Genet and romance

Homo love al fresco: Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour.

“Although I am striving for a lean style, one that shows the bone, I should like to address to you from my prison a book laden with flowers, with snow-white petticoats and blue ribbons.”

“Miracles are unclean.”
-- Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers

Earlier this week I wrote a blurb about Jean Genet’s gay experimental short, Un Chant d’Amour (1950), which has the reputation—well-deserved—for being a homoerotic masterpiece.  (Its beautifully rendered chiaroscuro images of male bodies locked in sexual embrace have their roots in such other gay avant-garde classics as Lot in Sodom and Fireworks, and may have inspired the sex scene in Gus van Sant’s Mala Noche.)  But upon re-watching the film I was struck by how curiously romantic the thing is, though perhaps that should not be so surprising when one considers that for Genet the romantic and the erotic, the sacred and the profane, were always rubbing up against each other.  Reading his novels one finds over and over again the raunchiest of bodily functions and sex acts elevated to the level of religiosity.  For Genet, love truly had “pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.”   

Male eros and the space of fantasy.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Un Chant d’Amour, for all its explicit images of sweaty convicts furiously masturbating in their prison cells (has any other film captured the experience of male horniness so acutely?), begins and ends with a shot of a prisoner trying to give the guy in the next cell a bouquet of flowers, or that a substantial portion of the film is taken up with a fantasy sequence in which two of the men romp and cuddle with each other in a wooded glade.  (A particularly striking image: white petals tangled up in glistening black chest hair.)  The most radical thing about this film may be its capturing of Genet’s homo-romanticism—his desire to imagine scenes of queer tenderness and affection, and his merging of these with scenes of pornographic lust.  Sex and romance undergo a sublime fusion in Genet’s work, in which the filthy is transfigured into something sweet without losing any of its filthiness.  This is a love song as only Genet could sing it.

The essence of Genet: chest hair, sweat, and flower petals.


French cinema: A short history

I. Jean Epstein’s La Glace a Trois Faces (1927) is the cinematic equivalent of a piece of modernist fiction by Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf: jagged, angular, elliptical.  Epstein, whose most famous film remains his evocative adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), was one of the key figures of the French avant-garde; slightly less well known than Usher but just as striking in its design, the forty-minute La Glace premiered at Paris’ Studio des Ursulines, a salon for Surrealist cinema.  Based on a story by Paul Morand, it’s comprised of three movements, each one a flashback, in which a vain young lothario reflects on three lovers he has used and discarded as he hurtles toward his death (a suicide?) while driving down a country lane.  Epstein’s experimental use of editing and scrambled chronology produces a dizzying series of narrative refractions—hence the film’s title, which translates to The Three-Sided Mirror

The ladykiller: René Ferté with Jeanne Helbling.

II. Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950) is an experiment of an entirely different sort, a twenty-five minute wet dream of a movie and probably one of the most erotic films ever made.  Its sexual intensity has as much to do with the context of its making (as a film that flagrantly depicts male nudity and gay sex, it had to be smuggled into the U.S.) as with its setting, a male prison in which the inmates seethe and writhe in solitude, their only form of exchange being the cigarette smoke blown back and forth through a tiny hole in the wall that separates their cells.  In the film’s more lyrical passages, the men escape into romantic dreams of horseplay in the woods.  Meanwhile, their actions are policed by a voyeuristic prison guard with frustrated sexual needs of his own (after spying on various inmates as they masturbate, he commands one of them to suck his...gun).  The entire atmosphere of this film is suffused thick with desire, especially as the men lie panting on their prison cots, their hands moving restlessly over their own bodies.  Genet would exploit such scenarios of incarceration and rough trade throughout his literary career, though Un Chant d’Amour marks his only known attempt at filmmaking (Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes would go on to try their hands at adapting his work in Querelle and Poison, respectively).      

Male eros: Un Chant d'Amour.

III. Re-watching Chris Marker’s classic La Jetée (1963), the influence of which can be found in everything from 12 Monkeys to the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror, it occurred to me that perhaps David Fincher was also trying to channel its air of doomed romanticism in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, his own tale of lovers thwarted by the dictates of space and time.  But La Jetee says more about the ephemerality of experience and the mysteries of death in twenty-nine minutes than Benjamin Button was able to say in five times that length.  Ostensibly a philosophical sci-fi movie (it’s set in a post-nuclear future in which, having been driven underground, a group of survivors conduct experiments in time travel), it’s as a love story that La Jetée feels most resonant.  Our Hero and the object of his obsession—elusive, beguiling, a mysterious vision out of time, or maybe out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—enjoy a few brief moments of happiness together before the sway of time brings down its hammer upon them.  (So it goes.)  As conceived by Chris Marker, the pulp-fiction/Twilight Zone premise of La Jetée really only exists as a means for him to explore his pet themes—memory, history, subjectivity, and, of course, cats—as movingly as he ever would again in his career.      

