PRINT January 1988


tough and sure, both a weapon of liberation and a love poem.
–—Jean Genet

APPROACHING A PRISON, a warder's eye is caught by the sight of a bouquet of blossom being repeatedly swung from one cell window toward another, where a hand reaches for it but fails to grasp it. He goes to investigate, and, peeping into a series of half a dozen cells, each holding a single male prisoner, he sees a different erotic spectacle in each. The warder's excited eye fixes on the mute dialogue between a young murderer—identified as such by a sign above his door—and an older North African man. They communicate through the confining cell wall, which itself becomes the object of desire, an object that is caressed, kissed, punched. The sight fires the warder's fantasies of sex with a succession of men, which appear in a chiaroscuro light. The older prisoner's fantasy is also shown; he dreams of a woodland romance with the young murderer, who holds a sprig of blossom in front of his fly. The warder's fantasy ends in penetration, the prisoner's finishes before his belt is unbuckled. The two dreams are intercut with each other and with scenes in the prison, the three narrative levels colliding as the warder enters the cell of the older convict to beat him, finally inserting a gun into his mouth. Then, the warder leaves the prison. Looking over his shoulder, he again sees the swinging bouquet of blossom, but he walks away, and doesn't see the flowers finally caught.

This film, Un Chant d'amour (A song of love), the only one Jean Genet completed, was shot between April and June 1950 in the forest of Milly, south of Paris, where Genet's friend Jean Cocteau lived, and on sets built in La Rose Rouge, a nightclub in the Saint Germain des Prés area of Paris which was popular with the intellectuals of postwar Existentialism. Genet, only quite recently released from the last of the prisons and borstals in which he had spent much of his youth, had told the club's owner, Nico Papatakis, that he wanted to make an erotic film. Papatakis put up the money for the project, budgeting for a silent short in 16-millimeter black and white. When the first rushes of the film were unsatisfactory, Genet started again in the professional 35-millimeter format. The financial resources for this expense came from the profits of La Rose Rouge. Papatakis was an unconventional nightclub owner. He insisted on the originality of the acts in his cabaret, and could later claim to have launched artists such as Juliette Greco; more pertinently, he was eventually to become an uncompromising film director himself, making Les Abysses (The depths, 1963), a work based on the same events that had inspired Genet's play Les Bonnes (The maids, 1947). In 1950, Papatakis recognized Genet's esthetic originality, and was certain that he would produce a powerful, poetic, radical piece of cinema.

Indeed, it's difficult to find a definite esthetic precedent for Un Chant d'amour. Isolated examples might be the films of Cocteau, and Kenneth Anger's Fireworks, 1947, which Genet saw at the Paris Cinémathèque the same year he made his own movie.1 But resemblances among these films are ultimately slight. No sustained comparison may be drawn between Un Chant d'amour and the works preceding it in the history of the independent art film. Actually, Genet's short has more in common on with the popular cinematic genres of erotica and melodrama. The North African prisoner's daydream is a self-contained romantic interlude. It is about separation and longing, and is a familiar melodramatic scenario. The warder's fantasy can similarly be labeled as a full erotic “story,” a series of sexual tableaux steadily reducing the distances between bodies and moving from a kiss through to penetration. The events in the prison relate to both genres, too: the older convict's tears at his failure to reach his lover are a hallmark of melodrama, and the structure of a series of cells, each containing a different sexual spectacle, is a common strategy in pornographic films both heterosexual and gay. What Un Chant d'amour has in common with these genres, both of which are popular enough, to be called “mainstream” despite their underground/overground polarity, does not, however; unify it with them. Genet strips the genres down to their essential elements. Equally important, he intercuts them, making them interact in an experimental filmic context, and creating a powerful and deeply original work of art.

After Genet reduced the film from 45 to a concise 27 minutes, both he and Papatakis were pleased with its strength. But the content of Un Chant d'amour was certain to be considered scandalous, and to screen it for the general public was hazardous. Even if the explicit sequences were expurgated (as they were by Henri Langlois in the print screened at the film's first public showing, at the Cinémathèque, in 1954), Un Chant d'amour remained in every way a gay love story, and thus subject to censorship. The only name that appears on the film is Genet's own; an exconvict, he was already regarded as in a sense outside the law. The crew members are not credited (although Papatakis later revealed that the cameraman had been Jacques Natteau, who worked between 1938 and 1963 with such directors as Jean Renoir, Jules Dassin, Marcel Carné, and, most regularly, Claude Autant-Lara). The actors too are unnamed; they came from Genet's circle of Montmartre costauds,or tough guys; the leading men being a Tunisian pimp and Lucien Sénémaud, a favorite boyfriend of Genet's. This deliberate anonymity was designed to ward off prosecution, and the stigma of social transgression. Papatakis still talks in a veiled way about the dangers of blackmail.2 He and Genet didn't even apply for the censor's rating that would have been needed had Un Chant d'amour been put into distribution. Instead, they tried to recoup the film's costs, the equivalent of about $40,000 today, by selling copies of it privately.

