Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release of Un chant d’amour, part of the BFI’s Classic Short Film Collection. The only film made by Jean Genet, a highly influential study of gay desire in prison, is released on a good-looking DVD with an informative commentary and a specially-commissioned score from Simon Fisher Turner.
Jean Genet (1910-1986), abandoned as a child, lived as a thief, a beggar and a prostitute and started writing while in prison. His novels include Our Lady of the Flowers, The Miracle of the Rose and Querelle of Brest (filmed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1982) and his plays The Balcony and The Maids (filmed in 1975). The support of French writers and intellectuals such as Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre ensured his literary reputation and helped secure his release from jail. His work was heavily influenced by the cinema, but Un chant d’amour was the only film he directed. Less than half an hour in length and silent, it tells a simple story of three prisoners in solitary confinement and their warder. The prisoners’ desire for each other is expressed in scenes where two of them share a cigarette by blowing smoke through a hole in the wall that separates them. The realistic action gives way to two fantasy episodes: one from the warder, a series of images of male lovemaking, and one from the older prisoner, of him and his lover in the countryside, free from his confinement.
Un chant d’amour has had a huge influence on both gay cinema and experimental cinema – though for many years it was very much an “underground” film, subject to censorship. It was once banned in Los Angeles on grounds of obscenity. In the UK the film was never submitted to the BBFC until 1992 (there’s no doubt that it would have been cut, if not banned outright, not much earlier than this) and for many years could only be shown privately or under club conditions. Watching it now, this is hardly surprising: the film is explicit in its portrayal of gay male desire, showing several scenes of masturbation and containing possibly the earliest images of erect penises seen on a cinema screen. It’s all the more astonishing that this was shot in 35mm by a professional crew, though on the film itself no-one is credited except Genet. The cast is a mixture of Genet boyfriends and lowlife acquaintances from Montmartre. Lucien Sénémaud, who plays the younger prisoner, was Genet’s lover at the time. The actor who plays the older prisoner has never been named, but he was a pimp and barber with a family to support.
As Richard Kwietniowski points out in the commentary, Un chant d’amour may have a considerable reputation and influence as an “experimental” short, but in reality it is nothing of the kind. The story it tells can be easily followed – in the absence of any dialogue, it’s a remarkable piece of visual storytelling – and the fact that it tells a story at all would distinguish it from much of the avant-garde. Using a considerable number of close-ups, Genet makes his film an intensely physical one, exploring the textures of clothing and his actors’ bodies. For some viewers, no doubt, depending on predilection, it will also be a very erotic film, leaving aside its considerable historical importance.
Un chant d’amour was filmed in 35mm black and white. Like all films made at the time, it was shot in the old Academy Ratio (1.37:1). The BFI’s DVD transfer is full-screen, so anamorphic enhancement is neither necessary nor desirable. There’s a fair amount of grain in the picture and some loss of shadow detail, which is presumably intentional. The fantasy scenes look intentionally different to the prison scenes: the guard’s fantasy highly contrasty with deep black shadows and pale white flesh, the prisoner’s fantasy more naturalistic. Certainly, that’s the way Un chant d’amour has always looked, and as this DVD is mastered from an original uncut print, I doubt it could look any better. The DVD, which is encoded for Region 2 only, is divided into five chapters. No subtitles are necessary for the feature, but none have been provided for the commentary.
This is a silent film, which can be and has been presented with no soundtrack at all. (This was the case with a Film Four showing in 2002, my first viewing of this film.) There might be a case for a “silent option” for films like this (as there is on Criterion’s DVD of The Passion of Joan of Arc, for example), though it’s much easier to concentrate on an entirely silent film in a cinema than it is on a TV set. In the event, the BFI have provided a score composed by, and mostly played by, Simon Fisher Turner. The score is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and begins very quietly, building up in intensity as the events onscreen unfold. Fisher Turner does make use of directional effects, such as the entry of the percussion via the rear speakers. The subwoofer doesn’t get a lot of use, lightly filling in the bass. How effective this score is, will be a matter of taste….though perhaps the use of something sounding very much like a shehnai (a harsh-toned Arabic reed instrument) to convey eroticism is none too original. If you don’t like Fisher Turner’s score, you have the choice of listening to the commentary or switching your sound system off. A text page credits the musicians: Gilad Atzmon playing the reeds, Asaf Sirkis the percussion and Fisher Turner everything else.
The commentary is by film writer Jane Giles and Kwietniowski (director of Love and Death on Long Island). Given only twenty-five minutes to fill, they cover all the necessary bases, from production to interpretation. Giles does repeat herself though, twice telling us that the smoke-blowing scene is one of the most erotic in cinema. Giles concludes with an anecdote from Kenneth Tynan’s diaries. At one of his parties, Tynan showed his own copy of Un chant d’amour to his guests, who included Harold Pinter and his wife, Princess Margaret and her husband…and Peter Cook, who launched into an improvised commentary, treating the film as if it was an advertisement for Cadbury’s Flake. Everyone present thought this was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. A pity no-one recorded it.
The extras conclude with biographies of Genet and Fisher Turner, and a weblink which takes you here.
Some will no doubt find a £15.99 RRP excessive for a film which lasts only 25 minutes and will no doubt be of minority appeal. On the other hand, the BFI should be congratulated for producing a well-thought out DVD of a landmark short film. For anyone interested in Genet’s work or in the history of gay cinema in particular, this film is essential viewing.
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