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Un Chant d’Amour

(A Song of Love)

Directed by Jean Genet — 1950, France — 25 minutes, black & white (silent), aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama

IN BRIEF, this experimental short, about the relationship of two prisoners and a voyeuristic guard, is the only film made by Jean Genet (1910–1986), who explored extremes of human experience in novels like Our Lady of the Flowers and plays like The Balcony.

Review

Un Chant d’Amour (1950) is an early defining classic of LGBTQ Cinema, and the only film made by novelist, playwright, ex-criminal, “saint” (according to Jean-Paul Sartre), and all-around provocateur, Jean Genet (1910–1986). Still a work of enormous power, this half-hour silent is arguably the greatest film made by an author, fully transforming his literary and spiritual vision, in an original work conceived for the screen, into cinema. It is also a deeply moving romantic film, which is at once passionately (and sometimes explicitly) homoerotic and universal in its embodiment of transcendent love. While this picture is unmistakably Genet’s own, it’s also noteworthy for the uncredited involvement of the great poet-filmmaker, and Genet’s champion, Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast). As we’ll see below, Un Chant d’Amour is also important historically, both as a key work for Genet (coming in between his novels of the ’40s and his plays of the ’50s), and as a reflection of its times, including the fight against censorship. Cult Epics is to be thanked for releasing, for the first time on a Region 1 DVD, the restored and uncensored film; they also include a video introduction by legendary filmmaker/critic Jonas Mekas (who originally smuggled the film into the US in bits and pieces, hiding them in his clothing!), audio commentary by avant-garde auteur Kenneth Anger, and more.

The plot of Un Chant d’Amour is simple yet resonant. Locked in separate cells, an older North African prisoner (actor unknown) communicates his passion to a younger French prisoner (Lucien Sénémaud, who was Genet’s lover) by blowing smoke through a straw that fits into a crack in the wall. A voyeuristic guard (identity unknown) peers through peepholes to watch the men, as well as two black prisoners, who dance in their narrow cells with wild abandon. The guard’s interest noticeably increases when he sees the men, at various times, pleasuring themselves. In an uncontrollable rage, he bursts into the older prisoner’s cell and beats him with a belt, later shoving his pistol down the man’s throat (the phallic implications are obvious to us but, alas, not to the repressed guard). The film’s climax comes during a dreamlike sequence in a lush forest, involving the older and younger prisoners. This is a luminous romantic interlude, in which the two men romp together, then tenderly make love. (The film’s heartfelt poetry can withstand any cynical jokes about ‘Adam and Steve in Paradise.’) Throughout the film there is a recurring image of striking beauty – which is pure Genet – of white flowers set against a stark outside prison wall. The hand of one unseen prisoner repeatedly swings the garland to the reaching hand of another, but it remains tantalizingly, heartbreakingly out of reach, until….

Having read all of Genet’s novels and plays, he seems one of the monumental figures of twentieth century art, and one of the most enigmatic. Even the briefest sketch of his life indicates his complexity. Born illegitimate in 1910 and raised in rural foster homes, Genet early on became a petty thief and hustler, landing in reform school, then prison, then trying to keep one step ahead of the army, from whose North African operations he deserted in his 20s to lead a vagabond existence across Europe. Also in his youth he realized both that he was gay (his insistence on speaking formal French, from a young age, drove the villagers nuts), and that the criminal life let him thumb his nose at the society that rejected him. When he was caught, prisons provided an all-male universe in which he could discover aspects of himself… not to mention, they gave him plenty of time to write. All of his experiences, including his passion for baroque literary language, came together in his five shattering novels – Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), Miracle of the Rose (1945), Funeral Rites (1947), Querelle (1947), and The Thief’s Journal (1949) – centered on his evolving central character named “Jean Genet.” His unmistakable talent caught the attention of such luminaries as Cocteau, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir (she famously called Genet “a thug of genius”), who in 1948 appealed to the French president to free him from what could have been life imprisonment. Once released, the reformed Genet never returned to prison. After the controversial premieres of his first two dramas, The Maids (1947) and Deathwatch (1949), and recovering from a protracted depression, Genet in the mid-”50s focused on theater. His radically experimental political plays, The Balcony (1956), The Blacks (1958), and The Screens (1961), were rightly hailed as masterpieces, and performed all over the world, as they are today. In the ’60s and ’70s, Genet turned from literature to political activism, although he finished a final book, aptly entitled Prisoner of Love, just before his death from throat cancer in 1986. The definitive portrait of the man and his times is novelist Edmund White’s award-winning, and utterly compelling, Genet: A Biography (1993).

