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UN CHANT d'AMOUR is a remarkable short: sordid, brutal, provocative; yet
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
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.
One of the most memorable of short films, UN CHANT D'AMOUR is also one of the most controversial. Made by the famed gay writer, Jean Genet, it is set in a prison and features uncensored homosexual scenes which may cut a little too close to the bone for some. If, on the other hand, you're not a homophobe, this is a beautiful and cinematically wonderful experience, with the same kind of magical attraction as Jean Cocteau's ORPHEE or LA BELLE ET LA BETE. Highly recommended for people with open minds, regardless of their own personal sexual orientation.
Genet's only film is a stunner. A short glimpse into the existence of a tortured soul.It must have elicited some gasps in 1950. If I was gay I would probably watch this film every week. I'm not, so let's just say that the images will haunt me for the rest of my days...
I can't believe that all four reviews here are preoccupied by the homosexual aspect of Genet's short film. I guess being familiar with his novels - Our Lady of Flowers, Funeral Rites, etc - I took it for granted that his film would necessarily be set in a prison and involve human longing manifest in homosexual contact between inmates. Don't be fooled, though. Movies like Brokeback Mountain harp on the homosexual factor, making it a political issue that hammers the viewer over the head. Midnight Express made prison sex a pop-culture joke. Genet seems naive by comparison. It's only a vehicle for his art, though certainly a favored one, owing to fact he spent most of his life in French prisons. Anyway, the setting could function just as well as a fictional netherworld dedicated to isolation. Its a brilliant and deliberately shocking movie and shouldn't be missed by anyone.
This film by Jean Genet is a very symbolic, surrealistic, and
depressing film, presenting, through a series of disturbing and highly
erotic images, upsetting metaphors for our desperate human need for
love and union with another, and the barriers to fulfillment.
Because Jean Genet's own sensibilities were homosexual, all the characters in the film are male, and the eroticism is more accessible to men who either share his tastes: for such men, many scenes of the film can be very arousing. For others, the film will probably open up a window into the experience, and for still others, many scenes may provoke disgust and revulsion. Again, because of Genet's own tastes, there is an element of sado-masochism mixed into the eroticism: indeed, all the characters but one are oppressed prisoners, literally in "bondage." However, aside from the unusual sensuousness of the film, and the surprising explicitness, the film is full of unforgettably great imagery, honest and deep emotion, and enormous poetic beauty. It is a very slow-moving, dark, oppressive film, and should only be viewed when the viewer is prepared for a contemplative, surrealistic journey; in spite of its short length (about 25 minutes), it is a very compact film, and can feel quite draining, emotionally.
It is a little gem, and I regard it as one of the "essentials" of film.
Anyone who has read any of the novels or plays of Jean Genet will
pretty much know what to expect from 'Un Chant d'Amour'. Genet, in
works like 'Miracle of the Rose', and 'The Thief's Journal' adhered
admirably to the axiom to "write what you know" and drew upon his
experiences of a lifetime in and out of French penitentiaries to
initiate the reader into a seedy criminal underworld saturated with a
poignant homo-erotic light, populated by characters who display
vulnerability in their brutality and beauty in the tragic empty
determinism of their lives. However, the predictability of the content
of 'Un Chant d'Amour' does not detract from the film in the slightest
but rather fleshes out (pun intended) Genet's poetic vision and
suggests how he could have further elaborated this vision if he had
made more than this single short film.
The film begins with inmates blindly attempting to pass a flower from cell to cell, and this poetic metaphor of communication serves as the conceptual heart of the film as we're introduced to a series of inmates, whose needs for expression and communication, whether it be linguistic or sexual, are routinely denied and whose unfulfilled desires becomes all encompassing and unbearable. This realm of repressed desire is overseen by the warden who peers into the cells and ogles the men, enjoying the incarceration he enacts moment-by-moment with sadistic glee, and yet whose own sexual desire is as unfulfilled as that of the prisoners and feels driven to seek consummation through abuse.
The inherent voyeuristic potential of cinema is something which would later be successfully explored by Hitchcock in films such as 'Rear Window' (1954) and 'Psycho' (1960) as well as Michael Powell in the controversial 'Peeping Tom' (1960); this movie predates the work of both and yet seems to be fully aware of its subversive positioning of the viewer as both voyeur and fetishist as the bodies of the inmates are coveted in a pornographic fashion. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that such an explicit depiction of homosexual desire has the potential to alienate some indeed, curiously Genet himself later disowned the film on the grounds that it is too pornographic! However, begging to differ with Saint Genet, for my money the humane treatment of the characters, the carefully crafted atmosphere, and the cinematography courtesy of Jean Cocteau are easily enough to redeem 'Un Chant d'Amour' as a work of art (in a similar way to how Kenneth Anger's 1947 debut 'Fireworks' escaped a obscenity charge on the grounds of being Art).
