Film Review: Jean Genet, “Un Chant d’Amour”

In Un Chant d’Amour, Genet’s sole foray in film, we see a small and focused study of the same themes present in his written work. Among the explicit presentations of masturbation, homosexuality, violence, surveillance, and fantasy, are also the persistent thematic images of doubling, reflection, communication, and deceit. The central story revolves around two neighboring prisoners, one old and lonely, the other young and narcissistic, and the jealous guard who forces his way between them. The two prisoners are separated by the thick stone cell wall, but there are a few means of communication, and the most powerful images presented in the film are, in my opinion, those of communication.

The swinging bouquet of flowers is an image repeated (in various settings) throughout the film and, in its being both one of the first and last images presented, comes to have a certain metonymic representation of the prisoners’ relationship. The guard, patrolling the outside of the prison, sees this attempt at union and is inspired by the act to tour the inner cells and spy on the inmates. At the end of the film, after the guard has forced himself upon the older prisoner, the bouquet of flowers is shown again, and this time finally the grasping hand succeeds. It is a substantial act in that the other intermediaries between the prisoners (smoke, sound, fantasy, and the guard himself) are transitory and ungraspable, though perhaps in the world of the prison where possessions are not likely to survive, this could be a negative quality — in fact, we only ever see the flowers outside of the cells themselves. Perhaps the flowers only exist when they are in the act of being tossed, and not when they are held in either one hand or the other. The act of tossing itself is the only thing the prisoners share — the flowers are merely a place-holder, a replacement for physical union, transferred from one hand to the other. Is this a critique of the idea of a gift, especially, in the case of flowers, a romantic gift, that Genet is putting forth. Do gifts function outside of other communication? Do they carry a different significance because of this? The cell window is literally an access to an external world.

The second main act of communication in the film is that of the straw carrying smoke through the cell wall. The straw has an interesting role in the prisoners’ world because while its function is primarily one of communication, its imagery is that of penetration and ejaculation, and its content is simply reflection. The old prisoner, the one instigating the rite, gets no joy from merely releasing his breath into the other chamber; a response is required, a confirmation, which in this case is nothing more meaningful than to have smoke blown back into his own cell. On one hand, this is dialog at its most basic level. It is also an act of reflection, turning the wall, as far as communication is concerned, into a functional mirror. With this analogy, the other prisoner becomes merely Reflection made human, the personified act of casting something back. Because the other figure is entirely absent outside of this reflective act, the older prisoner’s act also appears in a way to be masturbatory. The accessing of the other cell is merely the accessing of the imaginative world of fantasy that is always so closely tied to Genet’s masturbatory acts. What could be more dreamlike than feeling the unbodied breath of your beloved?

The third main image of communication between the prisoners is, in an odd twist, the guard himself. It is also the main act through which the young inmate effects the older. The younger inmate, noticing the guard’s eye peering in on him, provokes him by putting on a performance of love with the older inmate next door. The ultimate motives of this act are unclear, but the intention is: the boy is ridding himself of both admirers by setting them against each other. In one sense, this act creates the only physical union present in the film. It is the only true act of intercourse. The second consequence is contrary to physicality: in a second sense, the boy’s act is the most masturbatory and fantastic of them all. The two men involved in the union, the guard and the older prisoner, are both fantasizing of the young man — the guard with a passionate image of two bodies, the prisoner with a dream of freedom and of partnership. The young man, alone in his cell knows that he is also occupying two dreams at once. This is his act of power. In manipulating the guard as his messenger and vessel, does the boy then, even if momentarily, have some sort of dominion over the prison itself. During this scene, his cell becomes an elevated seat and perhaps this, more than anything else, was the motive that drove his betrayal of the older prisoner. Though he has no visual access to the happenings in the other cell, he has a knowledge of what is occurring, and in a certain way, this could be considered an act of surveillance, if only a surveillance of fantasy, which seems to me like an idea Genet himself would be aware of — and enjoy. The boy becomes Fantasy itself. And the attempt of the older prisoner at the end of the film to reconnect with his neighbor by pounding on the wall, reveals the transience, the unreality, of their connection despite their proximity.

Genet has turned the division of the prison into its component cells into something like a compartmentalized mind where dreams and fantasies lay dormant until something of reality sparks them. Like The Balcony, Un Chant d’Amour presents an interior world, resembling something of consciousness itself, being accessed by and interacting with the outside. The film begins and ends with the guard in the open air looking curiously at the arms reaching out of the cell windows. And, like in The Balcony, the film runs in a cycle. Their has been no advance in the prisoners’ relationships, nor in the guard’s position outside of them. They are no more connected than at the beginning. This is why I feel it is the temporarily enabled acts of communication themselves that remain the film’s most important images.

David Feil

    On-line Resources

  • The film is available to download as an .avi file via UbuWeb.
  • A high-quality DVD version can be purchased through the British Film Institute.
  • The streaming version of this film (top) is taken from Google Video.
    Further Reading & Viewing

  • review
  • Jerry Tartaglia’s “Ecce Homo” from 1989 splices clips from Un Chant d’Amour with gay sex films to investigate the homosexual identity and the cultural taboos surrounding it. It is available to watch online at UbuWeb.
  • Rainer Fassbinder’s last movie before his death was an adaptation of Genet’s novel Querrelle de Brest. Though Genet was alive when the film was released, he refused to see it because he would not be allowed to smoke cigarettes in the theater.

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