Jean Genet (19 December 1910 – 15 April 1986) is the nonconformist-criminal artist, dubbed ‘the Black Prince of Letters’ by his original mentor, Jean Cocteau, after he turned his turbulent life into words on paper, creating timeless plays, novels and poems, and in doing so, becoming one of the most revolutionary artists of the 20th century.
An illegitimate child, he was orphaned and up for adoption at 7 months old by his mother. His next home, shadowed by his foster mother’s death, lead to him going to his second adoption home. It was during this two-year period that his infamous vice for petty-crime became more evident. On one occasion he squandered a considerable sum of money (which his foster parents had entrusted him for delivery elsewhere) on a visit to a local fair. This and various other misdemeanours lead to the next chapter of his life. At 15 Genet was detained in the notorious reform school - the Mettray Penal Colony. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention which ended when he joined the Foreign Legion. He was eventually given a dishonourable discharge as he was caught engaging in a homosexual act.
The choices of a vagabond-petty-thief-prostitute across Europe are what he recounts in one of his most renowned books, The Thief’s Journal (1949).
It was in jail the petty-criminal turned into the erotic and confrontational writer. Behind the iron bars, he wrote his first poem ‘Under the Sentence of Death’, which is where he acquired the attention of his first artistic mentor - Jean Cocteau. It was because of this powerful mentor that he was able to publish his first novel. Orphaned, homosexual and a petty criminal; the road in which he traveled sculpted his work. It was dark and polarizing, yet it beautifully represented his rebellious view of society, in poetic form. Everyone’s curiosity over his controversies made his novels Querelle of Brest (1947), The Thief’s Journal (1949) Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), and the plays The Maids (1947), The Balcony (1957), The Blacks (1959) and The Screens (1961) the finest productions of his art. His creativity overflowed and by 1949 Genet had completed five novels, three plays, and numerous poems. He was not afraid to be vulgar and deliberately provocative when it came to the portrayal of homosexuality and criminality.
When threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Jean’s work became so expressive and his talent so evident. His mentor came to his aid once again, as well as other prominent figures including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, who successfully petitioned the French President to pardon the sentence.
However, during Jean Genet’s distinctively creative life he created only one solitary film. Un Chant d’amour – the 26 minute running black and white movie – was licentious and controversial in its time (and still is now) and portrays extreme sexual tension. The film about two convicts’ relationship from separate cells, and a voyeuristic warden watching over them, could be a less seen window into the private emotions and fantasies of the genius of Jean Genet. Sadly, on April 15th, 1986 his colourful life came to an end, as Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead in his hotel room in Paris, which had been his home for several years. Un Chant d’Amour is one of his less explored masterpieces, so enjoy the full film above.