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.

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