Love and death: an image from La Jetée.  The film, which is actually billed as a "photo-roman", is composed almost entirely of still images.


Ménage à trois

Woman, man, boy.

Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, released in Europe in 1962 (it won Polanski the FIPRESCI Prize at Venice in September of that year), proved that Polish cinema could be jazzy and sexy: a psychological thriller set almost entirely within the confines of a sailboat, it’s as cool and stylish as something by Antonioni and as quietly suspenseful as something by Hitchcock.  Watching it, you keep assuming that someone is going to end up dead—why else would that titular knife be given such prominence?  Chekhov’s rule of drama states that if a gun is introduced in the first act of a play it must go off in the last.  But Polanski’s knife turns out to be something of a red herring.  It’s typical of his sensibility as a filmmaker that already in this, his first feature, he toys with the expectations of his audience in order to subvert them.  The damage done to the film’s central couple is more sinuous and ironic than if it were triggered by a more overt act of violence, and more reflective of Polanski’s aims as a master of the subtle art of black comedy.

The triangle of Knife in the Water can be traced throughout such later Polanski films as Cul-de-Sac and Bitter Moon (and even Macbeth), which similarly hinge on cunning wives, masochistic husbands, intricate games of dominance and submission.  The power dynamic between Krystyna and Andrzej, and between Andrzej and the lean, blonde drifter they take on board with them, changes as quickly as the direction of the wind, represented visually by the constant swing of the sailboat’s boom.  Does Andrzej control Krystyna, or vice versa?  It would seem that the men fight to stake their claim on her, just as they keep one-upping each other in an attempt to take control of the boat (which is named Christine, of course).  But it’s worth noting that at the end of the film it’s Krystyna herself who takes the helm of the boat—just as she is at the wheel of the car when the film begins, before Andrzej wrests it away from her.  And if she is the one “driving” the actions of the two men, it’s also possible to see Andrzej as desirous, however unconsciously, of being bested by his young rival.  (Such an interpretation would help explain Andrzej’s motives for first picking him up on the road, then inviting him aboard.)  

Krystyna at the wheel.

The end of the film finds Andrzej back in the driver’s seat, but at an impasse as to what to do.  He is faced with two possible narrative explanations for the events of the last several hours: either he is responsible for accidentally causing the boy’s death or he has been cuckolded by him.  It’s a double bind worthy of Polanski’s countryman Krzysztof Kieslowski.  But Polanski doesn’t make an ethical dilemma out of it the way that Kieslowski would have done; instead he plays it as irony, looking at his characters with the same mischievous smirk that he has been wearing ever since.  

The final shot: at an impasse.


The Films of 2017: The Beguiled

Probably the best thing about Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled is the way she shoots Colin Farrell, who plays a Union soldier forced to convalesce at an isolated girls’ seminary hidden away in the woods of Virginia, as he lies against a pillow.  Her camera is as thirsty for him as are the inhabitants of the school, who, after agreeing to take him in while he recovers from a wounded leg, begin to vie with each other for his affection.  (He entertains simmering flirtations with the no-nonsense headmistress [Nicole Kidman], a lonely teacher [Kirsten Dunst], and a coquettish student [Elle Fanning], before all hell breaks loose.)  The power dynamic between Farrell and the women shifts at different points over the course of the film, the title of which is deliberately coy.  Is he a prisoner of the women or is he their manipulator?  Who, exactly, is beguiled by whom? 


Her father's daughter: On Patricia Hitchcock in "Strangers on a Train" (1951)

Patricia Hitchcock as Barbara.

Alfred Hitchcock’s casting of his daughter Patricia in three of his films is as clever and strange a stroke of perversity as any other in his career.  “Pat” appears briefly but memorably in Psycho (1960) as Janet Leigh’s obnoxious co-worker Caroline; in Strangers on a Train (1951) she has a sizable role as Ruth Roman’s wonky kid sister Barbara.  (It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen Stage Fright that I can no longer remember what part she plays in that film other than to recall that it amounts to little more than a walk-on.) 

