Of all the distinctive filmmakers in the world, few can properly be called unique. That adjective, however, can unreservedly be applied to Jean Cocteau, in part because he saw filmmaking as only one of the many interrelated means of expression available to him. An accomplished artist, poet, novelist, playwright, and illustrator, Cocteau became a national figure in France at an early age, turning to filmmaking in his 40s with 1930's The Blood Of A Poet, a free-associative examination of the creative process that would become the first of a thematic trilogy, nicely cleaned up and repackaged in a Criterion DVD set that also includes essays, Edgardo Cozarinsky's eccentric documentary Jean Cocteau: Autobiography Of An Unknown, and other bits of Cocteau arcana. "It is often said that The Blood Of A Poet is a surrealist film," Cocteau wrote. "However, surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it." That's a fair enough disclaimer, as the film concerns itself more with myth and poetry than the psychological depths and social critiques of early surrealism. Still, as a groundbreaking examination of the reality-bending potential of film, it's of a piece with Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or. Using the simplest of camera tricks (false perspectives, reversed film), Cocteau plunges his artistic protagonist (Enrique Rivero) into a dream world filled with talking statues and other oddities to illustrate—through Cocteau's combination of striking visuals, autobiographical details, coy (and queer) sexuality, and an underrated sense of humor—the perils of creation. It's a notion the director fleshed out nearly 20 years later in 1949's Orpheus, starring Jean Marais in a modern retelling of the myth. Obsessed with verses transmitted through his car radio, Marais' contemporary Orpheus begins to neglect his Eurydice (Marie Déa), only to find himself descending into the underworld to retrieve her. Letting his obsessions service the film rather than the other way around, this is Cocteau at his least self-indulgent and most successful, retaining and improving upon the dreamlike visuals of Blood and applying them, alongside his own artistic theories, to a story with the eternal truthfulness of myth. However stocked with wispy underworld figures, portentous bikers, and other magical touches, the sacrifice of artistry is related here in unmistakably human terms. The final film in the trilogy, 1959's Testament Of Orpheus, is also the least seen, least accessible, and generally least, but those in tune with Cocteau's peculiar genius should still appreciate it. Described by Cocteau as a "farewell film," it's a self-crafted elegy starring Cocteau as himself, an artist at the end of his life wandering through a symbolic landscape filled with his own creations (and guest stars Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso). In the end, Cocteau takes comfort in the immortality of art, and therefore his own immortality, a sentiment that would seem far less moving and far more egotistical if it weren't true. At a time when many saw filmmaking merely as entertainment, Cocteau saw in it the 20th-century equivalent of Orpheus' lyre, a belief for which this trilogy serves as its own persuasive testament.
More from The A.V. Club