Genet takes us places, invariably in the underworld of hustlers, thieves, murderers, and convicts, where most of us have never set foot; but even as he exposes their lives with excruciating fullness, he reveals – and celebrates – their/our common humanity. Genet at his best, which is often, marries some of the most extreme experiences in literature and theatre with heartbreaking tenderness, all the while stripping away the illusions of his benighted characters, not least those of his fictional namesake. If you have never experienced Genet’s works, consider starting with his autobiographical novel of self-discovery, The Thief’s Journal, followed by his scalding exposé of hypocrisy, the Absurdist play The Balcony, both of which are on my list of Recommended GLBT Literature. They are unforgettable in their own right, but they also illuminate another of Genet’s greatest works, Un Chant d’Amour.

With just this one film, Genet stands as a central figure in gay cinema, inspired by Cocteau (especially Blood of a Poet, 1930) and Kenneth Anger (Fireworks, 1947 – in fact, Anger does the commentary track on this DVD), and paving the way for such later rebel artists as Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey (Flesh, 1968), Derek Jarman (Jubilee, 1977), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (his final picture was of Genet’s Querelle, 1982), Todd Haynes (whose ingenious triptych Poison, 1991, includes a prison segment that transplants Genet to Louisiana), and John Cameron Mitchell, who’s said that Genet’s film was a seminal inspiration for Shortbus (2006). Martin Sherman’s 1979 play Bent (much more effective onstage, at least in an Off-Off-Broadway revival I saw, than the 1997 movie adaptation), about the impossible love between two gay prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, is also clearly indebted to Genet’s film. The influence of Un Chant d’Amour, for all of its rapturous homoeroticism, also extends to non-GLBT directors, including Louis Malle’s The Lovers (1958), and perhaps to Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo (1992) which, whether intentionally or not, embodies Genet’s vision in one of the great films about childhood. Clearly, the list of works influenced by Genet extends far beyond the two dozen films based directly on his novels and plays, as well as the singular masterpiece that he wrote and directed himself.

Un Chant d’Amour lists only two names in the credits, Genet and producer Nico (also called Nikos) Papatakis. As Edmund White notes in his exhaustively researched Genet: A Biography, they met in 1944, and by the following year, Genet dedicated his poem “The Galley” to “Nico (the Greco-Ethiopian god), manager of the Saint-Germain-des Prés club, the Rose Rouge” in Paris (which was a favorite hangout for the Existentialist and beatnik crowds). Genet fell out with Nico over an ill-fated rare book theft, made when the two men were starving, but by 1950 they were back on good terms. With Genet now lionized – his play The Maids was a hit, and his complete works were to appear in 1951 from France’s most prestigious publisher, Gallimard, even as they were legally banned by the U.S. (another form of cultural cachet) – Nico was eager to take up Genet’s offer to produce his film. They remained on such good terms that Genet was Nico’s best man at his upcoming marriage to actress Anouk Aimée (Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Demy’s Lola). By 1959, the divorced Nico was living in New York City with the singer who adopted his name (yes, that Nico, of The Velvet Underground) and acting as the de facto producer on John Cassavetes’s groundbreaking biracial love story, Shadows. Nico later became a controversial director, exploring – like Genet in his theater works – the relationship between humiliation and revolution, in such films as Les Abysses (1963), Les Pâtres du Désordre (1967), and Gloria Mundi (1975/2005).

At the same time that he met his future producer, Genet fell passionately in love with 18-year-old Lucien Sénémaud, about whom he wrote, “His beauty harpooned me.” The two men formed a passionate, and volatile, couple; and in 1950 Genet cast Lucien as the young prisoner in his film. To the glee of psychoanalytically-inclined critics, there was a striking resemblance between Genet and Lucien. (After several years together, Lucien left Genet to marry a woman, which may explain why the artist omits Lucien when talking about his two “great loves” – both of whom died tragically young, one at the hands of occupying Nazis – in Antoine Bourseiller’s documentary included on this DVD.)