Before she was to become the steward of her late father’s work she was used as yet another one of his many on-screen jokes, another version of his own cameo appearances.  In Strangers on a Train—a film filled with doubles—she figures as a double for its two most “negative” characters, Bruno and Miriam, as well as for Hitchcock himself.  Like the flamboyant, villainous Bruno (Robert Walker), she takes in interest in crime that’s almost gleeful.  While everyone else is busy wringing their hands over Miriam’s murder, for example, she’s practically panting with excitement.  Her casual attitude toward murder raises almost as many eyebrows as Bruno’s does; when she dismisses the late Miriam as a “tramp,” her senator father admonishes her with the reminder that Miriam was “a human being.”  But then Barbara is, if not exactly a tramp, a bit boy-crazy herself. She nurses a crush on the detective who’s trailing Guy, makes eyes at him in the same way that Miriam (whom she resembles) makes eyes at Bruno at the fairground right before he murders her, and even sizes up Bruno the same way the first time she meets him.  Flickers of the whore and the killer are there in this otherwise mild-mannered, bespectacled dweebette (she’s like a grown-up version of the kid sister from Shadow of a Doubt, another one of Hitchcock’s know-it-all bookworms). 

"Who's the interesting-looking Frenchman?": Barbara sizes up Bruno (top) and flirts with Detective Hennessey (bottom).

But then, Hitchcock’s films ask, aren’t the seeds of the whore and the killer there in all of us?  As audience members, we share Barbara’s interest in sex and violence; we come to Hitchcock’s films to look at beautiful people and to thrill to their imperilment.  As a rabid consumer of detective stories, someone who can appreciate a good thrill and who sees her own reality through the lens of narrative, Barbara is both Hitchcock’s ideal viewer and a figure for himself.  In that sense, this seemingly unflattering character is perhaps the one Hitchcock himself approves of and identifies with most.  While Barbara’s on-screen father is busy wagging his finger at her morbid sense of humor, you can almost feel Pat Hitchcock’s real-life father beaming from just off-screen, saying “That’s my girl!”       

Leo G. Carroll, Ruth Roman, and Patricia Hitchcock (reading a mystery novel).


Lost in the Zone

This week here in Cambridge the Brattle Theatre has been showing a new restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which I had the good fortune to see Wednesday night.  Stalker is to my mind one of the great feats of cinema, one of the purest examples of how a film can create an entire world from the ground up—in this case a vaguely dystopian/post-nuclear police state made up of grimy, leaking bedsits and decrepit pubs, beyond the border of which lies the Zone, a lush and verdant green space where the properties of time and space have a tendency to bend.  The fields of the Zone are littered with industrial waste and rotting machines, and a series of underground tunnels leads to a Room that is a kind of wishing well in which one’s deepest desire may be granted.  It is to this secret place that the film’s titular character guides two intellectual seekers, a writer and a scientist, apparently in the hopes that one of them will be inspired to use the power of the Room to some great end.  But the mission proves abortive, and the men succumb to self-doubt and despair.  The best, it seems, lack all conviction, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity.  (For a film that is strewn with poetry—another one of its many forms of detritus—it’s perhaps surprising that these lines from Yeats aren’t ever quoted.)    

It’s a grand, ballsy conceit for a story, credit for which must go to Arkady and Boris Stugatsky, the authors of the 1971 novel on which the film is based.  But it is Tarkovsky who must be credited with creating the many extraordinary spaces in which it unfolds: its dripping sewers, moldy buildings, mist-shrouded fields.  The tunnels underneath the Zone are overgrown with moss and cobwebs and littered with human bones.  Under the water of the marshes outside we glimpse rusted machine guns, metal hardware, fragments of religious icons and torn pieces of old books.  For Tarkovsky there is always an eerie beauty within such images of decay, because even in this industrial wasteland (shot on the grounds of abandoned hydropower plant) life finds a way.  Stalker is a film that teems with animals and plants, from the reeds that sway under the surface of the water to the black dog that prowls the marsh, oblivious to the remnants of a lost civilization that are everywhere around them.  The film itself behaves like a living organism, which is perhaps what Geoff Dyer means when he writes that it often seems to be “breathing.” 

Jonathan Romney rightly notes that Tarkovsky “privileges the labyrinth of imaginative space over the straight line of narrative,” which is to say that Stalker is not so much about what happens in the Zone as it is about the mesmerizing experience of being there.  Tarkovsky’s expert command of every aspect of this film’s production (its superbly realized art direction, its haunting and evocative locations, its elegant camerawork, its dense physicality, its use of water and objects and animals) transports us to the Zone along with the characters, so that we find ourselves just as enmeshed within its bounds, and just as baffled by its mysterious logic, as they are.  Stalker is as good an example as any of a film that shows off the unique properties of cinema as a medium: its cutting together a combination of spaces and materials in order to create something akin to an alternate reality that we inhabit for two and a half hours as if via time travel.