Watch Jean Genet’s Only Film, the Censored A Song of Love (1950)

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.

Related Content:

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

Three “Anti-Films” by Andy Warhol: Sleep, Eat & Kiss

Wittgenstein: Watch Derek Jarman’s Tribute to the Philosopher, Featuring Tilda Swinton (1993)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (7) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (7)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Robben says:

    It is amazing how smoking in prison together is a sensual experience of making love. It almost means that you are committed to your partner, and can feel him in you during times of complete isolation.

  • Barb Clinton says:

    Why torture yourself like that? Just get it done.

  • pavani says:

    shall i know about this website………?

  • bogdan says:

    NU merita vazut ceva in care apar persoane de acelasi sex. Ne provoaca sila. Te indispui vazand cum se pot cobora unii in timp ce altii inteleg viata corect din armonia si complementaritatea masculin feminin si nu a unor perversitati bolnave din mintea cate unui regizor. Este o ideologie acum care favorizeaza ce nu e normal, ceea ce e doar in mintea a 0,01 % din oameni impunand celorlalti 99,99% sa accepte… sa considere normal… sa nu critice, ca in comunism, ceea ce prin liberul arbitru considera ca nu le place… Nu e nimeni obligat sa accepte ciudateniile unora si asta nu inseamna discurs al urii… ci doar o parere despre comportamentul deviant al unora.

  • miha says:

    Ne cam jicniti cu asemenea , asa zise filme ! E aberant, urat scarbos, prostesc. Ce o fi in capul regizorului? Chiar vrea sa ne indispuna? Dar in al vostru, tocmai o asa porcarie? Poate ne dorim ceva frumos atragator si ce gasim, o expresie a anormalitatii, care ne deranjeaza. Oare asta vroiati sa ne indispuneti? Ati reusit cred ca alt site o sa gaseasca filme care merita !

  • Sam Konor says:

    Would like to watch.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.