Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source British Film Insititute DVD
Jean Genet’s 1950 short film Un Chant d’amour is a genuine rarity. It has never been available (legally) on video in any country and has never even received a proper theatrical release. Like quasi-pornographic films of the mid-twentieth century, it was available only to a select few through underground channels. It’s a shame that it’s been so rarely seen since, in addition to being a genuine rarity, it’s a genuine masterpiece. Luckily, the British Film Institute has ignored the late Genet’s wishes that the film never be made publicly available and has released a beautiful DVD edition of the film.
As a 25-minute film that lies somewhere between pornography, surrealism, and poetic realism, there is little plot to speak of, but what happens in the film is this:
A prison guard, arriving for work, sees a convict’s arm hanging out of his cell window trying to pass a bouquet of flowers to the convict in the adjacent cell. Upon arriving, the guard begins to peek into the cells to find out who was involved. One cell holds a beautiful young murderer dancing with himself and caressing his body in a reverie of narcissism. The next cell holds an Arab man, older than the first, so lovesick for the younger man that he kisses the intervening cell wall and weeps. The other cells hold other prisoners involved in a variety of self-absorbed erotic activities.
The lovesick prisoner tries, in any way he can, to reach out to the younger prisoner. He pulls a piece of straw from his mattress and pokes it through a tiny hole in the wall in order to share his cigarette smoke with the man. The murderer, too involved in his own body, ignores the gesture. He eventually comes around, though, and the prisoners share a smoke.
The prison guard, excited but disturbed by all the sexual energy in the air, enters the Arab man’s cell in order to vent his frustration. He begins to lash him with his belt, upon which each man falls into a fantasy. The prisoner’s fantasy is an idyllic, almost romantic romp with the young prisoner through a forest glade. The guard’s fantasy is a stark, aggressive succession of gropes and grinds. Unsatisfied with a mere beating, the guard pulls out his pistol and inserts it into the mouth of the Arab man in an act unmistakably symbolic of fellatio.
The end of the day comes and the guard leaves his shift. The Arab prisoner knocks on the cell wall to get the attention of the object of his affection, but the young man ignores him.
Genet’s film exhibits the obvious influence of his friend Jean Cocteau’s filmmaking style as well as the influence of Kenneth Anger’s film Fireworks, of which Cocteau was a great fan. Despite this influence, the tone and content is pure Genet. Prisoners, flowers, aggressive sex, unrequited love — all of these are major themes in Genet’s written works. It was the only film Genet, a master of the novel, play, and poem, ever made, but it stands as a perfect complement to his other works. He later denounced the film when its backer tried to release it to theaters. Whether Genet did this because he really believed that the film was no good or because it was too dear to his heart is unknown.
For someone who had never made a film or even assisted in the making of a film, Genet had a great command of the vocabulary of film style. Fetishistic close-ups of hairy chests, armpits, feet, crotches, and necks might seem a little outré and verging on the pornographic to some, but in Genet’s hands they become visual stanzas of an intensely erotic poem. The scene where the two prisoners share a cigarette by blowing the smoke through a straw into each others’ mouths is undoubtedly one of the hottest moments in movies and is so because of the pacing. The younger prisoner inserts the straw in the hole in the cell wall and waits, mouth agape, to see if the other prisoner will respond. His anticipation is palpable. When the reciprocation comes, by way of an eagerly blown, forceful cloud of smoke emerging through the straw, the consummation of the act and the relief on the face of the prisoner (and in the heart of the viewer) is ecstatic.
Genet’s film might not be for all to enjoy, but its newfound availability heralds the beginning of a global rediscovery of a heretofore widely-discussed, rarely-seen milestone of cinema.