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Jean Cocteau’s The Blood Of A Poet is a mesmerizingly bizarre feast for the senses

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Trance has us hallucinating.

The Blood Of A Poet (1932) 
Including Jean Cocteau’s The Blood Of A Poet in a collection of movies about hallucinations is arguably a bit of a cheat. Cocteau disavowed any connection to the Surrealist movement, but his first (short) feature, made in 1930 and released two years later (following some controversy about its alleged anti-Christian message), is nothing if not surreal, providing only the briefest, flimsiest baseline of reality before moving permanently into a netherworld of pure imagination. Few drug-induced visions, however, can match the playful ingenuity of this freewheeling assault on the senses, which eschews conventional narrative in favor of one mesmerizingly bizarre image after another. “Oneiric” is a word that often comes up in reviews and essays, but The Blood Of A Poet isn’t so much dreamlike as it is what a person might experience if kept continuously awake for days on end. There’s even a voice (Cocteau’s) muttering things in your ear.


Divided into four parts (though several are essentially continuous), the film begins with an artist who’s alarmed to see the mouth on his portrait-in-progress moving. When he rubs the ruby lips off the canvas with his hand, he finds that they’ve been transferred to his palm, which inspires him to feel himself up. Part two features the most striking photographic trick: a long corridor that’s established normally, then shot with the doors and fixtures actually set into the floor, making the protagonist’s movements from room to room (as he peers through keyholes at various scenes of insanity) look impossibly deformed. A kids’ snowball fight in which marble changes to snow and back again, with tragic results, comes third, followed by a strange card game played over the corpse of the child killed in the previous segment. Throughout, Cocteau cuts to spinning optical illusions, reinforcing the sense that what’s seen isn’t to be believed, even as it’s surely meant to be embraced.

Availability: The Blood of a Poet was released by Criterion as part of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy. It’s out of print now, but it can still be rented on Netflix for those with a DVD plan (search under “Jean Cocteau”).