In 1964, a print of the film arrived in the United States to distributed by the Film-Makers' Cooperative. Its unlicensed exhibition in a number of American cities resulted in legal action and censorship, most notoriously in March of that year, when the leading experimental-film exponent Jonas Mekas was arrested and brutalized by police for showing Un Chant d'amour in New York.3 A few months later, in the fall, Saul Landau, a social worker at the San Francisco General Hospital, lost his job there after sponsoring a hotel-room screening of the film that was raided by police.4

Prints of Un Chant d'amour came to England in 1971, and the scars and lacunas in the two copies in distribution there suggest the extent of their independent and repertory screenings. One of these prints, incidentally, has been supplied with a sound track composed by Gavin Bryars. The score interacts with and counterpoints the images very effectively: a rhythmic, repetitive timpani beat is gently peppered with birdsong and the faint sounds of cows and dogs, creating an aural contrast between the rural setting of the convict's dream and the barren prison. The same contrast appears in a verse of Genet's first poem, “Le Condamné à mort” (The man condemned to death, 1942):

I hear the roosters, the Gallic lark,
The rattle of milk cans, a bell in the air,
A step on the gravel, my window is white and shining.
A joyous light shines on the slate-gray prison.5

Un Chant d'amour was shown occasionally in Paris in the early '70s, and more frequently after 1975; when a bootleg West German print was obtained by the enthusiastic Collectif Jeune Cinéma. At the same time, film censorship relaxed somewhat. Papatakis, in fact, with a leading French producer, Anatole Dauman, was inspired to submit Un Chant d'amour for a censor's rating from the Centre National de la Cinématographie, so that it might be released in the cinemas. Genet objected to this kind of political sanctioning of his film, however, and in the ensuing controversy, the film was not released. Now, it's virtually impossible to see in Paris. The Cinémathèque lost its copy in a fire; this had been Genet's own print, which he had given to his friend Paule Thévenin, and which she had donated to the Cinémathèque archive. The only print currently in the hands of a Paris distributor is the tattered bootleg belonging, to the Collectif Jeune Cinéma, an organization that survives as an entity but has to all intents and purposes ceased operating through lack of funds.

Genet's flirtations with film were many and varied. As early as 1947—Genet's first book, Notre-Dame des Fleurs (Our lady of the flowers), was published in 1944—he was at work on a screenplay about his childhood entitled La Révolte des anges noirs (The revolt of the black angels).6 The film was never made. There followed an assortment of half-realized plans, appearances in the films of others, and film adaptations of his work by others, as well as a general awareness of the movies in his novels. Apart from filmed interviews, the last cinematic project on which he is reported to have worked (he died in 1986), apparently reaching the point of going into production before pulling out, was an original screenplay called La Nuit venue (The night has come), in the late '70s and early '80s. A snatch of his script has been published;7 in its powerful consciousness of color (both racial and literal), its use of flashbacks, and its brothel and hospital settings, it recalls Genet's plays Le Balcon (The balcony, 1957), Les Nègres (The blacks 1958), and especially Les Paravents (The screens, 1961).

Eventually, Un Chant d'amour was the only film Genet realized. It bears little relation to the poem of the same title that he also wrote in 1950 (and that was dedicated to Sénémaud), but thematically it may be compared to his books Notre-Dame des Fleurs, Miracle de la rose (Miracle of the rose, 1945–46), and Journal du voleur (The thief's journal, 1949), and to his play Haute surveillance (Deathwatch, 1949). Though Genet's literature can help to explicate the film's complex visual signification, however, the film is not a work of language—or, rather, its language is visual rather than verbal. The failure to recognize that Genet is not simply substituting imagery for words, but divising a coherent visual scheme, has led some critics to neglect the film's achievement, presumably because it deals with the writer's themes but dims not recreate his literary techniques. Such critics fail to see that the success of Un Chant d'amour is specifically cinematic. Genet's novels are determined by and describe imprisonment; so, of course, is Un Chant d'amour, which reveals the prison's structure of exploitation through the pinning down of the prisoners and of their isolated masturbation for the warder's intrusive eye. But the film's formal strategies render overall a far more complex mirror for the structures of identification and sexual objectification. Visual art by definition works on a principle of the gaze, but film in particular, demands a stare of a rude intensity tantamount to voyeurism; Un Chant d'amour is as much engaged with this mechanism of film as with the particularity of prison life.

