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.

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