When Kenneth Anger complained of the wimpiness pervading much of contemporary gay cinema in a 2004 interview, he longed for a break from the neutered shrillness of Queer as Folk and a return to the transgressive outlaw poetry of Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour. Like Anger’s own Fireworks, Genet’s overpowering 1950 short is a milestone not just of gay rebellion but also of pure sensual expression in film, a polemical vision of desire forged with the provocateur’s randy ardor and the artist’s spiritual directness. Having never made a film before or after, Genet nevertheless had an in-the-bone awareness of the medium as a procession of raptures—visual, cosmic, sensual—that could match and expand the passion of words on a page. The presiding image, drawn unmistakably from the author’s The Thief’s Journal, is that of flesh against stone, prisoners united in arousal but separated by walls: a metaphor for society-enforced division imposed on gay men, and also of the need for connection which encompasses all human existence. A ravishing young narcissist (Lucien Sénémaud) and a burly inmate share neighboring cells, a hall guard takes in the excitement and frustration of their tension; connection permeates via ethereal longing (a puff of cigarette smoke is passed surreptitiously from one prisoner to another through a straw in an astoundingly erotic scene) and brute force (the guard’s desire climactically turns to violence as he whips the older prisoner). Genet’s filmmaking is stark, flesh-bound, and narcotizing—everything is eroticized, from the male ingénue’s flaring nostrils to the clipping of a toenail, and every image is charged by the need to break free and the thrill of defying society’s constraints from within, two equally powerful and, in Genet’s view, far from contradictory pulls. A revolutionary vision of emancipation through sensuality, Un Chant d’Amour is a song of love both universal and eternal.
Genet shot Un Chant d'Amour in 35mm stock, and, if the transfer doesn't exactly clean up the grain that's accumulated in the decades since its first screenings, the amount of detail to the images is occasionally remarkable. Presented sans score, the film cries for music to accompany its humid rhythms.
Kenneth Anger's commentary here is livelier than the one he did for the release of his own works, even if pockmarked with long patches of silence that I take as hushed awe (dig his deep sigh when the young prisoner clutches his junk in the cell). Historical context is filled by Jonas Mekas, who appears in a rather terrifying close-up to introduce the picture, and Genet himself is given the floor in a couple of early '80s featurettes (one is an admiring documentary, the other a surprisingly combative interview, both featuring the 71-year-old rebel in fine seditious form).
Genet’s song of love should make be seen by every cineaste, straight and queer alike.