Genet shot his film between April and June 1950, with the non-professional and largely anonymous cast – Genet named neither his characters nor actors – coming and going whenever they felt like it. We still know next to nothing about most of them – not even the name of the man who played the pivotal role of the guard. (Trivia buffs may want to know that the older prisoner was played by a barber-cum-pimp nicknamed Bravo, and that close-ups of his character’s organ were actually of actor André Reybaz, who made over 40 films between 1941 and 1981.) The budget was a mere 500,000 francs (less than US $40,000 in 2007 dollars). The uncredited 35mm photography was by Jacques Natteau, who had worked as an assistant cameraman on Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938), and who later shot Claude Autant-Lara’s torrid Le Blé en Herbe (1954) and three films for Jules Dassin, most famously Never on Sunday (1960). Since no penal institution would allow filming, let alone that of a “subversive” homoerotic picture, Genet had an extensive prison set built amidst the ground floor restaurant of Nico’s Rose Rouge (the famous nightclub was in the basement). Exteriors were shot, on the sly, at both the Fresnes and La Santé prisons, where Genet had served most of the cumulative four years of his adult incarceration. The forest sequence was shot near Fontainebleu at Milly-la-Forêt, on Cocteau’s property. There is some controversy over the extent of Cocteau’s presence: Edmund White believes it was minimal, while Jonas Mekas says that Nico told him it was extensive. No one, however, doubts that the film is unquestionably Genet’s own creation. Genet’s rough cut ran 45 minutes, but he gradually trimmed it into its taut final running time of 25 minutes.

With the film’s unapologetic, indeed rapturous, homoeroticism, the announced premiere at the legendary Cinémathèque Française had to be scrapped. So Genet, ever the hustler, sold “the only print” to, well, several wealthy gay collectors around the world, who had earlier purchased sumptuous private editions of his books. The few attempted public screenings turned the film into a key work in the fight against censorship.

With Genet’s works banned in the US, Jonas Mekas had to snip the film into several pieces and hide it inside his clothes. As he recounts in his fascinating introduction to this DVD, he was lucky to be seated on a London-to-New York flight next to Harold Pinter, then the superstar of British drama, whose masterpiece The Homecoming (1964) was soon to open on Broadway. Pinter helped distract the starry-eyed customs agent, Mekas slipped by with Genet’s film. When Mekas screened the picture at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative (which he’d co-founded, as he later would Anthology Film Archives and Film Culture magazine), police burst in, beat Mekas, threw him in jail, and sneered that he should be shot for “dirtying America.” The case was later dropped, since Genet was himself something of a celebrity, with two plays running in New York; but Mekas received a suspended six-month sentence for screening another landmark GLBT film, Jack Smith’s gender-bending Flaming Creatures. Déjà vu: more police raids a few months later in San Francisco when Genet’s film was shown to private groups. The American Civil Liberties Union brought suit, enlisting the expert testimony of the brilliant critic Susan Sontag, but to no avail. The California District Court of Appeals banned the film, and the decision was upheld by the US Supreme Court. Unwittingly, Genet had helped narrow the US’s legal definition of obscenity, which had earlier been expanded to include explicit works with “literary or scientific or artistic value.” In the UK, despite a scattering of underground screenings over the years, the film was not even presented to the British Board of Film Classification (i.e., censorship) until 1992. Happily, times have changed – even if it’s taken several decades – and we can now appreciate Genet’s film on its own terms… even if, ultimately, Genet himself could not.

Today, perhaps the most shocking aspect of Un Chant d’Amour is Genet’s denial of it, beginning around 1975 when he huffily refused a 90,000 franc award from the Minister of Culture, of office which he equated (not unjustly) with censorship: and by the way, hadn’t he made the film a quarter of a century earlier. Edmund White offers some intriguing speculations about Genet’s denunciation: “perhaps because as his sole film it seems a slender accomplishment given his overwhelming lifelong ambitions towards cinema, perhaps it reminded him of a sterile, unhappy period in his life and of his now-dead love for Lucien, or perhaps because it was one more instance of his trafficking between art and pornography in an ambiguous territory he never felt happy about… [And] the extra-artistic reactions to his work – legal, moral, titillated – irritated him. He told Papatakis he didn’t like the film because it was too bucolic and not sufficiently violent. It is also Genet’s last attempt to portray homosexual desire.”

