French novelist Jean Genet (Querelle) only directed one film in his long and controversial career as a writer of frank sexual and political novels, yet it proved to be a moody experimental work, with provocative images that still make this 1950 short R-rated, or NC-17.
The reasons why Genet chose to make a film still seem a bit fuzzy, but as with the bonus documentary and interview on Cult Epics' special edition set, one can see there's a lot the novelist chose to keep secret over his lifetime, and elements he dismissed as unimportant.
In the case of Song of Love / Un chanson d'amour, Genet may have been concerned about the film's softcore elements; or perhaps he was simply being selective about those artistic works that were most beneficial towards preserving a carefully tailored image he wanted to endure long after his death. Both the doc and interview on Disc 2 certainly demonstrate an ego at work and play, although they're tempered with some potent memories of his life as a jailbird in a French youth prison.
Genet's years in the slammer for theft are cited as the most pivotal time that shaped his politics and obsessions, and he curiously admits he was both happy and terrified in being stuck in a locked and barred cell, surrounded by a bevy of male inmates. The cruelties of prison life, along with his memories of specific male lovers are what dominate the 1981 doc, originally made for French TV.
Director Antione Bourseiller intercuts audio excerpts from Genet's work over stills from ancient portraits, mosaics, and statues of male figures, and he also trains his camera on the actual prison where Genet was locked away – a kind of juvenile hall for rebellious youths involved in petty crimes, or youths who just seemed ‘wrong' in the eyes of a conservative judicial system.
It's eerie to see the specific areas Genet recalls, including sections used for punishment or humiliation, and its these moments that help one re-read the short film as Genet's personal statement on the intense loneliness and intense sexual frustration inmates experience under the taunting or voyeuristic eyes of malicious guards.
Indie filmmaker and author Kenneth Anger provides an optional commentary for Genet's silent film (there was never any formal music or recorded dialogue for Song, although the film was reportedly available with a score by Gavin Bryars, in 1973), but aside from an initially intriguing start, Anger reels back into silence, and seems to lose interest with the film; or he's too entranced by the stark, expressionistic photography to continue with what should have been a straightforward and continuous commentary track.
An optional intro by experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas does a better job in putting the short in its historical context, and Mekas elaborates on his efforts to smuggle the film through New York City customs for a series of screenings.
From Mekas' intro comments, Song doesn't seem to be a film made purely to satisfy French collectors of gay erotica and porn; some of the early French porn films in Cult Epics' excellent Vintage Erotica series contain multi-gender hardcore sex in occasional narrative contexts, but as Anger explains, Genet's directorial venture was produced in a real studio using an experienced cameraman, and producer Nikos Papatakis later went on to make a handful of independent feature films.
The acting, performed by amateurs, is very good, and they're quite uninhibited in depicting moments of personal intimacy; the naughty parts are mostly full-frontal self-pleasuring (which Genet used to give specific scenes their own dance-like rhythm), and dream-like, statuesque friezes of copulation that illustrate the voyeuristic guard's own fantasies of gay sex which, in his filmed evocations, are artistic, but in Genet's dramatized prison reality, they're forced, and accompanied by brutality and humiliation.
The short's narrative of two men in opposing cells who long to touch is also interrupted by their own fantasies of an idyllic forest walk, and the film is concluded by a motif of a bough of flowers one prisoner tries to swing to the other through a cell window as a means to form some physical connection.
The French documentary on Disc 2 more or less presents Genet as an aging artist, nonchalant about his controversial writings, thoughts, and political statements, whereas the 1982 interview is a frank Q&A between unstettled interviewer Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, and Genet, who pontificates on ideologies, American influence in the Third World, and his preference for seeing an entrenched religious ideology or capitalist economy upturned and shredded by a contrarian movement. Here one gets a good sampling of why Genet was disliked by some, applauded by others, yet remained an aging figure the media couldn't pin down into a simple and benevolent artistic figure.
Cult Epics' 2-disc set presents a clean transfer of Song of Love on Disc 1, though the final title card only appears for a few frames before a solid fade to black. The documentary and interview on Disc 2 are taken from decent broadcast prints, though the original film stock is fairly grainy. The English subtitles convey a fair distillation of Genet's replies, and the included booklet reproduces some of the film's most memorable shots.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan