Un Chant d 'amour (song Of Love) is the only film by homosexual French writer Jean Genet. The film which was made in 1950 is just 26 minutes long, shot in black and white and completely silent. Originally made for Parisian gay porn collectors the film only had one public showing in Paris when it was first completed. In the 60's Jonas Mekas smuggled the print into US with a little bit of help from playright Harold Pinter. Mekas showed the film in New York which resulted in his arrest and one of the big censorship cases of the 1960's. Cult Epics have now released this film with a new transfer and in it's complete form for the first time on widley available DVD in North America.
Un chant d 'amour is set in a prison and revolves around three characters, two of whom are incarcerated prisoners and the third a prison warder. Trapped, repressed and lonely the prisoners long for each other with their desires becoming very auto erotic. As they relive themselves in the only way they can, the ever watchful warder becomes drawn to their pent up passions. It's soon clear that his routine peeps are much less about security checks, than they are about sexual voyeurism. The film has no real narrative as such and has been likened to a visual representation of a poem, which I think is about an accurate description as you can get.
Genet himself had spent some time in prison during his youth and combined with his own sexual persuasion it's obviously subject matter he could relate to. Being straight myself the erotic elements are lost on me, but I can appreciate it as pure filmmaking. the film was filmed to be silent and is presented here without any form of audio track, not even the period cinema organ track that normally accompany modern presentations of silent film. I must admit that I found the complete lack of audio oddly stressful, as a modern viewer (in my case at least) your brain is so used to audio accompanying visuals that you feel stressed waiting for sounds that never come. Visually the films blend of confined sexual reality and flights of sexual fantasy play off each other like poetic chorus and verse. The black and white lends itself naturally to a noir look Genet uses the contrast and shadows well. The film is semi pornographic in that it does featuring snippets of male masturbation, but the majority of the films eroticism is subjective both director and through symbolism. In fact because of its silence and lack of narrative it would be fair to argue that it is symbolism that drives the piece.
Those involved were not actors by profession, but they do a brilliant job of conveying sexual frustration and love from behind a wall. There are moments in this which will probably have all but the most liberal straight male feeling slightly uncomfortable as a hairy man runs his hands over sweaty chest and feels his genitals. Or the handsome almost archetypal attractive gay man prisoner next door fondles his penis while covered in glistening oil. There's also fantasies of muscley fellows stroking each others bodies which took things just a little too camp for me, but that's a minor concern and at the end of the day the target audience was gay men all be it that the film was so well made it's appeal spread to fans of artist film gay and straight alike. If you can handle watching homoerotic imagery and let's face it political correctness aside it's not something everyone is comfortable with then this is arguably a striking and important bit of film making.
The DVD includes and optional introduction by Jonas Mekas which is interesting and well worth listening to. As is the commentary by filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Both give insight into the films place in history, its production and some of its meaning. The second disc features a 52 minute documentary on Genet and a 46 minute interview with him.
The transfer is maybe not as impressive as I would have liked. There is still visible print damage and it does suffer with artifacing (pixilation) at times. It’s a bit of a shame because I'm sure there is a certain amount of contrast lost which would add to the films beauty. How ever I imagine this is a pretty specialist item and there seems to have only ever been one print certainly not many more than a couple anyway, so Cult Epics have done a pretty good job with the available materials.
This is maybe not a film for the fan boys out there, but those with an interest in Gay and Lesbian cinema, particularly from a more restricted time like the 1950's will want to put this in their collection. Certainly fans of Jean Genet will be pleased with the extras here and as someone who knew very little about him going into this they really did make the DVD worthwhile. I can't say for sure because of my own orientation, but I get the feeling this film may well still work as erotica for those who don't require out and out porn. Those who are interested in the pure aesthetics of filmmaking will also have good reason to own this as it’s a master class visual symbolism on film and though the lack of sound stressed me in a way it does mean you really take time to ingest and dissect the visual experience in your mind.
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