Since the codes of cinema developed around the sexual objectification of the female, Genet's eroticized look at the male body is itself a challenge to the conventions of mainstream film. Furthermore, the actions of the four prisoners at whom the warder peeks before focusing on the North African and the murderer outline an analysis of objectification, with its twists and turns. The first two prisoners are apparently unaware of being seen, but the latter two actively set up a dialogue of exhibitionism with the watching guard, which they create and control. Similarly, later on, when the young murderer realizes that he is being spied upon, he laughs. These men are not performing for the guard but are engaged in their own pleasure; their awareness of the guard, excluded outside the door, spectator rather than participant, allows them a reversal of the usual dynamic of power in their relationship with him. This conscious performance sets up a critical distance in the narrative that creates a space for an analysis of objectification.8

Again, the voyeuristic device of the warder's peeps into the cells to observe what for him are the spectacles within, a device drawn from erotic peep shows, is undermined by shots of the warder's eye framed by a spyhole, shots taken from inside the cells. With these images the viewer's identification with the warder, which has been encouraged by shots from the warder's point of view, is broken up, as the warder's eye turns upon the viewer in uncomfortable close-up. The viewer becomes the object rather than the subject of the cinematic look. The shots isolate the eye in all its simultaneous power and vulnerability, abstracting it—one of the images is actually edited in upside-down. For an unrealized film that Genet intended to follow Un Chant d'amour, entitled Le Bagne (The penal colony), to have been shot in 1953, he wrote a sequence in which a prisoner jabs a needle through the spyhole into the eye of the warder; the intrusive eye suffers retribution.9

It is also relevant that the warder, initially established as a voyeuristic figure with whom the viewer is encouraged to identify, later appears stripped naked for sex in the series of tableaux that constitute his fantasy. Where he was earlier the observer of sexual spectacle, he is now himself vulnerable to objectification. In these different ways, Genet both recognizes the powerful attractions of voyeurism and subverts its structures. And rather than being didactic, his critique mobilizes emotional and physical responses in the spectator and disturbs the boundaries of power, identification, and objectification.

In the film's critique of voyeurism, the cruelty and pleasure of spying are countered by the pain inherent in being unable to see. The older convict is separated from his lover visually as well as physically, and Genet renders his distress, the poverty and frustration of his prison isolation. As a further complication, however, the situation of imprisonment is seen as a foundation for the creative act of fantasizing, as it was for Genet's first writing. In his essay “Saint Genet, comédien et martyr” (Saint Genet, actor and martyr, 1952), Jean-Paul Sartre describes the conditions of Genet's creation of his first novel:

French prison authorities, convinced that “work is freedom,” give the inmates paper from which they are required to make bags. It was on this brown paper that Genet wrote, in pencil, Our Lady of the Flowers. One day, while the prisoners were marching in the yard, a turnkey entered the cell, noticed the manuscript, took it away, and burned it. Genet began again. Why? For whom? There was small chance of his keeping work until his release, and even less of getting it printed. If, against all likelihood, he succeeded, the book was bound to be banned; it would be confiscated and scrapped. Yet he wrote on, he persisted in writing. Nothing in the world mattered to him except those sheets of brown paper which a match could reduce to ashes.10

What brings together the elements of visual and physical isolation with creative fantasy is one of the film's central strategies, the cell wall. This wall is the hated boundary that entraps the prisoner, holding him victim to the warder's domination, and barring him from freedom and sexual interaction. At the same time, however, the wall is adored; not only does it stand in for the lover on its other side, but it enables the convict's fantasies to take flight. Its constraint keeps the convict in a state of desire, never satisfied, and thus it vitalizes the power of imagination. As Greeneyes says in Haute Surveillance, “We make up stories that can only live within four walls.”11 There is a link, then, between the wall, with the isolation it imposes, and creative fantasy. This link is also made in Notre-Dame des Fleurs, which intercuts scenes of Genet masturbating alone in his cell with sections of his story about Divine, Darling, and Our Lady. It is as if his transposition of his fantasy into the material esthetic form of the novel, amongst other functions, helped to resuscitate the dwindling ability of a certain idea to provide him some sexual gratification. The romanticization of this process in some criticism implicitly exonerates the prison conditions under which Genet lived. But his writing actually works against prison, against isolation. It is by imagining a reader that the writer is newly excited; the strength of his fantasy is both a response to his imprisonment and a way to survive it.

