Jean Genet in conversation with Antoine Bourseiller, summer 1981.
“I don’t why I shouldn’t talk about myself. I’m the person who knows the most about myself. Right?”
And so we are led to believe, as novelist and playwright Jean Genet begins this revealing interview, before going on to describe his attraction to darkness, “even to the point of going to jail.” He may have stolen to eat, but something intuitively drew the young Genet towards the darkness of prison.
Over the course of the interview, Genet explains how this attraction shaped him, and his imprisonment at the Mettray Penal Colony at the age of fifteen, was instrumental in making him a writer.
This is gold for those with an interest in Jean Genet, his life and writing.
Recorded in French, with English subtitles available under the “CC” Closed Caption icon.
Jean Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers while in prison in 1942. It was published anonymously the following year, and sold around 30 copies. It wasn’t until after the Allied Forces liberated France in 1944 that the bulk of the copies were bound and sold.
Due to its sexual content Our Lady of the Flowers was sold as high class erotica, but Genet never intended it as such. It would take until the book had been revised and reprinted by Gallimard in 1951 that Our Lady of the Flowers received the critical accolades it richly deserved - even if Jean-Paul Sartre described it as “the epic of masturbation.”
‘I’d just rented a little cottage, a country retreat, in Hungerford in Berkshire, and my next door neighbor - it was one Sunday morning and we were listening to Round the Horne, we all did on those Sunday mornings - and my neighbor across the fence leaned over and said.
“Oh hi, I think this book might interest you.”
And it was Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. And I began to read it, and as soon as I began to read it I could already see it on the stage, and I could see myself as Divine, the central character. And two weeks later, we opened it.
Only someone of Kemp’s incredible talents and vision could have produced Flowers, and the production put Kemp and his dance company literally “on the map.” Since then, Kemp and Co. have performed Flowers all across the world to incredible acclaim.
In 1982, a video was made of the Lindsay Kemp Dance Company performing Flowers at the Teatro Parioli, Roma. It is rarely been seen since, and the video is a incredible treat for anyone interested in dance, performance and theater.
In 1950, the great French criminal, poet, novelist, playwright and homosexual Marxist revolutionary, Jean Genet—one of the towering literary talents of the 20th century—directed his only film, Un chant d’amour (“A Song of Love”), a silent, 26-minute black-and-white short depicting the sexual fantasies of two male prisoners, one young, one older, and a self-loathing prison warden who gets off watching them. In the role of the younger prisoner, Genet cast his then lover, 18-year-old Lucien Sénémaud, who would later leave him for a woman.
Un chant d’amour is one of the earliest classics of LGBT cinema and the film caused scandal and censorship crackdowns for several years when attempts were made at public screenings.
With the film’s unapologetic, indeed rapturous, homoeroticism, the announced premiere at the legendary Cinémathèque Française had to be scrapped. So Genet, ever the hustler, sold “the only print” to, well, several wealthy gay collectors around the world, who had earlier purchased sumptuous private editions of his books. The few attempted public screenings turned the film into a key work in the fight against censorship.
With Genet’s works banned in the US, Jonas Mekas had to snip the film into several pieces and hide it inside his clothes. As he recounts in his fascinating introduction to this DVD, he was lucky to be seated on a London-to-New York flight next to Harold Pinter, then the superstar of British drama, whose masterpiece The Homecoming (1964) was soon to open on Broadway. Pinter helped distract the starry-eyed customs agent, Mekas slipped by with Genet’s film.
When Mekas screened the picture at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative (which he’d co-founded, as he later would Anthology Film Archives and Film Culture magazine), police burst in, beat Mekas, threw him in jail, and sneered that he should be shot for “dirtying America.” The case was later dropped, since Genet was himself something of a celebrity, with two plays running in New York; but Mekas received a suspended six-month sentence for screening another landmark GLBT film, Jack Smith’s gender-bending Flaming Creatures. Déjà vu: more police raids a few months later in San Francisco when Genet’s film was shown to private groups.
The American Civil Liberties Union brought suit, enlisting the expert testimony of the brilliant critic Susan Sontag, but to no avail. The California District Court of Appeals banned the film, and the decision was upheld by the US Supreme Court.
Unwittingly, Genet had helped narrow the US’s legal definition of obscenity, which had earlier been expanded to include explicit works with “literary or scientific or artistic value.” In the UK, despite a scattering of underground screenings over the years, the film was not even presented to the British Board of Film Classification (i.e., censorship) until 1992. Happily, times have changed – even if it’s taken several decades – and we can now appreciate Genet’s film on its own terms… even if, ultimately, Genet himself could not.
Today, perhaps the most shocking aspect of Un chant d’amour is Genet’s denial of it, beginning around 1975 when he huffily refused a 90,000 franc award from the Minister of Culture, of office which he equated (not unjustly) with censorship: and by the way, hadn’t he made the film a quarter of a century earlier. Edmund White offers some intriguing speculations about Genet’s denunciation: “perhaps because as his sole film it seems a slender accomplishment given his overwhelming lifelong ambitions towards cinema, perhaps it reminded him of a sterile, unhappy period in his life and of his now-dead love for Lucien, or perhaps because it was one more instance of his trafficking between art and pornography in an ambiguous territory he never felt happy about… [And] the extra-artistic reactions to his work – legal, moral, titillated – irritated him. He told Papatakis he didn’t like the film because it was too bucolic and not sufficiently violent. It is also Genet’s last attempt to portray homosexual desire.”
If you look at late 60s issues of The Village Voice, there were often small ads advertising screenings of Un chant d’amour along with films like Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks or Scorpio Rising (or Andy Milligan’s Vapors, which mostly takes place in a gay bathhouse) at cinemas with names like “The Tomkat Theater” or “The Adonis Lounge.” These film titles were pretty much code words indicating gay cruising scenes, but in a manner likely to fly right over the heads of the NYPD’s vice squad.
Interesting to note that today, Un chant d’amour, this once ultra-controversial film—along with Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, mentioned above—is just another YouTube clip.
Peter Falk’s death today will bring back memories to Boomers and Gen X-ers of his title role as the good-natured and shambling L.A. detective in the ‘70s TV show Columbo. But by the time he donned that character’s famous trenchcoat, he had about 15 years of acting under his belt, most famously in gangster roles in films like Murder Inc. and Frank Capra’s last, Pocketful of Miracles. (Of course, he augmented the Columbo years with amazing performances like his role as Nick in John Cassavettes’s masterful A Woman Under The Influence.)
He also appeared as the Chief of Police in Joseph Strick’s 1963 adaptation of Jean Genet’s surreal play The Balcony. The film stayed faithful generally to Genet’s meditation on revolution, counter-revolution, and nationalism, which is set in a brothel/movie set/fantasy factory designed for its authoritarian allegorical characters while unrest boils over in the fictional country outside.
Here’s Falk’s big segment after his character breaks up the party. May he rest in peace.