Fortunately, we do not have Genet’s blinkered investment in the film, and can appreciate it on its own extraordinary terms. Although Genet apparently never situated his film in a larger context, we can see that the basic device, of lovers separated by a wall, has a long tradition. It stretches back over 2,000 years to the romance of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book IV), and includes Boccaccio’s Decameron (Day 7, Story 5), the comical play-within-the-play in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Edmond (Cyrano de Bergerac) Rostand’s 1894 play Les Romanesques and its 1960 musical version by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, The Fantasticks. Those works are all essentially comic, but Genet uniquely adds the darkness of such canonical nineteenth century maudit (“cursed”) poets as Baudelaire (who may have inspired the key floral image, both here and in Genet’s novel Miracle of the Rose, where a prisoner’s chains magically transform into a garland of flowers), as well as the tortured poet-lovers Rimbaud and Verlaine – not to mention his own prison experiences, particularly as dramatized in Deathwatch. Cinematically, Genet conjures up visions of two landmark gay avant-garde films: his friend Cocteau’s sublime, and teasingly homoerotic, Blood of a Poet, and 17-year-old Kenneth Anger’s in-your-face debut, Fireworks, which Genet had seen a year before making his own film.

Genet combines these eclectic influences into a work that is not only unmistakably his own – drawing on his signature motifs of prison, unabashed gay male sexuality clashing with hypocritical repression, violence, not to mention floral imagery – but arguably the greatest instance of a literary author (including even Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Yukio Mishima, and Alain Robbe-Grillet) transforming their fictional voice, with imagery intact, into purely cinematic terms. Genet’s word made flesh at 24 frames per second. You don’t have to know Genet’s writings to connect with his film, but if you do, its achievement is all the more astonishing.

Although some viewers may be mesmerized by the flamboyant sexuality, the film is also aesthetically rigorous. Genet employs a tightly controlled narrative formalism, a strategy that soon becomes pronounced in his increasingly ritualistic plays like The Balcony. There are just over 150 shots in the film, which Genet structures in a pyramid-like (some overly-imaginative viewers might say ‘phallic’) shape, observing the classic proportions of dramatic construction – act I: rising action, act II: climax, act III: denouement. While the guard is a constant voyeuristic presence, the first half – act I – intercuts the two main prisoners sending erotic ‘smoke signals’ through the wall with the mysterious image of the swinging garland. Genet then uses the first of the erotic chiaroscuro scenes – marked by their striking, and abstract, use of extreme contrasts of light and shadow, and sometimes featuring a second pair of prisoners – to segue into the second act. (Paralleling the main action, these unabashedly erotic scenes also develop naturally along classical lines, both in terms of narrative – act I kissing, act II oral relations, act III lovemaking – and the statuesque Greek-inspired poses of the nude actors.) In more ways than one, the film climaxes at the mid-point, with the guard geting off on his abuse of the older prisoner. Act III revolves around the main prisoners in a dreamlike forest idyll, which Genet jarringly disrupts by interweaving, with ever more striking juxtapositions, all of his other motifs: the chiaroscuro eroticism, the guard and the prison, and ending with the pendulum-like garland that, at last, is caught and held. Somehow the entire continuum from US law enforcement to the Supreme Court missed not only this formal artistry, but much more of “redeeming value” in this extraordinary film.

Looking at Un Chant d’Amour structurally, we can also see how perfectly its formal invention fits with its title. As in song structure, the film’s carefully balanced clusters of images and emotional textures – which extend the narrative complexity – recall a rich melody, with refrains and development. Since Genet always knew that his “musical” film would be a silent, he created ingenious visual correlates to music: notice how much dancing there is, beginning with the young prisoner and taken to fabulous, and autoerotic, extremes with the two black prisoners (played by Genet’s friends Java and Coco Le Martiniquais). Their gyrations not only translate desire into physical form, they also jolt the narrative flow. Genet the filmmaker was also Genet the poet and novelist, and he understood the importance of momentum: recall that he trimmed his initial cut almost in half for the sinewy release version. And for all of the uniqueness of its setting and sexual orientation, the theme of this song is love, and a celebration of its transformative power.

Yet Genet’s film, like his writings, is more than a mere paen to passion. Genet’s complexity reveals itself most clearly – or perhaps it’s better to say most ambiguously and richly – in how he uses, and interconnects, at least three perspectives throughout the film, embodied in the trio of principal characters (the two main prisoners and the guard) and in three distinct locales (the realistic prison, the abstract/erotic chiaroscuro zone, and the dreamlike forest). On a first viewing, the film may seem to connect specific characters and perspectives – guard/prison, prisoners/chiaroscuro, two main prisoners/forest – but the correspondences are, in fact, more ambiguous than that. On repeated viewings, it seems clear that Genet purposefully – and brilliantly – complexified the perspectives, as part of a larger vision, i.e., not goofs but creative genius. To continue with the musical analogy noted above, Genet has crafted a fugue-like structure of which even Bach might be proud (shocked, but proud). He clearly established the two sets of three principal themes and then began interweaving them, with increasing speed and resonance: prison against fantasy forest against The Twilight Love Zone. The film ends in a crescendo, not only of triumphant emotion – at last that tantalizing garland of flowers has been caught – but of more enigmatic meanings too.