The cell wall in Un Chant d'amour is inscribed with the convicts' frustration and desire, and becomes the site of extraordinary eroticism. At one point the older prisoner gently kisses the cell wall between himself and the young murderer; or, in Genet's words from Notre-Dame des Fleurs, “He puts his cheek to the wall. With a kiss he licks the vertical surface and the greedy plaster sucks in his saliva. Then a shower of kisses.”12 The prisoners smoke through a straw that penetrates the wall from one side to the other through a tiny crevice, the smoke flowing from one body to the other, the smoke spilling out of both mouths and filling the air. In an alarming textural juxtaposition, the soft skin of a penis brushes against the rough stone. Like many convicts' skin, the wall is tattooed, with hearts, flowers, penises, and the initials “M.A.V.”––Mort aux vaches, or Death to the “cows” (the cops). These letters figure in both the film's closing credits and Miracle de la rose.13

Un Chant d'amour begins and ends with the image of the swinging bouquet of blossom. This cyclical structure, which recalls the film loop of early cinematic pornography, also relates to the circularity of gesture forced on the prisoner by the wall: in Haute Surveillance, in a phrase summarizing prison life, Greeneyes chants, “Circling round, circling round, circling round.”14 The men in Miracle de la rose are made to march monotonously around a toilet placed centrally for their (in)convenience. Un Chant d'amour represents this circularity through the prisoners' dancing and their movements of masturbation, and through the circle closed by the bouquet. These flowers have an important place in the film; in that they cause the warder to investigate, in fact, they provide the motivation for the whole narrative. And they have multiple complex, additional meanings.

In Genet's literature, flowers work on the border between the common sign and private experience. Popularly, their significance is divided, for they connote both death and love; as Sartre explains, Genet's divided feeling about them went even further, for flowers ran along the barrier between the reformatory at Mettray in which he was confined as a child and the freedom of the world beyond it. In Miracle de la rose Genet describes an early escape as “breaking the barrier of flowers, fighting my way into the realm of the fabulous.”15 Furthermore, flowers often function metaphorically in Genet's literature to represent the penis––the lilies in Notre-Dame des Fleurs, the lilacs in Haute Surveillance. Similarly, the younger prisoner in Un Chant d'amour holds a sprig of blossom in front of his fly. A passage of Genet's Journal du voleur develops the transformation of penis to flower (and vice versa) by esthetically turning a man into a bloom:

There is a close relationship between flowers and convicts. The fragility and delicacy of the former are of the same nature as the brutal insensitivity of the latter. Should I have to portray a convict––or a criminal––I shall so bedeck him with flowers that, as he disappears beneath them, he will himself become a flower, a gigantic and new one.16

In Un Chant d'amour something like this transformation is achieved in the scenes of the warder's fantasy. Each of these scenes begins with an abstraction of the sequences of the swinging bouquet and the grasping hand at the beginning and end of the film. This image is lit in the same chiaroscuro style as the fantasies of sex that follow, and similarly sets a bright white object against a deep black background. The consequence is a marked visual rhyming between the flowers and the luminous naked bodies, and the coidentity of man and flower is achieved.

In one of the sexual tableaux of his fantasy, the warder sees himself holding a white blossom between his teeth, a fragile barrier between himself and his lover that is broken down and consumed as they kiss. A flower is also ingested in Les Nègres, written eight years after the making of Un Chant d'amour. Genet's political ideas had developed in that time: in the play, the flower becomes a much more specific signifier. It is equated with the white body and with the language of whites, and identified as part of the cultural domination of white over black, and the hegemony of white-related notions of esthetics. Eaten by the blacks in the play, the flower becomes simply a plant again, a source of nutrition, freed from its weight in Western culture. In another sense, it stands in for white genitalia, consumed by the black mouth in a reinvention of language.

