Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion: The Long Harm of the Law
By Evan Calder Williams
Nashville: America Singing
By Molly Haskell
“Most of Aesop’s fables have many different levels and meanings. There are those who make myths of them by choosing some feature that fits in well with the fable. But for most of the fables this is only the first and most superficial aspect. There are others that are more vital, more essential and profound, that they have not been able to reach.”
It is often said that The Blood of a Poet is a surrealist film. However, surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it. On the contrary, the interest that it still arouses probably comes from its isolation from the works with which it is classified. I am speaking of the works of a minority that has opposed and unobtrusively governed the majority throughout the centuries. This minority has its antagonistic aspects. At the time of The Blood of a Poet, I was the only one of this minority to avoid the deliberate manifestations of the unconscious in favor of a kind of half-sleep through which I wandered as though in a labyrinth.
I applied myself only to the relief and to the details of the images that came forth from the great darkness of the human body. I adopted them then and there as the documentary scenes of another kingdom.
That is why this film, which has only one style, that, for example, of the bearing or the gestures of a man, presents many surfaces for its exegesis. Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering.
My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinetmaker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult.
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.
The innumerable faults of The Blood of a Poet end up by giving it a certain appeal.For example, I am most attached to the images. These give it an almost sickening slowness. When I complained of this recently to Gide, he replied that I was wrong, that this slowness was a rhythm of my own, inherent in me at the time I made the film, and that changing the rhythm would spoil the film.
He is undoubtedly right. I am without doubt no longer sensitive to the “element of God” that he speaks of, and that this film uses and abuses. As I know it far too well, I can only observe the acts, and the slowness with which they follow each other hides the rest from me.
Several young people declare that they prefer the dullest reality to such fantasies. Others condemn the film for sacrileges that did not even skim the surface of my mind. Others find wonders in it that I myself would have liked to have put there. Others accuse it of eccentricity. The only valid opinion is that of the technicians. They all agree that the images are lasting and fresh.
No film music is more beautiful or original than Georges Auric’s. No photography is more stunning than Périnal’s. I was lucky to have such assistance in an enterprise that was so hazardous to begin with.
Above all, what really marks The Blood of a Poet is, I think, a complete indifference to what the world finds “poetic,” the care taken, on the contrary, to create a vehicle for poetry—whether it is used as such or not.
Is the choice of protagonists not significant? They are amateurs, presences untrained as actors, whose sole duty was to play their role. The statue was Lee Miller, a friend of Man Ray. She had never been in a film before and has never been in a film since. We saw her again in uniform in 1945. The poet was Enrico Rivero, a young Chilean who was chosen for his dispassionate appearance. The Louis XV friend was Jean Desbordes. The black angel was Féral Benga, a jazz dancer. The students were assistant stagehands. Barbette, Pauline Carton, and Odette Thalazac did no more than appear briefly.
In the first version of the film the Viscount and Viscountess of Noailles, the Prince and Princess of Faucigny-Lucinge, and Lady Abdy were in the loge on the left. But when their families saw that they were applauding a suicide, they forbade it. We had to reshoot the scene of the loges with extras and the friendly presence of Barbette.
Buñuel’s The Golden Age and The Blood of a Poet were both commissioned by the Viscount of Noailles. The religious scandal of one overflowed on to the other. Unobservant people made an intrigue out of it. The two films remained locked up in a safe and the Viscount of Noailles, in return for a gesture unique in France, became the victim of the worst persecutions.
It wasn’t until 1931 that we were able to show our films. At the Vieux Colombier, mine, badly printed, badly spliced and badly projected, provoked scandals and battles without even being able to defend itself by its lustre. It was recognized much later, thanks to the universities that asked for it, showed it and considered it a subject for study.
Most of the people who assisted me have become important personalities in the film world. When I meet them we always talk with affection of our shared memories.
I would like to add that chance sent me Georges Périnal, without whose skill The Blood of a Poet would have quickly faded from sight. What a happy and free time it was! I had sent seven telegrams to seven cameramen. Périnal was the first one to show up.
Michel Arnaud was my assistant, as were Page, Viguier and Pomme-Pernette, who is now Marc Allégret’s first assistant.
Miss Miller has become a well-known journalist and photographer. Rivero is dead. Desbordes is dead, tortured and killed by the Militia in the rue de la Pompe, 1943.
It is difficult for me, you will admit, to consider such a film without being moved by the circumstances that enriched it. It would be like seeing only the edge of it—unless so much dreaming has given it a halo and the camera has caught in advance those qualities that man can never discover in people and objects.
I have often noticed this phenomenon. It is important for directors to take it into account. They must be careful; they must always be concerned with the choice of their team, good relations and the atmosphere that surrounds the filming.
I know many films that put me to shame. I do not know of one that is less slave to the methods of an art “that is the same age as I” and that therefore never forced me to burden myself with examples.
To sum up, The Blood of a Poet and my new film Beauty and the Beast are aimed at the aficionados. It is true that I do not kill the bull according to the rules. But this contempt for the rules is accompanied by a contempt for the danger that excites a large number of people.
This essay first appeared in Two Screenplays: The Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus (1985). Reprinted by permission of Marion Boyars Publishers, New York, London.