Jean Genet, Un chant d'amour (FR 1950)

Let me watch you dancing to the end of love

If one is eager on learning about queer cinema, one will stumble upon the only film by French writer and poet Jean Genet rather sooner than later. The short film portrays a sexual (non-)relationship between two male inmates in a French prison, who are separated by a robust cement wall. Through cracks and self-made holes, they are able to gaze upon each other and even exchange saliva and cigarette smoke. The men obtain pleasure from the exchange of glances which lead to recurring autosexual experiences. But, in reference to the all-encompassing architecture of Bentham’s panopticon, the illusion of intimacy in the disciplinary complex is shattered through a third figure: the guard, who is watching the acts of forbidden pleasure from his privileged vantage point. This is the main aspect the screening is eager to highlight: The act of voyeurism and its problematic positioning into a discourse around the fetish

It’s easily visible that Genet plays with voyeurism on two levels which correlate with each other. Once on the level of narration, where the antagonistic figure of the guard derives not only envy and abhorrence, but most of all desire from looking at the performed sexual act. This portrayal corresponds with a second level, where the viewers are called directly into question: Why do we take pleasure in watching (other people perform sexual acts)? Why are we transgressing beyond our moral framework and watching somebody without their consent and enjoying it? As Lacan was eager on portraying in his 4th seminar, the „object" of voyeurism transcends the mere materiality of an object - the gaze itself is now inhabiting the space of the fetish, not the event that is being looked at. Through the imaginary, the voyeur is able to connote the act of looking at something one should not look at with pleasure and “phantasize any magic of presence“ (Seminar IV, p. 182) in their prohibited gazing. But this phantasy can never fully satisfy the voyeur. There lies an inherent lack of fulfillment in the conception of the fetish in general, which might be even more apparent in voyeurism. As Lacan puts it fittingly for the fetish at stake here:

“Up to that point, what is the subject trying to see? What he is trying to see, make no mistake, is the object as absence. What the voyeur is looking for and finds is merely a shadow, a shadow behind the curtain.“ (Seminar IV, p. 182)

If one recognizes Lacan’s explanation for voyeurism in relation to Un chant d’amour, the viewer is confronted with an enigmatic assemblage of questions: Aren’t we intervening in the same way the antagonistic figure of the guard does, but even worse? When one of the inmates is hit on the head, he imagines himself with the other one in a paradise - any place without the guard. But nonetheless, the viewer is still lingering on the screen, the camera still following the men, even to a place which lies beyond reality. The inmates can never get rid of us - the scopophilic, voyeuristic and perverted viewer. But would we have it any other way? Not transgressing the moral framework which is necessary to take pleasure in watching? Maybe Preciado asked the wrong question: It’s of no importance if the monster can speak, rather the fact that the monster is always looking: Whether it’s the Priestess of Priapus in the Satyricon, the two voyeurs of Susanna in the Old Testament, Peeping Tom in the myth surrounding Lady Godiva or the guard in Un chant d’amour, all are stepping outside the moral framework of their society to find enjoyment in the forbidden look. Even though history and their respective myths are condemning the prohibited gaze, the viewer aligns gladly with those figures, to taste a fraction of a pleasure which lies in overstepping the border of “good” and “bad”.

Text: Philipp Josef Haidegger