Title – ‘Un chant d’amour’
Director – Jean Genet
Starring – Lucien Sénémaud, Bravo
Release Date – 1950
Today on Dekkoo we’re featuring an early masterpiece of silent Queer Cinema: ‘Un chant d’amour‘ directed by the notorious criminal-literary queer Jean Genet. The 25-minute film was one of the first cinematic depictions of explicit homosexual desire and sexuality which therefore made it ripe for censorship by many governments around the world. The movie exists as a highly entertaining piece of art-cinema, an autobiography of Jean Genet, and a harrowing portrait of homosexuality in prisons.
I feel an introduction to Jean Genet is needed in order to appreciate this film as much as possible. He was a social rebel, a criminal queer, a playwright, and a writer of literature. His novels ranged the gamut from autobiographical tales of his time in the Mettray Penal Colony lusting after fellow prisoners (“The Miracle of the Rose”) to fictionalized romancing of criminal queers (“Our Lady of the Flowers”) to tales of strong beautiful sailors who turn to criminal activities (“Querelle de Brest” – which Fassbinder later adapted into a movie in 1982 – his last movie before overdosing). His early life sounds like something out of a Christine Vachon-produced film. His mother was a prostitute who raised him for 7 months before dropping him off at an orphanage. While he grew up he excelled in getting into trouble and running away from home even though he had a supportive foster family. At 15 he got sent to a penal facility. At 18 he joined the army, but was later kicked out for getting caught having sex with men. After that his life consisted of wandering around Europe, getting into trouble and going to jail a bunch of times until he met Jean Cocteau who had taken a liking to his writings. When finally faced with life-in-prison due to being in prison 10 times – Jean Cocteau and other influential artists managed to convince the French President to pardon him. After that Jean Genet never went to prison again.
So let’s dig in to the film itself. ‘Un chant d’amour‘ is a silent film. Supposedly sponsored by wealthy French gays who wanted to add it to their porn collections the film starred Genet’s lover at the time, Lucien Sénémaud whose beauty he claimed, “harpooned me” and two other actors who we don’t know much about besides that one of them (the older prisoner) was a pimp named Bravo. The film has 3 central characters: A sexy 20-something prisoner with swagger, an older Arab prisoner in lust with his next-door neighbor, and a prison guard that acts as a jealous voyeur throughout the movie, constantly watching the prisoners interact. Of course because there’s a wall between the two would-be-lovers their interactions are limited to blowing smoke through a wall and swinging a bouquet of flowers outside their prison windows. Nothing stops them in their dreams though…
After it was screened in 1966 Sol Landau was indited by police in Berkeley, CA for screening an obscene piece of cinema. After fighting the case all the way up to the Supreme Court he ended up losing with a 5-4 ruling by the court. The Alamadea Superior Court claimed it, “explicitly and vividly revealed acts of masturbation, oral copulation, the infamous crime against nature [a euphemism for sodomy], voyeurism, nudity, sadism, masochism and sex…” and that it was “cheap pornography calculated to promote homosexuality, perversion and morbid sex practices”.
If you’re a self-proclaimed Queer Cinema nerd then ‘Un chant d’amour‘ is without a doubt a MUST-SEE. I’ll leave you with these words by Jim Clark who by my research has created the best article dedicated to ‘Un chant d’amour‘ out there, “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.”
Watch it with: One or two fellow film nerds.
Mix it with: A deep, dark, french wine.