Jean Genet, France’s Outlaw Poet, Revealed in a Rare 1981 Interview

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“I like being an out­cast,” the French writer Jean Genet once said, “just as, with all due respect, Lucifer liked being cast out by God.”

Genet was a kind of poet lau­re­ate of out­casts. He was a cham­pi­on of the social­ly alien­at­ed and a sub­vert­er of tra­di­tion­al moral­i­ty. His poet­ic and high­ly orig­i­nal first nov­el, Our Lady of the Flow­ers, was writ­ten in prison. It deals frankly with his life as a pet­ty crim­i­nal and homo­sex­u­al. Jean Cocteau rec­og­nized Genet’s genius and helped get him pub­lished. Jean-Paul Sartre can­on­ized him in Saint Genet, Actor and Mar­tyr. Simone de Beau­voir called him a “thug of genius.”

The son of a pros­ti­tute and an unknown father, Genet was aban­doned as an infant by his moth­er and raised in fos­ter homes in a vil­lage in cen­tral France, where he was made to feel like an out­sider. As a young boy he devel­oped the habit of steal­ing things and run­ning away from home. At the age of 15 he was sent to the Met­tray Penal Colony, a refor­ma­to­ry for boys. When he got out, he joined the For­eign Legion, from which he even­tu­al­ly desert­ed. He spent years as a wan­der­ing pros­ti­tute and thief before find­ing fame as a poet, nov­el­ist and play­wright.

In 1981, Genet agreed to col­lab­o­rate with actress and film pro­duc­er Danièle Delorme on a “cin­e­mat­ic poem” based on his writ­ings. Delorme enlist­ed Genet’s friend Antoine Bour­seiller, a promi­nent the­atri­cal direc­tor who had staged Genet’s The Bal­cony. They filmed a series of sequences meant to evoke the atmos­phere of Genet’s nov­els, but were unhap­py with the results. They felt the only way to make the film work was to have Genet speak. The 70-year-old writer, who was suf­fer­ing from throat can­cer and find­ing it dif­fi­cult to speak, reluc­tant­ly agreed. “I will respond,” Genet said, “to one ques­tion only: why am I not in prison?”

In the result­ing film, Jean Genet: An Inter­view with Antoine Bour­seiller, Genet explains that by the time he reached a cer­tain age, pris­ons had lost their erot­ic appeal. He goes on to explain, some­what cryp­ti­cal­ly, of his love of dark­ness and his spe­cial fond­ness for Greece, where “the dark­ness mixed with light.” In his notes for the film, Genet writes:

When I spoke of the mix­ture of shad­ows and light in Greece, I was of course not think­ing of the light from the sun, and not even the milky stream of the Turk­ish baths. Evok­ing ancient Greece (which is still present), I was think­ing not only of Dionysos in oppo­si­tion to the shin­ing bril­liance and the har­mo­ny of Apol­lo, but of some­thing even more dis­tant than they: the Python snake who had her sanc­tu­ary at Del­phi, and who nev­er stopped rot­ting there, stink­ing up Dionysos, Apol­lo, the Turk­ish wali, King Con­stan­tine, the colonels, and the suns that fol­lowed them.

The first of two inter­views for the film was record­ed at Del­phi in the ear­ly sum­mer of 1981. The sec­ond was record­ed a short time lat­er in France, at the pro­duc­er’s fam­i­ly home near Ram­bouil­let. Genet talks reveal­ing­ly about his child­hood, his sex­u­al awak­en­ing and his rejec­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty. He touch­es briefly on a wide range of sub­jects, from Arthur Rim­baud to the Black Pan­thers. Excerpts from his books are read by Roger Blin, Gérard Desarthes and J.Q. Chate­lain. Genet super­vised the edit­ing of the film, which was first exhib­it­ed in the fall of 1982. Jean Genet: An Inter­view with Antoine Bour­seiller will be added to our col­lec­tion of over 500 free movies online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philosophy’s Pow­er Cou­ple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beau­voir, Fea­tured in 1967 TV Inter­view

Simone de Beau­voir Explains “Why I’m a Fem­i­nist” in a Rare TV Inter­view (1975)

Jean Cocteau’s Avante-Garde Film From 1930, The Blood of a Poet

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