Un Chant d'amour also deals with race through the presence of the North African prisoner, and of a lithe young black man dancing in his tiny cell. Genet was yet to articulate the awareness of racism that lie expressed so directly in 1971, in his introduction to Soledad Brother, the book of prison letters by the black American George Jackson: “If white guards superintend a hell in which white men are jailed, the white prisoners superintend another hell inside that, one in which black men are jailed.”17 One could argue that Genet objectifies the black man and the other actors in his film by including them in a scenario that a viewer might perceive, and use, as pornography. Yet as I have already remarked, the black man and others are seen to use the presence of the spectator for their own pleasure. Furthermore, it is clear that Genet fully identifies himself with the plight of this prisoner. The tension in the film between identification and objectification in the cinematic context parallels the complex forcing of narrative and the shattering of identification so characteristic of Genet's literary work.

In time, Genet became dissatisfied with his film, disowning it as “a sketch of a sketch.”18 Sartre has pointed out that Genet is the writer and not the reader of his work––that his excitement was in creating, not in consuming.19 Perhaps it's also reasonable to assume that neither was Genet the spectator of Un Chant d'amour, and underestimated its merits. Papatakis recently suggested that it was Genet's political development that eventually precluded his pleasure in the film. The explicit homoeroticism of Un Chant d'amour was daring in 1950, but censorship has gradually relaxed since then; if, at least in its creators' eyes, the film is deprived of its ability to shock, it becomes, as Papatakis observes, a fleur bleue, a little love story. The social radicality that Genet more and more deliberately sought becomes more and more subordinate to the film's personal scheme. Papatakis believes that this is why Genet opposed the granting of a censor's rating to Un Chant d'amour in 1975.20 The Centre National de la Cinématographie in fact awarded it a producer's prize of 90,000 francs, which was to be presented by Michel Guy, then the French minister of culture; but Genet wrote an open letter, printed in L'Humanité, in which he dissociated himself from the prize,describing it as “a pitiful political operation to trap a writer who continues to doubt the liberality of your government, and who refuses all censorship and praise coming from it.”21 One is torn between respect for Genet's stand and regret over its effects. His acceptance of the award would effectively have been a contribution toward the cultural integration of the film, a process of absorption, but also of defusion, that had long been at work on his literature. Instead, he forced Un Chant d'amour back into a void of restricted availability and limited and erroneous documentation.

Like Genet, Papatakis sees Un Chant d'amour diminished by time, and considers it a “soft” film. At this point, however, the work does exist as a work out there in the world, living on quite independently of its creator's and producer's changing feelings about it. For the contemporary spectator this delicate, erotic, questioning film is extremely moving, both emotionally and physically. And the powerful responses it evokes conceivably do retain a revolutionary inspirational potential, for it's in the way in which the spectator then uses his or her moved body that the story really starts.

Jane Giles is an independent filmmaker who lives in London.



1. According to Kenneth Anger in a talk he gave at the Cinémathèque in Jul, 1987.

2. Niro Papatakis, interview with the author, Paris, October 1987.

3. See Jonas Mekas, Movie Culture, New York: Macmillam 1972, p. 129.

4. See R. A. Randall, Censorship of the Movies, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1968, p. 156. According to the hospital, Landau was dismissed for absenteeism.

5. Jean Genet, “The Man Condemned to Death,” trans. Diane di Prima, Alan Marlowe, and Harriet and Bret Rohmer, unpublished edition, 1960.

6. See La Press 81, Paris, 3 June 1947, p. 5.

7. In Camera/Stylo 4, Paris, September 1983, pp. 89-91.

8. For a general discussion of these issues in film see Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade,” Screen 3-4, vol. 23, London, 1982.

9. See Pierre Lasalle, "_Jean Genet va tourner un film à la gloire du bagne. . .," Paris Press, 30 December 1952, p. 6.

10. Jean-Paul Sartre, section of “Saint Genet, comédien et martyr” published as introduction of Genet, Our Lady of Flowers, trans. Bernard Frechtman, London: Panther, 1966, p. 9.

11. Genet, Deathwatch trans. Bernard Frechtman, London: Faber, 1977, p. 18.

12. Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, p. 101.

13. Genet, Miracle of the Rose, trans. Bernard Frechtman London: Anthony Blond, 1965, p. 51.

14. Genet, Deathwatch, p. 17.

15. Genet, Miracle of the Rose, p. 115.

16. Genet, The Thief's Journal, trans. Bernard Frechtman, London: Penguin, 1985, p. 5.

17. Genet, introduction to George Jackson, Soledad Brother, London: Jonathan Cape, 1971, p. 19.

18. Genet, letter published in L'Humanité 13 August 1975, p. 6.

19. Sartre, p. 51.

20. Papatakis, interview with the author.

21. Genet, L'Humanité letter.