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Inmates in a French prison are attempting to fulfill their sexual and emotional needs under the confines of their individual cells. Two inmates in particular, who are in adjacent cells, try to make that connection to the other, both physical and emotional, in whatever way they can. In their current attempt to do so, they are so caught up in the fulfillment they receive of that connection that they fail to notice that a voyeuristic guard has been watching them through the small peep holes in their otherwise solid cell doors. The guard was tipped to the activity by one of the two men trying to pass a bouquet of wild flowers to the other via their barred cell windows. The guard confronts one of the inmates. Although their encounter is primarily violently physical, each man copes with the situation by fantasizing about what is truly in his heart. Written by
UN CHANT d'AMOUR is a remarkable short: sordid, brutal, provocative; yet as poetic and lyrical as its title suggests. Although not as rich and beguiling as Fassbinder's QUERELLE, and despite its claustrophobic lack of humour, the film lacks the prolixity that often mars Genet's most famous literary works.
Indeed, there are no words in this film at all, or music, or any kind of sound. Just complete silence. This is thematically vital: set in a prison, with inmates in solitary cells, the film explores the idea of the voice - who has the power to speak, and hence represent themselves, in our society. The film begins with the figure symbolic of this power in society - authority - in this case a police warden. Robbed of a voice, he is reduced to the role of a voyeur, becoming OUR representative. The complicity between authority and criminality is a favourite Genet theme. As the audience for this kind of film is predominantly middle-class, it is the warden who sees for us an underworld we would normally run a mile from.
We see frustrated prisoners, trying to communicate: by passing flowers through barred windows; knocking on walls; through special code; or, in the film's most exquisite and arousing sequence, through a shared smoking between a hole in the wall. The film is a melodrama, literalising what Nicholas Ray made figurative - imprisonment and repression. The film, inevitably, honestly, ends as it began, with one crucial, perhaps hopeful, difference. Some men get relief from this intolerable situation through masturbation, others by mad erotic breakdancing. There are scenes which escape this hell into a kind of pastoral arcadia, where two men find happiness amidst sunny verdure. It is difficult to tell whether this sequence is a flashback, flashforward, or merely a dream (the whole thing could be the warden's fantasy), but it too eventually ends in brutality and death.
All this is shown to us from the viewpoint of the warden. His gaze, though, is explicitly fetishised - he is made complicit in what he sees. This is literalised when his arousal becomes unbearable, and he begins whipping a prisoner. The phrase 'climax of the movie' begins to take on more than one meaning.
The inmates themselves are subject to explicit fetishism - being reduced to a series of torsos, limbs, hands, members. Normally in cinema, this kind of spectacle is visited on beautiful women for the delectation of the male viewer. Here the male prisoners are treated to huge close-ups and soft lighting, like the greatest Hollywood starlet, a profoundly subversive gesture. Years before cultural studies, masculinity is systematically shown to a performance, a process of becoming.
The film is bookended with childlike Cocteauesque credits on a blackboard, as if by laying squalor and sexuality so bare and unflinchingly, Genet hopes to return us to a kind of innocence, a new way of seeing.
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