Un Chant d’Amour (1950) dir. Jean Genet
from ANC065: Forever in Transition: Queer Futurist Aesthetics in Gay Cinema
(CW: sexual content and violence in video and text)
In this excerpt from Forever in Transition, Kevin Bertolero looks to Genet's classic as a representation of "stepping out of straight time," or the momentary achievement of queer futurity—a sense of homonormative ecstasy envisioned by theorist José Esteban Muñoz in his book Cruising Utopia.
Note: This version of the film features a score composed by Gavin Bryars in 1973.
Clocking in at just twenty-six minutes, this silent black and white film was the only film ever directed by Genet, although his literature would go on to be adapted by queer auteurs Rainer Werner Fassbinder—Querelle (1982)—and Todd Haynes—Poison (1991)—among others. The film is set in a French prison where a voyeuristic prison guard longingly observes two adjacent prisoners as they each masturbate and pleasure themselves. In one cell is an older-looking Algerian man, and in the other cell is a younger tattooed convict who looks to be in his twenties. Both men enjoy touching themselves as the Algerian shares his cigarette smoke with the younger man through a straw in their cells’ shared wall. The prison guard grows jealous, enters the older convict’s cell and beats him, making him suck on the shaft of his gun. Intercut with these scenes are fantastical interstitials in which the older convict imagines himself
and the young man roaming the countryside, free from the confines of their incarcerated existence.
and the young man roaming the countryside, free from the confines of their incarcerated existence.
Watching Genet’s film for the first time gave me the same feeling as watching Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy for the first time—The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1950), Testament of Orpheus (1960)—only I was afraid somebody might be looking over my shoulder while I watched this one. Un Chant d’Amour is simultaneously graphic and sensual. Instead of Cocteau’s vision of a man looking at himself longingly in the mirror— an image which I imagine inspired René Clément’s direction of an unbearably sexy Alain Delon in Purple Noon (1960)—Genet produces images of penises, armpits, toe-nails and closeups of other male anatomy which are then paired with beautiful country landscapes, garlands of flowers, tender embraces, and erotic shots of the men inhaling shared cigarette smoke. As the prison guard goes from cell to cell looking through the peepholes, some of the inmates are bathing, many are dancing while fondling themselves, putting on a show for the curious guard who they know is watching (and they seem to enjoy that he does so). Richard Dyer describes the film as “too arty to be porn and too pornographic to be arthouse.” It’s hard not to imagine Genet’s film being an influence for artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work is attempting to elicit a similar reaction, but also for gay pornographers who were working during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The role of the cop is one that has become somewhat standard now in gay porn. I first encountered figures like that while watching videos of Johnny Rapid as he is abused by several guards and their long batons, their thorough interrogations in the prison showers. The videos have a certain allure to them, I must admit.
In many ways, Genet has created a queer utopia within the traditional heteronormative prison structure. At a time when homosexuality was generally disfavored by the public, we can perhaps read the prison cell as being equivalent to the closet. These men are confined to solitude in a way which emulates the pre-war isolation of many queer men and women. They are being watched over by a figure of authority who is both fascinated by them and wants to engage with them, although without removing them from their captive state. He goes from cell to cell as though he is at a porn arcade or peep show, finding himself repeatedly drawn to the same individuals over and over again.
In his essay “Sex in the Seventies: Gay Porn Cinema as an Archive for the History of American Sexuality,” historian and sociologist Jeffrey Escoffier notes that,
For the pioneering film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, the historical significance of film rests on its ability to “record and reveal physical reality,” giving film the capacity to record things normally unnoticed, the fortuitous, the fragmentary, as well as the ephemeral phenomena of daily life, as an indexical archive . . . This analysis is particularly useful for pornographic films, where the line between fictional fantasies and cinematic realism is often blurred. Though they represent sexual fantasies, hardcore pornographic films depend upon what Roland Barthes called “reality effects” (real erections, real fucking, and real orgasms) to authenticate the sexual narratives that are their primary content. In that respect, they are somewhat like documentaries.
With this in mind, we can perhaps view Genet’s film in the same way that we might view the films of Wakefield Poole, a director from the 1970s and 1980s who was interested in filming porn, but with the intent of documenting erotic subcultures of the time period. Genet’s version of this prison might be embellished or unrealistic in certain regards, but what it does is highlight many of the social anxieties surrounding homosexuality at the time, and in heightening and exaggerating those feelings, he has created a social document which we can use to better understand the time period more generally. As Escoffier notes, “because the photographic trace is recorded at a moment in time and then stored for future viewing, photographic images are automatically always historical representations.”
In her essay “Naked, Naughty, Nasty: Peep Show Reflections,” Vicky Funari writes of her experiences as a former peep show worker. She says of the job,
I am responsible for the imagery I produce, as a filmmaker and a painter, as a woman in the world, a woman in relationship with other human beings. In the peepshow I’m not controlling the image: I don’t make the rules. But I am plugging my body into a predetermined slot, and in doing so I produce my own body as imagery, with all its clear and indecipherable effects . . . I feed the customers’ desires with no illusion that their desires have anything to do with me. But occasionally our desires conflict or coincide, momentarily jarring me back into myself and real time.
