Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Jean Genet (writer and director) Un
chant d’amour / 1950
It’s strange today, 70
years after its original release in 1950, that I might wish to describe Jean
Genet’s Un chant d’amour as one of the most truly romantic movies ever
Upon the attempt to show it by Sol Landau
at Berkeley in 1966, the local police wrote that if he actually screened it, the
film "would be confiscated and the person responsible arrested."
Landau immediately filed a suit, which, after watching the film twice, the
Alameda Superior Court declared it as “explicitly and vividly reveal[ing] acts
of masturbation, oral copulation, the infamous crime against nature [a
euphemism for sodomy], voyeurism, nudity, sadism, masochism and sex,"
rejecting Landau’s suit while describing it as "cheap pornography
calculated to promote homosexuality, perversion and morbid sex practices."
The strange thing is that none of these acts in this film are actually
portrayed but simply suggested.
When the case was heard by the US Supreme
Court, a 5-4 per curiam decision declared that the film was simply
obscene. It had already been banned in other countries.
It is true, the prisoners locked away in
jail, do rather go crazy at the hour their sexual desires reach their peak,
particularly for the hirsute gay man (André Reybaz) who is in love with the boy
next door, a look-alike James Dean (credited simply as Java), and attempts to
entice the young man into symbolic sex—since the two have little possibility of
actually meeting in the flesh.
We perceive all of this, moreover, by the
voyeuristic peeping’s of a horny prison guard who through a tiny eye-hole looks
in upon the two would-be lovers, as well as observing through larger openings
two other sexy prisoners, uncredited by Genet (the dancer Coco Le Martiniquais)
and another masturbating figure.
But the guard is clearly more taken by
the frustrated lovers, Java and Reybaz. Reybaz attempts to entice the younger
through a long open straw through which he blows his cigarette smoke, along
with gentle knocks on the wall, surely hardly heard by the other (I should
mention that this is basically a silent movie with musical accompaniment). And
why shouldn’t he be, seeing them through their prison windows attempting to woe
one another with a gathering of flowers?
Where Reybaz might have obtained the
flowers is inexplicable, but it serves, as in Genet’s original fiction, Our
Lady of the Flowers, as a potent symbol of their unrequited love.
The couple’s frustration is the true
subject of the film, as in many of the early scene’s the handsome young man
seems more in love with this Betty Boop-like tattoo than with the man
improbably attempting to engage him.
And yes, penises do become erect and come
out of the clothes in which they are trapped. If the young hot Java, at first,
seems more interested in his feet, arm-pits and other body parts than in his
penis, he eventually succumbs, reaching into his own stock of straws to pick the
largest one—and, of course, in their mutual acts there could be no more potent
symbol of the sexual intercourse between the two men—so that we almost
literally imagine that their shared smoke represents a kind of “blow job,” each
pouring out and sucking it the vital connection it suggests.
The true criminal acts here are not presented
not in their desperate attempts to share love, but by the prison guard, who
cannot bear their impossible intimacy. Like the Berkeley police, he dares to
finally unlock the door of the sweaty gay lover, pull out his gun, and remove
his belt to beat the older man before putting the gun, which we obviously
understand is a version of his rusty cock, into Reybaz’s mouth. This is, in
fact, sadism, the reason, most certainly, why the courts could not allow the screening
of this film: it portrayed them!
While Reybaz is being beaten, moreover, he
fantasizes a lovely outdoor celebration with his would-be lover, where the two
romp in a forest wilderness, chasing one another around trees and into the
bushes before the elder literally carries off the younger for a deep romantic entanglement
in the grass. Their love, we realize, is pure, sensual, and caring, while the
prison guard’s passion comes from an embarrassed and violent attraction. His
love is perverted while the prisoner’s is almost innocent.
We can never know whether in his own
moment of desire, the guard actually shoots into the mouth of Reybaz. The nearly
26-moment film ends before we can discover the results. But it doesn’t quite
matter. Java and Reybaz have imaginatively had their romantic encounter,
despite the definitive refusals of the so-called authorities.
I was only 3 years old at the time of
this film, so I can hardly imagine the significance of Genet’s work, and the
bravery of Sol Landau and his failed attempts to allow people to see how gay
men felt in their cultural—and often literal—imprisonments. It took over 20
years more for some of that to stop in the US. Yet in many countries still today
it ends in death.
Los Angeles, December
Reprinted from World
Cinema Review (December 2019).