Against Interpreting Cocteau

Do the films of Jean Cocteau exist outside of interpretation?
Henri de Corinth
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet  (1932) is playing July 5 - August 4, 2017 on MUBI in the United States as part of the series Cocteau's Poets.
“…images born of cinema with the cosmogony of a poet.”
—Henri Langlois on The Blood of a Poet
The films of Jean Cocteau have distinguished themselves among early twentieth-century cinema at large. This is due, arguably, to Cocteau’s works existing best as experiences rather than as proper films, and to their openness to interpretation. This is especially true of Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, made in 1930 but not shown publicly until 1932, and one which has inspired as many critical interpretations since the filmmaker’s death in 1963 as Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or Bergman’s Persona. Like those works, The Blood of a Poet carries a historiography spanning decades that includes myriad interpretations—iconographic, psychoanalytic, semiotic, structuralist, and so on—and also like those works, it’s possible that it merely exists outside interpretation altogether.
Does such a breadth of interpretive thought signify an inherent resistance to interpretation? Writing in 1964, Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation argued that criticism focused too heavily on methodological templates superimposed on the creative work to distill a ‘meaning,’ and simultaneously drew the viewer’s attention away from a subjective or tactile experience of the work itself. Writing in 1966, Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author argued that once an author of a work reveals that work to an audience, it no longer ‘belongs’ to the author in a sense, as it is incumbent on that audience to produce ‘meaning.’ Though Sontag and Barthes were addressing literature, Cocteau’s cinema is perhaps best viewed in light of their ideas—if not for the plethora of interpretations of Cocteau that has emerged in the last eight decades than for the fact that Cocteau himself admitted he largely did not know what he was doing when he directed The Blood of a Poet and resisted any specific interpretation of it or any of his other films. Like Barthes, we might see Cocteau as “mediator, shaman, or realtor whose ‘performance’—the mastery of the narrative code—may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius.’”
Is Cocteau’s cinema conducive to an interpretation of this kind? It is necessary to establish Cocteau’s place throughout the 1920s and 1930s vis-à-vis the artistic movement with which most critics and audiences have associated him: surrealism. Cocteau—together with other artists, composers, and filmmakers regarded as avant-garde, surrealist, and the like in that time such as Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and others—was born into an upper-class family. Much of what audiences today identify as 'avant-garde' emerged from a kind of rebellion against moneyed establishment, though the practitioners of that rebellion never actually left that establishment. They rebelled because they had the luxury of doing so. This was part and parcel with the so-called ‘bohemian’ lifestyle that had emerged in France in the mid-19th century (‘la vie de Bohème’). One might note that the French first used the term 'bohemian,' according to Luc Sante, as a catchall term to describe criminals, thugs, or otherwise dangerous people. Gradually the upper class in parts of western Europe adopted 'bohemian' as code for either hiding their money or superficially rebelling against it.
Despite the popular reception of Cocteau as a surrealist, he did not prefer the surrealist label. He was also at odds with André Breton, whose Manifesto of Surrealism, published in 1924, stressed the importance of dream analysis from a Freudian perspective as a component of surrealist art. But Breton’s writings seem to be based somewhat on a misunderstanding—or at least a very loose interpretation—of Freud’s writings. Breton claimed that dream states “give every evidence of being continuous and show signs of organization” and loftily suggested that they provided a state of consciousness that was as valid as that experienced while awake. Freud’s theory regarding dreams was not as poetic. The text of The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899, was based entirely on Freud’s clinical notes from working as neurologist in Vienna in the 1880s that describe patients experiencing psychosomatic symptoms. It is at this time that most scientists and thinkers, including Freud, believed dreams to be a kind of cognitive noise, similar to “the fingers of person who doesn’t know anything about music running over a piano.” At the same time, Freud was developing the idea of cathexis—the process of the mind charging objects and people with certain ideas and emotions. The content of his patients’ dreams was, Freud thought, perhaps the result of the unconscious acting upon that ‘noise.’ The writings in The Interpretation of Dreams—later condensed into On Dreams, published in 1901—are based on several years of clinical practice, and Freud’s goal was to convince his colleagues that the writings had therapeutic value: He was not interested in developing a popular ‘guide’ to interpreting one’s dreams (“I dreamt that I was naked in a public place, which means X”) but in merely solving a recurring problem that he saw in his patients.