Although they are not being paid for their efforts to turn on the peeping guard, we can see the prisoners in Un Chant d’Amour as engaging in a similar kind of labor to that which Funari describes in her essay. Perhaps this is the same kind of labor being performed for free by gay men on websites like Chatroulette or Omegle, the kind of men who take pleasure in people anonymously viewing their genitalia for a brief period of time before moving on to some other masturbating man on the website, sitting behind his webcam in some other far-off corner of the globe. There is a pleasure for them in being watched, and in the space of Genet’s prison, these coinciding desires result in the production of an ecstatic time. We could also view this as somewhat of a bastardization of the “male gaze” which Laura Mulvey identifies in her seminal essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey argues that the visual pleasure found in movies reflects longstanding patterns of patriarchal longing. Mulvey claims that women are only featured in films because men either enjoy the pleasure of being a voyeur, linked to their desire to feel guilt and a sense of sadism, or due to a feeling of fetishistic scopophilia, satisfying their fetish through the distance between viewer and subject. While this obviously doesn’t directly apply to a film like Un Chant d’Amour, we can map it onto this text in that the film is clearly made by men, for men—specifically gay men. The lighting and framing of the male body throughout the film is not subtle by any means and the scrutinizing detail we see throughout the film—the close-ups of tattoos and the sweat dripping down their bodies, the hair on the prisoner’s chest—all of these lead to a kind of voyeurism on behalf of the audience which is then mirrored in the film through the guard peering through the peepholes, as well as the prisoners staring right back at him. Genet has created, in essence, a blueprint for what I’ll call the “homosexual gaze” which we’ll see examples of throughout the rest of the films discussed in this study. We are meant to be turned on by these images and that in and of itself represents an attempt at breaking away from any sense of “straight time.”
M. Kristen Hefner notes in her study on masculinity in same-sex prisons that within these hyper masculine environments, “characterizations of masculinity that are valued in a patriarchal culture—such as normative heterosexuality, violence, knowledge, and power—are emphasized.” While masculinity is defined more by culture and varies across time and space, we can see Genet’s representation of the prison structure—and specifically within the two cells—as evidence that this narrative occurs within a homonormative bubble (otherwise there would be no need for fantastical, escapist dream sequences within the story) and reinforces the power dynamics that exist outside of these two cells, and thus beyond the prison walls as well. The cell here is treated as a utopic space, but if they were to step outside of their cells, the prisoners would find themselves back in a hostile heteronormative space. Even the guard is cautiously looking over his shoulder as he rubs his erection while looking through the peepholes. He knows that there will be consequences if he is caught. Hefner goes on to note that, “failing to perform heterosexual masculinity and/or identifying as homosexual in prison can result in an inmate being socially condemned; at the most extreme, it is a threat to his physical safety.” We see this lack of safety even in the queered prison cells of Un Chant d’Amour, most notably with the guard whipping the older convict with his belt and shoving his gun down the man’s throat, clearly enjoying the moment of sexual release (even with his cock still secured in his pants). He is at once enforcing the heteronormative social rules of the prison, or at least feigning to, while also benefitting from the homonormative safety of the prison cell. The guard knows what he can get away with and he understands the power of his role.
The moments of ecstasy which most clearly stand out to me, though, are the beautiful shots of the two prisoners sharing their cigarette smoke through the wall. Even under these repressive conditions in which they cannot see one another—they can only hear each other knocking (and possibly moaning) through the walls of their enclosed cells—the inmates are able to engage in a kind of queer ecstasy that turns the prison wall into something which more closely approximates a glory hole. It is this disregard for the unspoken heteronormative rules of the prison, and the way in which they flaunt their throbbing erections for the guard to see, which draws him into their cells. It is the creation of this alluring homoerotic environment which encourages the guard to participate in the sadomasochistic fantasies of these prisoners. While the doors of their cells are closed, they are free to express their true desires away from the eye of the public, under the supervision of a guard who enjoys their kinks and fetishes just as much as they do.
Richard Dyer, “Coming Out as Going in: The Image of the Homosexual as a Sad Young Man,” in The Culture of Queers (New York: Routledge, 2002), 125.
Jeffrey Escoffier, “Sex in the Seventies: Gay Porn Cinema as an Archive for the History of American Sexuality,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 26, no. 1 (2017): 97.
Vicky Funari, “Naked, Naughty, Nasty: Peep Show Reflections,” in Whores and Other Feminists, ed. Jill Nagle (New York: Routledge, 1997), 25.
M. Kristen Hefner, “Queering Prison Masculinity: Exploring the Organization of Gender and Sexuality within Men’s Prison,” Men and Masculinities 21, no. 2 (2018): 232.
Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in The Routledge Reader in Gender and Performance, ed. Jane de Gay and Lizbeth Goodman (New York: Routledge, 1999), 297.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.