'I had already wondered what would become of the meeting of a handsome young guard and a handsome young criminal," wrote Jean Genet in his 1943 debut prison novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, penned while he was himself serving a life sentence as a persistent petty criminal, one that would only end when he received a State Pardon arranged by Jean Cocteau's lawyer. "I took delight in the following two images: a bloody and moral shock, or a sparkling embrace in a riot of spunk and panting..." Well, you would Jean.
But then so would the rest of us, judging by contemporary popular culture's obsession with bloody moral shock, sticky panting and general low-life passions, whether it's an episode of the TV prison drama Oz, movies directed by Guy Ritchie, or surfing for voyeuristic thrills on the net.
Genet's famous 1950 short Un Chant d'amour, released by the BFI for the first time on DVD tomorrow and oddly the only film made by this most cinematic of literary talents, seems to be a visual exploration of Our Lady's daydream. Set in a French prison, this silent, black and white 25 minute "porno" movie intended for sale only to rich homosexual private collectors, Un Chant d'amour now looks like one of the most influential modern films ever made. Or at least, one of the most visionary.
It's well known that Chant d'amour influenced underground film and Queer Cinema directors such as Derek Jarman and Todd Haynes. However, the impact of Chant - and of the Genet sensibility it's soaked in - goes much further and deeper, and is rather more, shall we say, perverse. In a twist that would no doubt have revolted him, Genet's marginal sensibility, his outsider love for hoodlums, drag queens and low-life - and most of all, his passion for sweet-and-tender murderous hooligans - has become, albeit in an emasculated fashion, the condition of the mainstream.
What happens in Chant? Very little. Boredom and frustration reigns - and so does the desperate, itchy-but-lyrical eroticism that comes with seclusion, for both the imprisoned and the imprisoner. A listless prison guard happens to notice a bouquet of flowers being swung from a cell window, the neighbouring prisoner's hand, extended between the bars, repeatedly trying and failing to catch it. He investigates, peering through spy-holes and witnesses one male prisoner after another masturbating in different fashions, some dancing frantically, some languorous on their bunks, some standing, some washing - aroused, either by the scenes or the sadistic thrill of his position, the warden grabs and rubs his own packet. Nearly half a century before everyone had a peephole in their bedrooms called the internet, Genet had envisioned a webcam, Big Brother world of alone-ness and voyeurism, mass separation and observation, tedium and fascination.
We see an older prisoner knocking on the wall, which is tattooed with graffiti and a huge phallus, trying to attract the attention of his younger neighbour who is seen jazz-dancing with himself in a dirty vest with a face as tender as it is tough - anticipating by a few years Marlon Brando's Stanley, and by several decades the face that Colin Farrell wishes he had. The lad, as lads must, seems uninterested and continues jazz-waltzing with himself, caressing the tattoo on his shoulder. The older man, understandably, works himself into a frenzy, hugging and licking the wall, pressing his genitals against it. Finally he lights a cigarette, inserts a straw through a tiny hole, and blows smoke through it into the next cell. The boy studiously ignores this flirtation. The older prisoner withdraws, stubs out the cigarette. And begins the whole process again.
This time, as the straw probes, the lad responds, kneels at the wall close-eyed and open mouthed and receives the billowing white smoke, in what Jane Giles, author of Criminal Desires: Jean Genet and Cinema and of the commentary on the new DVD has described as "one of the most erotic scenes in cinema". But it is the tattooed, impassive wall itself and its tight, unyielding hole that is the star. Genet knows that romance - and even desire itself - is only really possible when it's impossible (and is perhaps why the visual longing of Chant seems to anticipate so much advertising that puts the commodity - the jeans, the DVD player etc - in place of the wall). The only "sex" we see in Chant is very brief, shadowy glimpses of masturbation - and the erotic reveries of the prisoners and the guard, in the form of oddly chaste tableaux of longed-for but never realised clinches.
Although ostensibly made to excite 1950s homosexuals, Chant has nothing in common with contemporary gay porn which is all about brightly lit consummation; operations without anaesthetic which, oddly, ends up showing nothing at all. Chant's longing is arguably more "obscene". Even as recently as 1989 the film was banned by Hull City Council for being, in their own confused yet perhaps not so confused words, both "boring" and "shocking".
None of the participants in this "gay film" were actors. Nor were any of them homosexual. Lucien Senemaud who played the young convict, was a lover of Genet, but he was also married (his wife didn't seem to mind the relationship, especially after Genet bought them a house). The older prisoner was played by a Tunisian Montmarte baker and pimp with a family of eight children. In fact, the only true actor in Chant is his erect penis briefly glimpsed striking the wall, reportedly a stunt double belonging to a professional performer.
Authenticity was paramount for Genet, who, unlike most contemporary low-life merchants, was himself the real deal: an orphan raised by the French State who spent most of the first 40 years of his life in homes, borstals and prisons. Guy Ritchie, on the other hand, the "geezer" director who made a great play of the fact that many of the men in his lovingly-shot hoodlum movies were not actors but "real tough guys", spent most of his youth in public schools and baronial homes. Nonetheless, a spayed version of Genet's worship of beautiful bastards has become the ruling passion of contemporary pop culture.
The general life-sentence of solitary confinement depicted in Chant is not something that Genet felt great sorrow over. In his last TV interview in 1985, a year before he died, he was asked, "Do you always feel apart - alone?" "Yes," he replied, matter of fact. I'm apart now. You're over there, I'm over here."
"Does this not distress you?"
"Not at all. What would be distressing would be if there were no distance between me and you!"
In Chant, it's only as the guard is walking away from the prison that the flowers swung between the windows are finally caught. But the guard, with his back to the prison, doesn't see it.
'Un Chant d'amour' is released on DVD (BFI £15.99) tomorrowReuse content