St. Genet: The Erotic “Un Chant d’Amour”
At the age of 15, Jean Genet was sent to a reformatory, The Mettray Penal Colony, where he was detained for three years. Subsequently, Genet continued to serve time in and out of French prisons after being arrested for theft, the use of false papers, vagrancy, lewd acts and other offenses. However, by 1949 Genet had completed five novels, three plays and numerous poems. These works included his acclaimed Our Lady of the Flowers (1944), Miracle of the Rose (1946) and The Thief’s Journal (1949). In 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence in prison, after having received ten prior convictions, Jean Cocteau and other prominent figures, who included Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Francois Mauriac, Colette, Andre Breton and Andre Gide, successfully petitioned the French President Vincent Auriol to have the sentence set aside. Genet never again returned to prison.
Un Chant d’Amour is French writer Jean Genet’s only film, which he directed in 1950. Because of its explicit (although artistically presented) gay content, the 25-minute movie was long banned. The film takes place in a French prison, where a prison guard takes voyeuristic pleasure in observing the prisoners perform masturbatory sexual acts. In adjacent cells, there are an older Algerian-looking man and a handsome younger convict in his twenties. The older man is in love with the younger one, rubbing himself against the wall and sharing his cigarette smoke with his beloved through a straw.
The prison guard, apparently jealous of the prisoner’s relationship, enters the older convict’s cell, beats him, and makes him suck on his gun in an unmistakably sexual fashion. But the older inmate drifts off into a fantasy world, where he and his object of desire roam the countryside. In the final scene it becomes clear that the guard’s power is no match for the intensity of attraction between the prisoners, even though their relationship isn’t ever really consummated.
Genet didn’t use sound in the film, which forces the viewer to completely focus on closeups of faces, armpits, and other sensual images. The film with its highly erotic atmosphere has later been recognized as a formative factor for works such as the films by Andy Warhol. In addition, Genet’s novels have been adapted for film and produced by other filmmakers. In 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder released Querelle, his final film, which was based on Genet’s Querelle de Brest. It starred Brad Davis, Jeanne Moreau and Franco Nero. Todd Haynes’ homoerotic movie Poison was also based on the writings of Genet. In addition, several of Genet’s plays were adapted into films. The Balcony (1963), directed by Joseph Strick, starred Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant and Leonard Nimoy. Tony Richardson directed a film, Mademoiselle, which was based on a short story by Genet, starring Jeanne Moreau with the screenplay written by Marguerite Duras. The Maids, a play, was made into a film starring Glenda Jackson, Susannah York and Vivien Merchant.
Of particular significance to note, Genet’s play The Blacks was staged in New York. It originally premiered in Paris in 1959, with its New York opening occurring in 1961. The production of The Blacks was the longest running Off-Broadway non-musical of the decade. The 1961 New York production ran for 1,408 performances, with an original cast that featured James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Maya Angelou and Charles Gordone.
Genet disdained the word intellectual, but it was in his role of a critical intellectual that in his later years he worked to sustain support from younger audiences and literary intellectuals for activist causes throughout the world. Genet toured U.S. college campuses in support of Black Panther Bobby Seale after Seale’s arrest; he took credit for the recognition of gay rights in the Panther organization, mitigating the homophobia and sexism that touched many militant groups in the 1960s; he was a prominent participant in the bloody Chicago demonstrations during the 1968 Chicago National Democratic Convention. Genet’s political commitments were pure and intransigent; despite his constant affirmation of treachery and betrayal in his novels, his work as a spokesman for activist politics illustrated his commitment to any struggle where identities were in the process of formation, whether these identities be gay, Black, or Palestinian.
Once released from prison, Genet’s personal life was a fairly isolated and solitary one, always living in small, nondescript hotel rooms. He was found dead at the age of 75 on April 15, 1986, alone in a small Parisian hotel room.
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