suicide via "phoenixology": dying in order to be reborn. He returns to his room and destroys the statue, then becomes one himself. Part three changes to the outdoors and the poet's new childhood, where a snowball fight between a group of young boys ends with the destruction of the poet/statue and the death of the boy. In the fourth part, the outdoor scene transforms into a theater where high society characters fill the loges. With the boy still lifeless on the ground, the poet returns to play a game of cards with a young woman. He cheats, but his fate is inevitable: he must die again. He shoots himself and the audience applauds as he falls to the ground where the child had lain. It is then revealed that the young woman is indeed his old adversary, the statue: in the end we see her, too, in the "mortal ennui of immortality."

Describing these scenes as above is futile. As poetry distills a thousand words to a few brilliantly crafted lines, so these images portray what even those lines cannot translate. There is no comprehension involved; Cocteau sets in motion a series of strange and surrealistic tableaux vivantes, using the medium to record his visions to share with others. This is the essence of Cocteau on film: when the pen or the brush failed to convey his message, he moved to another that was capable of transmitting it. Cocteau spent his life possessed by too many thoughts and words and visions; the cinematic medium provided him the means to both store and exhibit his obsession, his own personal mythologies. While not his most prolific work, his films record the interior processes hidden within the "poet's mind." Yes, this can seem somewhat pretentious from our contemporary point-of-view, but for me, this does not detract from what he achieved in the medium.

The Blood of a Poet is a magical piece of film history, filled with many cinematic "firsts." We also find images Cocteau would repeat throughout his lifetime in this genre: the mirror as portal, walking against gravity and Death portrayed as Woman (Orphée); inanimate objects brought to life (La Belle et la bête), as well as themes of death and resurrection (Orphée, Le Testament d'Orphée).

"Poets don't draw. They unravel their handwriting and then tie it up again, but differently." - Jean Cocteau

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: This truly vintage black & white film is wracked with the marks of age. Grain is high and the reels are scratched vertically throughout, but not in any way that detracts from its watchability; rather, these "flaws" serve to remind us just how amazing these images were for their time. There is very little dust and dirt present - Criterion has done a triumphant job - and this 70-year-old film has never looked this good in any theater-viewing I've attended. Grays run in a comfortable range, and while some blacks are "blacker" than others, the whites never wash out. There is a spot, just before the protaganist enters the mirror (13m:10s) where it seems to jump as if a few frames are missing.

Sadly, it seems this is not from an original print. While I cannot discover if Cocteau himself originally handwrote all of the intertitles, it is safe to assume they were in French. In this print, only one of these remains; the rest of the intertitles are typeset, in English. (Copyright on this print says 1933.)



Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: Close to a "silent film," the dialogue is extremely sparse (Cocteau relies more on occasional intertitles) and even though restored, the Dolby Digital mono suffers a bit from the "warbles" of age. Sound effects, like in the "Flying Lessons" scene are clipped and a little muddy. The score, by the director's lifelong friend, Georges Auric, comes and goes, moving from charming to mournful, broadening the images it underscores. Overall, it is really in much better shape than I have experienced this film in theaters, so I am happy it sounds this good after 70 years.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 5 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Rare behind-the-scenes photos
  2. Lecture transcript
  3. Essay Transcript
  4. Color Bars
Extras Review: The main supplement included on this first of three discs is the 66-minute Edgardo Cozarinsky's 1984 documentary, Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d'un inconnu (Autobiography of an Unknown). Borrowing footage from Cocteau's own biographical works (i.e. Le Testament d'Orphée), interwoven with past and contemporary (to 1984) interview clips, Cozarinsky and Cocteau tell an illustrated tale of the artist's life and varied career. Cocteau tells how his friends Stravinsky and Picasso influenced him ("Picasso taught me to run faster than beauty, which makes one seem to turn one's back on it.") and proves how he, in turn, influenced those that followed. This film is surprising clean, but the colors sustain a dull, faded look of age. I especially enjoy watching the fluidity of his lines as he draws (and "undraws") for the camera. Autoportrait has a sufficient 12 chapter stops.

Criterion did right to include a 28-screen transcript of a lecture Cocteau gave when The Blood of a Poet was finally released to the public at the Théatre du Vieux-Colombier in 1932 (it was censored at first and locked in a vault with Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'or in an infamous scandal). Makes fascinating reading and gives an interesting perspective on the era.

Thirteen photos of the director and his cast behind-the-scenes of Blood are a nice inclusion. A bibliofilmography lists Cocteau's films and writings across 6 screens, and a tri-fold booklet adds a preface to the film, written by Cocteau in 1946.

Subtitles are easy white with black borders, and although the menu instructs that they can be turned on and off remotely, I could not make this feature work on either the film or the documentary, and could not turn them off at all in the latter.

Criterion has done a nice job with the overall package design, but the menus are less impressive.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Cocteau is easily forgotten in these days of digital magic. While The Blood of a Poet is not the best of the 3, it is in many ways the most important. This 3-disc set from the masters at Criterion resurrects his film genius for us and archives it for posterity. With its fabulous collection of extras, this is a must have for any cinéphile's library.

 


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