Petty criminal, outlaw writer, political radical, gay icon—the name Jean Genet means many things to many people, but filmmaker isn’t usually one of them. Yet Genet did direct a short film, A Song of Love (Un chant d’amour), in 1950. Silent and shot in grainy black and white, the film presents a passionate relationship between inmates, separated from each other by the prison walls. The prisoners express their estranged desire for each other in increasingly sensual ways until the frame is filled with writhing bodies. All the while, a lone guard watches, menacing and jealous.
Despite the fact that the film was banned for many years, and that Genet himself disowned it, it’s a foundational work for later gay filmmakers, from Andy Warhol to the early Derek Jarman, whose first feature Sebastiane (1976) surely owes a debt to A Song of Love. Genet’s choice of setting is no mere autobiographical detail; the previous year he faced a life sentence after his tenth conviction, and was only saved by the intervention of his respected supporters Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau, who petitioned the president on his behalf. It’s possible to read A Song of Love in many ways, but it’s hard not to see it at least as Genet’s projection of the frustrated (yet hothouse) sexual tension he would know if incarcerated for the rest of his days.
Of course Genet began his writing career in prison, drafting his first novel, the pulpy yet profoundly lyrical Our Lady of the Flowers, while serving out a sentence in the early forties. Genet’s erotically charged, some might say decadent, fiction worked to reclaim and revalue his identity as a homosexual, social outcast, and criminal. In his autobiographical novel, The Thief’s Journal, written in 1949 while his fate was being decided, Genet defined himself thus:
Limited by the world, which I oppose, jagged by it, I shall be all the more handsome and sparkling as the angles which wound me and give me shape are more acute and the jagging more cruel.
The quote could almost serve as an epigraph for Genet’s only film, which, writes Fernando Croce, draws its “presiding image… of flesh against stone” from The Thief’s Journal. It’s an image Croce interprets as “metaphor for society-enforced division imposed on gay men, and also of the need for connection which encompasses all human existence.” Like all Genet’s work, A Song of Love takes pleasure from pain and finds arresting intimacy and unabashedly liberating sexual fulfillment in the Parisian sewers, garrets, and jails.