Beyond mere virtuosity, Genet reflect the complexity of this world, which is at once spatially limited and great in its implications. Genet’s shifting character points-of-view is dizzying – and energizing, forcing us to question who is creating what meaning. (This innovation also anticipates, by several, years, the influential New Novel literary movement, including such master practioners as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras; a great film employing these ideas is Alain Resnais’s 1963 Muriel.) If the chiaroscuro scenes are extensions of the older prisoner’s desire, then why are they sometimes juxtaposed with the guard? His voyeurism, coupled with his violence, is a dead give away that, to say the least, he hasn’t found happiness, but could he possibly imagine such aesthetic, and historically-influenced, images as those of the Greek god-like lovers in Classical poses? For that matter, how could the prisoners? Perhaps Genet is implicating himself – and us – in these overlapping states of desire.

One can’t help but ponder the extent of voyeurism in this film, on all sides of the camera. The guard is obviously a sad-sack peeping tom: Genet knowingly, and comically, has him always look up and down the cell block – to make that sure none of his (never-seen) peers aren’t spying on him – before peeping at the inmates. But it was likely as much a commonplace in 1950 as today that film is the ultimate voyeuristic medium; in any event, Genet knew precisely who was calling the shots. Not only that, but he cast his longtime lover Lucien Sénémaud as the boyish murderer (the beautiful youth as condemned killer is a recurring motif in Genet, including Harcamone in Miracle of the Rose and Green Eyes in Deathwatch). Lucien’s sinuous persona could be interpreted as Genet’s comeuppance to the gay millionaires, whom he knew would pay almost anything for “the only print” of this film: it’s as if he’s saying, you can buy this film of Lucien, but he’s mine. (Yet another example of ambiguity in the film is the young prisoner’s bizarre tattoo, which Genet shows him flexing and rubbing in a languorous close-up, looks like a diabolical drag version of Betty Boop: but the fact that it’s of a female figure points towards the not-unexpected future dissolution of their relationship, when Lucien left Genet for heterosexual married life.) Of course, Genet would be the first to remind us that, as viewers of his film, we’re also members in good standing of his Voyeurs Club, the membership price of which is steep. What Genet the moralist wrote in Miracle of the Rose could be applied as much to the guard as to some viewers of this film – and, he knew, his (former unregenerate) self: “Some men take pleasure in fantasies whose basic contents are not celestial delights. These are less radiant joys, the essence of which is evil. For these reveries are drownings and concealments, and we can conceal ourselves only in evil or, to be more exact, in sin.”

Genet dug himself out of the destructive pit of “concealments” not only through his social insight – and perennial theme, most clearly exposed in The Balcony – of the continuity between criminals and ordinary citizens, but also through his allowing us to peer into the vertiginous recesses of his heart. Even though this film is Genet’s (dare I say) sunniest work, by becoming critical participants in it, by trying to dig as far below its enticing surfaces as we can, we hopefully elevate ourselves – without giving in to smugness – above the self-limiting level of voyeurs, including those clandestine collectors who saw no more in the film than the guard did in the cells.

More than any other Existentialist or Absurdist author, Genet knew first-hand what alienation meant, and felt like, on a visceral level. Through his art, he created a subjective universe based on a combination of his own life experiences as a multiple outcast – gay man, thief, prisoner, and I would add genius – and revisionist sacred rituals. On a fundamental level, all of his works, including this film, can be seen as rites which pass through stages of abjection, sacrifice and transfiguration – drawing on both Christian and those ancient Greek religious ceremonies that gave birth to theatre over 2,500 years ago, filtered through Genet’s unique perspective. Despite the ‘blasphemous’ surfaces, Genet shares with religions a quest for communion with an absolute, but it must come through individual freedom. In Un Chant d’Amour, the older prisoner endures torture and degradation, but never wavers in his love for the man beyond the cell wall, no matter that he’s both unseen and a condemned killer (the sign ‘murderer’ hangs outside his cell). After being ‘ritually’ scourged by the guard, the older prisoner is not only rewarded – or more precisely rewards himself – with a romantic paradisal interlude with his fantasy lover. Also note the balance in the prisoners’ relationship: at different points each one initiates contact, and there is a poignant moment, in the forest, when the older prisoner carries the younger one (no “reason” is given, but we can imagine that the doomed youth could use some support). The primary difference between the prisoners and the guard, all of whom are abased, is that the guard never comes close to achieving the freedom through love that allows the prisoners not only sexual, if solitary, release but opens the way to spiritual transformation.