However, this said, even at 26 minutes I still felt the film was a tad longer than it should have been and easily could have been trimmed down to be under 20 minutes. Still, what remains is both an important early cinematic exploration of male desire as well as a study of the double-edged sword of torture and solace human desire, independent of sexual orientation, can bestow.
Setting something of a benchmark in eroticism, and, in particular,
prison-based eroticism - something that would later carry through to
everything from 70's exploitation cinema to the work of Todd Haynes -
Un chant d'amour (1950) remains the sole cinematic work of poet and
dramatist Jean Genet. As with his writing in works such as Our Lady of
the Flowers and The Thief's Journal, Un chant d'amour basks in the
romanticised fantasy of lurid, low-rent subject matter; taking themes
and ideas that were (and probably still remain for some viewers)
incredibly controversial and approaching them from an unexpected angle,
to find poetry in even the most callous of violence, or beauty in the
ugliness of human behaviour. As you would expect from Genet's writing,
the film is essentially a poetic-abstraction, relinquishing ideas of
narrative and character to create a tone that is stylised and somewhat
subjective; with the use of close ups and slow motion in particular
creating a world that is part evocative, homoerotic fantasia and part
metaphor for human existence.
In the film, the hellish environment of the prison becomes a hotbed for repressed sexuality and complex emotions, as both inmates and guard submit to their feelings of lust (often attached to the ideas of power and domination) that finds an escape in a surreal, claustrophobic nightmare that is punctuated by a scene of pastoral reminisce. Beyond this bold, expressive presentation, the film is also notable for its striking black and white cinematography by artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau; so as well as being fairly daring in terms of content, it is also something of an influential work in a purely visual sense. For one, you can see the influence on a filmmaker like David Lynch, whose films Eraserhead (1976) and The Elephant Man (1980) in particular draw heavily on the influence of Cocteau's own short films, The Blood of the Poet (193?) and The Testament of Orpheus (1950), both of which share a similar look and feeling to Genet's film in question. You can also see certain thematic influences on the work of R. W. Fassbinder, whose dream project, an adaptation of Genet's Querelle de Brest (1982), would be the acclaimed German filmmaker's final film prior to his death at the age of 37.
Above all, the film should be seen as a metaphor for the nature of unrequited love in general, and not simply as a work of homoerotic fantasy. The themes of the film are universal, dealing with confinement, longing, despair, desperation and eventually escape. Genet would return to a number of these same themes with his later work, Prisoner of Love, but the visual expression of these ideas as presented in Un chant d'amour is really quite special. Yes, the film is still somewhat sexually explicit, even after fifty 50+ years on release, with the depiction of homosexual sex, abuse and expression really pushing the boundaries in terms of male, physical presentation. Regardless, it remains a truly fascinating work, both poetic and disturbing in equal measures and certainly worth experiencing for fans of both Cocteau and Genet.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With the large quantity of gay-themed short movies that were made in
the last 10 years, "Un chant d'amour" may be considered a bit of a
trail blazer. And as early as it was for that genre, it was obviously
rather late for a black & white short film, long long after the Golden
Age of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Arbuckle and the others. In this short
film, we see several prisoners and how they manage to communicate
through the heavy stone walls. They succeed surprisingly well and also
manage, for the most part to avoid getting caught by the warden.
While their dreams of liberty were depicted fairly beautifully, I was not really wowed by the rest of the film, especially the prison parts. The depiction of seclusion and isolation was simply not made well-enough to get me truly emotionally involved. The story simply wasn't enough to justify a runtime of almost 30 minutes. Here and there, it got quite artistic, but it also overshot the mark occasionally and became pretentious, for example in the scene with the black prisoner dancing. All in all, I'd only recommend it to the biggest silent or b/w film enthusiasts.
A reviewer's homophobia shouldn't delegitimize a film depicting
Chant d'Amour already explores homosexual paralysis in a homophobic world.
The film's walland its metaphorical representation of societal homophobiaobstructs the consummation of love between the two males.
Homophobia hinders love within the film; but a review of the (beautiful, provocative, original) film shouldn't be hindered by homophobia.
the letter becomes image. the provocative images are only shadows of feelings. crumbs of a world, scenes as parts of a vision about existence. result - a film. maybe, a poem. or only parable. a film about freedom. as desire, as dream, as ladder. and extraordinary music. that is all. at first sigh. because the surrealism is just clothes for a profound story. music can be key. the year of its birth - clue. so, it is a strange dance in heart of interdiction. a cry. or a confession. it is a gay film but this definition is not really enough. because it can be a letter or testimony about each love story out of society rules. touching, cruel, shadow from another time. and way to discover an interesting writer. his universe, his expectations, his courage to say his truth.
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