Un Chant d’Amour (1950) *** ½
Directed by: Jean Genet.
Written by: Jean Genet.
The movie takes place inside a French military prison. Two prisoners – an older, darker skinned man, and a younger man who spends much of his time dancing by himself while look at the tattoo on his shoulder – are in adjoining cells, separated by a concrete wall. Despite this, they share an erotic connection. They interact with each other the only ways they can – blowing smoke through a straw via a hole in the wall. They dance together, and at times, grind up against the same concrete wall – on opposite sides of course. There is a guard who watches these displays with a mixture of disgust, jealously and lust. This confusion leads the guard to lash out violently towards the older prisoner – in one sequence beating him with a belt, and in another, forcing him to suck on his gun in a highly sexualized fashion. The older prisoner dreams of frolicking in a field of flowers with his younger companion, who he is forced to be apart from.
Of course, the prisoner is a none too subtle metaphor for how society treated homosexuals at the time the movie was made. They are separated from the one they love, and forced to keep their lives apart from society.
Genet’s film shows that had he continued in filmmaking, he probably could have become a truly great director. He has an eye for imagery here that is striking, and some of his images (the passing of flowers from one prisoner to another for example) that is truly haunting. His film is also one of the only truly erotic gay films I have ever seen. Of course, because of its full frontal male nudity and it’s in your face gay content, the film was banned back when it was completed in 1950. Hell, Genet had his books banned in America for much the same reason later in the 1950s. The mainstream had control of the culture at that time, and they did not want to see anything with homosexual content in it. Perhaps that’s why Genet never made another film – it would have been impossible to do what he wanted to.
But what is striking to me about Un Chant d’Amour is how much more erotic it is than gay films made today – over 60 years later. I’m thinking of mainstream films like Jonathan Demme’s Philidelphia (1993), which allowed Tom Hanks to be gay, and in a relationship, but was devoid of any display of sexuality between him and Antonio Banderas. The same could be said of even a film like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), which was rather chaste in its depiction of sexuality. Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) had Colin Farrell’s Alexander supposed torn between two sexual rivals – Rosario Dawson and Jared Leto, but while Dawson is portrayed as a sexual firecracker, Leto is little more than an homosexual puppy dog, looking at Farrell with wide eyes. The only film that comes to mind that could be seen as a direct descendant of Un Chant d’Amour if John Cameron Mitchell’s wonderful Shortbus (2005), which depicted sexuality of all kinds in a more honest light.
Un Chant d’Amour really is a one of a kind type of film. It is because it is Genet’s only film, but also because many filmmakers seem to be scared to follow his lead. There is no doubt that opinion has changed about homosexuals in the 61 years since Genet made this film. But it is also true that society has a long way to go.