And like all of Genet, this is a spiritual film, however unorthodox some viewers may find Genet’s combination of homoeroticism and mysticism. The formalism of this film is also connected to ritual – to borrow a phrase from Susan Sontag, Genet’s is a “ceremony of consciousness” (augmented, as we’ve seen above, by its connections to music). This is a rite that wants to cleanse the forces that keep up each of us locked in our own narrow room – or, even worse, cravenly peering into another’s cell. For Genet, imprisonment and humiliation could, through the powers of imagination, lead to freedom – albeit a freedom of the mind and spirit. Although a conservative author like François Mauriac dismissed such a highfalutin interpretation, saying Genet “goes around and around like a squirrel in a cage, imprisoned in the dungeon of a vice from which he cannot escape,” Sartre proclaimed Genet the prototypical Existentialist.

Sartre made an illuminating comment, in his introduction to on Our Lady of the Flowers, about Genet imagining himself “at the source of the magical cohesion that produces the objective unity of the things” – which could stand as a motto for Genet’s aesthetic, including its realization in Un Chant d’Amour, with interwoven layers of narrative, thematic, and emotional complexity. Sartre continues: “In short, incapable of carving out a place in the universe for himself, he imagines in order to convince himself that he has created the world which excludes him.” The film’s poetic and bittersweet final shot, of the garland finally being caught, reveals the power of imagination and love, yet it also fills us with melancholy, since we know that the two men can never touch, and that the younger prisoner will be executed.

The ultimate triumph is Genet’s, who has achieved the seemingly impossible. Through his art, he has taken a tale of frustrated same-sex eroticism, set in a prison, and used it to reveal and celebrate our common humanity, which he shows bears the seeds of connection on a multitude of levels. Perhaps in later years Genet’s vision of the world darkened, so that he felt the need to reject this luminous film. But, if we choose, we can see that this silent film, at its deepest level, is an inspiring, transformative, and universal song of love.

“A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur,” Genet wrote in the beginning of Miracle of the Rose, “and dreaming is nursed in darkness…. Prisons are places where such reveries take shape.” And so are cinemas.

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Crew

  • Written, Directed, Designed and Edited by Jean Genet
  • Produced by Nikos Papatakis
  • Cinematography by Jacques Natteau (uncredited)

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Cast

NOTE: The minimal credits do not list any characters or actors, some of whom remain unknown. Below are my character names; other critics use different designations.

  • ‘Bravo’ (nickname; real name unknown) as the Older Prisoner
  • Lucien Sénémaud (real name) as the Younger Prisoner
  • (The identity of the Guard is unknown)
  • Java as the First Dancing Prisoner
  • Coco Le Martiniquais as the Second Dancing Prisoner

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Video

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Video Release

Cult Epics has released the long-awaited Region 1 DVD debut of Un Chant d’Amour in its complete and uncensored form, along with two worthwhile documentaries about Genet, both featuring extensive interviews with the author/provocateur, from the early ’80s. Although the image quality of Un Chant d’Amour is not pristine, with noticeable grain and scratches, that reflects the original print. I’m grateful to Cult Epics for releasing the unexpurgated original version of this landmark film, and for including a fascinating video introduction by filmmaker/historian Jonas Mekas (who originally smuggled this then-banned film into the US) and illuminating commentary by Kenneth Anger, as well as the two documentaries, which give us Genet in the flesh, discussing his work, his ideas, and his extraordinary life.

  • DVD set includes a booklet featuring stills from the film
  • Original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1
  • Fully restored and presented in its complete, uncensored original form (as a silent film, as Genet intended)
  • Video introduction by Jonas Mekas
  • Audio commentary by Kenneth Anger
  • $29.95 suggested retail

Extras

Genet (but literal title of this film, from the opening credits: Jean Genet: Conversation with Antoine Bourseiller – Spring 1981)– directed by Antoine Bourseiller (1981, France – Color, 52 minutes)

Antoine Bourseiller’s spring 1981 interview with Genet provides a framework for reviewing many of the pivotal events in the artist’s life, from his ‘childhood of crime,’ to his travels across Europe (often, but not always, one step ahead of the law), to his experiences in prison, to the two great loves of his life, both of whom died tragically young: Jean Decarnin, who was murdered by the Nazis, and Abdallah Bentaga, who committed suicide. (Conspicuously absent from this short list is Lucien Sénémaud, with whom Genet spent many years.) Notably, one of the voice actors reading selections from Genet’s writings is that of director/actor Roger Blin (1907–1984), who staged the world premieres of such landmark works as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (he also starred as Pozo), Endgame, and Happy Days), and Genet’s The Blacks and The Screens. This documentary’s director was also an actor: Bourseiller appeared in Agnès Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculine-Feminine (1966), and Alain Resnais’s La Guerre est Finie (1966). The film manages to compress a great deal of essential material about Genet into less than hour, but it’s greatest value is giving us an opportunity to see and hear Genet talk about what he calls “the subject that I know best”: himself.

Full production credits for Jean Genet: Conversation with Antoine Bourseiller – Spring 1981 (translated directly from the end credits): This testimony was directed by Antoine Bourseiller; with the voices of Gérard Desarthe, Jean-Quentin Chatelain, Roger Blin; photographed by Denis Gheerbrant, François About – Assistant: Pascal Sautelet; Sound: Philippe Lemenuel; Edited by Marie-Josèphe yoyotte, Dnaielle Pelle – Assistant: Chantal Pernecker; Executive Producer – Assistant: Christine de Jekel; Photographs by Bruno Barbey; Images of Alberto Giacometti by Ernst Scheidegger; with the participation of the Ministry of Culture; Thanks to the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation, ADAGP, Laurent Boyer, Gallimard; Produced by Danièle Delorme.

Jean Genet: Conversation with Bertrand Poirot-Delpech – Winter 1982 – directed by Bertrand Poirot-Delpech (1982, France – Color, 46 minutes)

NOTE: This extensive interview is included ONLY in the two-disc Limited Edition — literal title of this film, from the opening credits: Jean Genet: Conversation with Bertrand Poirot-Delpech – Winter 1982).

Bertrand Poirot-Delpech’s winter 1982 interview with Genet focuses entirely on a heated conversation between the two men. A journalist and literary critic at Le Monde since 1951 (and in 1986 elected to the Académie Française), Poirot-Delpech is no lightweight, and he grills Genet mercilessly about contradictions, and absurdities, in his assumptions about politics, art and life. Of course, this approach is more fair than it would be with most authors, since Genet structured his own life around a dizzying sequence of contradictions: White reveals a life animated by contradictory impulses: authenticity and fiction (the rude word is ‘lies’), domination and submission, honor and treachery. The dialogue between Poirot-Delpech and Genet soon heats up into a full-scale – and fascinating – debate, to the extent that I wondered if this bout hadn’t been scripted as some High Art equivalent of a World Wrestling Entertainment SmackDown! In any event, Genet holds his own, even when defending some hair-raising political positions (today he’d never be able to get a visa to enter the US, even if he wanted to). Thanks to this DVD, you have a front-row seat for the match. But on a serious note, let me say that while I disagree with some of Genet’s extreme political positions, he makes it clear how his life experiences led him to those beliefs. And the extraordinary artistic achievement of his novels and plays, and I (unlike Genet) would add Un Chant d’Amour to his pantheon, is not negated by his later ideology. The contentious Genet seen here provides an intriguing foil to the contemplative Genet of Bourseiller’s earlier documentary: together, they suggest two side of the artist’s mind, even as they stand in contrast to the aesthetic, erotic and spiritual intensity of Un Chant d’Amour.

Full production credits for Jean Genet: Conversation with Bertrand Poirot-Delpech – Winter 1982 (translated directly from the end credits): Interview with Bertrand Poirot-Delpech; Photographed by François About; Sound and sound editing by Philippe Lemenuel; Edited by Bernard Lascazes; Line Producer: Marie Dabadie; Paris-Studios-Billancourt, Laboratoire Éclair, Télétota; Thanks to Laurent Boyer; Produced by Danièle Delorme.

Reviewed February 27, 2007 / Revised October 25, 2020

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