The instance of the word ‘interpret’ in Freud’s text, then, is misleading, since it suggests that the reader might apply the text heuristically to their own dreams out of the context of psychiatric patients experiencing certain symptoms. The buried conceit of Freud’s writings on dreams would be that dreams are not ‘interpretable’ at all. For Freud, the mind was highly associative, and the contents of dreams were perhaps analogous with symptoms that he saw in patients, whereas Breton and the surrealists seemed to have used Freud’s ideas superficially. What is more likely is that Breton was more inclined toward other popular notions regarding dreams that existed at that time—such as the more poetic idea of the spirit being liberated at night—and sought to ‘legitimize’ this aspect of the surrealist movement by citing Freud. With this in mind, Cocteau seems to have understood Freud’s ideas regarding dreams better than Breton. In his The Difficulty of Being published in 1947, Cocteau wrote of The Blood of a Poet: “With regard to dreams, it imitates their mechanism, rather, and by a certain relaxation of the mind, like that of sleep, lets memories combine, maneuver, wander at will.” More so than in Breton’s Manifesto, Cocteau’s description of the film’s structure and imagery coincides with Freud’s notion of dream imagery: “Acts are linked together in it loosely, under so weak a control that it could not be attributed to the mind.” By its construction, the film, like a dream, exists as a type of cognitive noise that resists interpretation.
As an aside, film writing often states that Freud psychoanalyzed The Blood of a Poet, routinely quoting Freud as having described his experience of watching the film as “looking through a peephole at a man undressing,” though there is no evidence that he ever saw the film at all. It is more likely that Cocteau jokingly claimed in a conversation with André Fraigneau that Freud had psychoanalyzed the film, perhaps taking a shot at Breton or alluding to the general craze among audiences and critics for psychoanalysis in their interpretation of ‘surrealist’ cinema.  Cocteau also admired Erik Satie, and his conversation with Fraigneau is similar to an anecdote recalled by Cocteau of how Satie and Claude Debussy both disliked Ravel, yet when the two composers had lunch every Sunday, Satie would purposefully annoy Debussy by telling him how much he liked Ravel. Further, despite the surrealists’ admiration for Freud’s writings, Freud had largely dismissed the surrealists, describing them in a July 1938 letter to Stefan Zweig as “complete fools,” and telling Breton himself in a December 1932 letter: “Although I receive so many testimonies of the interest that you and your friends show for my research, I am not able to clarify for myself what surrealism is and what it wants.”
Cocteau seems more comfortable with ambiguity regarding the reception of his films, as he was largely indifferent to the public’s reception of them. He claimed that audiences refused to consume a creative work without relating its contents to symbols, investigating its sources, stylistic influences, and so on: “The symbol is their resort. It gives them some scope. It also allows them to explain the incomprehensible and to endow with hidden meaning whatever draws its beauty from not having any.” The production of The Blood of a Poet itself also seems to resist a critical reading of its imagery as symbolic or even intentional, since many portions of the film are improvised. For instance, the lighting effects at the close of the film were produced by chance. Studio janitors were told to sweep the floors as Cocteau was finishing the last shots one day, and cameraman Georges Perinal photographed the dust raised by their sweeping and incorporated it into the final images of the film. “What made this film worthwhile, or perhaps remarkable, were its errors,” Cocteau once said about The Blood of a Poet.
Finally, Cocteau later quipped about the film’s interpretations in a letter begun on January 12, 1949 (his ‘Letter to the Americans’), comparing them to a séance: “The Blood of a Poet has been analyzed, psychoanalyzed, examined by auscultation, turned inside out. It is not understood, but it is a table which attracts the hands of spirits and which they question.” In his refusal to supply a ‘meaning’ for his work, Cocteau might then embody a ‘post-individual’ cinema, to use Barthes’ term, that exists a priori of theory with ‘no need to justify itself,’ to use Sontag’s phrase. Once the viewer removes the individual author from the equation, it becomes pointless to ‘interpret’ or ‘decipher’ the work, and one is left with an intangible sense experience of it, as Cocteau may have wanted.


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