B&W, 1950, 26m. / Directed by Jean Genet / Starring André Reybaz, Lucien Senemaud / Cult Epics (US R1 NTSC), bfi (UK R2 PAL)

Though best known as a novelist, the notorious Jean Genet also made a brief foray into filmmaking with a silent short film, Un chant d'amour, originally produced for the Parisian stag film underground. Though it doesn't feature any sex per se, the film plays like an eroticized ode to the films of Jean Cocteau; from the quaint chalkboard credits to the surreal use of disembodied hands and torsos, the film clearly sprang from the same soil as Orpheus and Beauty and the Beast. However, Genet also includes elements that would also populate his written work: shared tobacco, flowers, prison walls, voyeurism, nature worship, flowers, and victimization, to name but a few. Genet later denounced the film when his career began to ascend, but it was eventually reclaimed by the art house community and hailed as a groundbreaking classic. Without this film, the films of Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman would have had a much tougher road to follow.

The "story" takes place at an unnamed stone prison where a guard sees two male arms swinging a floral branch out of a barred window. He enters the prison and looks into each cell, observing the inmates in a state of extreme sexual agitation. Two prisoners share a cigarette by blowing smoke back and forth through a straw, forced through a hole in the wall (an image more memorably lewd and poetic than any of the film's more notorious nudity). The prison guard finally enters one of the cells and indulges in a lengthy S&M fantasy climaxing with an image later replicated in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, before the day finally closes.

More often discussed than actually seen, Un chant d'amour (translation: A Song of Love) is a fairly tough sit for those not already disposed to avant garde filmmaking; even more challenging is the lack of a soundtrack. While some critics came up with elabroate symbolic explanations for the film's silence, the truth is it's a bit of a slog without any music. The worthwhile but wildly overpriced bfi disc (which flies in the face of Genet's wishes to never have the film commercially released) adds a score by regular Jarman composer Simon Fisher Turner, and the percussive music suits the film well; it's an appropriately stark and sparse composition similar to his work on Edward II. Image quality is extremely good; every awkward splice and scuff is still in place, but the level of detail is astonishing for a 35mm film usually seen in muddy 16mm copies or bootleg tapes. Extras include a commentary by writer Jane Giles and director Richard Kwietniowski (Love and Death on Long Island) which elaborates on the film's history, its place in Genet's highly unique artistic canon, and its influence on gay culture over the years. Also included are text bios of Genet and Turner.

More affordable and offering a completely different set of extras is the two-disc American set from Cult Epics, which presents a similar transfer but without a music score; get a CD handy to play while watching it. This time the audio commentary comes from none other than Kenneth Anger, who goes into great detail about the film's origins, Genet's intentions, and the state of experimental filmmaking at the time. Also included on the first disc is an introduction by Lithuanian avant garde director Jonas Mekas, who sits way, way too close to the camera as he talks for eight minutes about the film's origins and its importance in underground film culture.

Disc two features two documentaries, starting with Antoine Bourseiller's "Genet" (52 minutes), a very candid 1981 talk with the cigarette-puffing author outside a country home in which he talks about his prison experiences, his sexuality, his novels, and lots, lots more. The following year's "Jean Genet" (46 minutes) by Bertrand Poirot-Delpech is another interview (indoors this time) with a more theoretical and academic examination of his writing technique. Both are worth viewing; if you're really a completist, also be sure to track down the South Bank Show episode devoted to him as well, which is floating around among video traders. Overall, both discs are valuable additions to the Genet legacy and feature no overlap whatsoever, making each a unique and recommended purchase.

Color, 1975, 95m. / Directed by Christopher Miles / Starring Glenda Jackson, Susannah York / Kino (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

In the mid-1970s, producer Ely Landau concocted an experience called the American Film Theatre (AFT), in which important plays were turned into feature films with top-rung talent and exhibited in the style of theater, with tickets sold in advance for a limited number of shows. The conceit ran for two "seasons" and included some significant achievements, most notably John Frankenheimer's all-star, four-hour rendition of The Iceman Cometh and Ionesco's Rhinoceros, which reteamed The Producers' Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. One of the most fascinating films in the series is an intense adaptation of The Maids, a controversial work by notorious novelist/poet/thief Jean Genet (Querelle).

Over the opening credits, "Monsieur" (Juggernaut's Mark Burns) is roused from bed by the police and hauled off to prison, where he's indicted for an unspecified crime. Meanwhile in a lavish house, the sneering Solange (Glenda Jackson) serves as a maid for the haughty Claire (Susannah York), who prances around in her elegant gowns and makes degrading demands of her servant. Soon Solange has had enough and finally wraps her hands around her mistress' throat, until a clock alarm suddenly goes off. As it turns out, both women are really the maids for cheerfully oblivious "Madame" (Frenzy's Vivien Merchant), and Solange and Claire pass the time by indulging in sadomasochistic dramas of dominance and servitude climaxing in the ritualistic murder of the tyrannical lady of the house. As it turns out, Monsieur may have witnessed the maids' play-acting, which in turn led to his false imprisonment; even worse, the maids' dementia might be heading on a direct course to murder...

Written in 1945 and first staged in 1947, The Maids was based on the 1933 case of the Papin sisters, maids who brutally killed their mother and daughter employers. The story became the French equivalent to the Leopold and Loeb saga, inspiring a number of novels and films including Sister My Sister (1994), Murderous Maids (2001), and less directly, the Ruth Rendell novel A Judgment in Stone which was filmed as The Housekeeper (1986) and, most memorably, Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie (1995). The Maids is less a straightforward historical depiction than a forum for Genet's typically outrageous writing style, with characters spouting venomous, purple-prosed insults at each other throughout the running time. (No wonder it was a favorite of horror cult favorite Andy Milligan, who staged it throughout his theatrical career.) Jackson is perfectly cast as Solange, her cat-like eyes constantly betraying the insidious thoughts brewing in her head, while Susannah York essentially expands her treacherous, sex-object lesbian role from The Killing of Sister George with a few new wrinkles. After the opening sequence, the film stays largely confined to the house where the three leads embark upon extended psychological warfare; while the layers of play-acting don't have quite the same impact on film as they do on the stage, director Christopher Miles (The Virgin and the Gypsy) keeps the proceedings intriguing and ambiguous thanks some dazzling, colorful production design worthy of Fassbinder and fluid cinematography by seasoned pro Douglas Slocombe (The Fearless Vampire Killers). Laurie Johnson (The Avengers, Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter) also contributes an appropriately sparse, nerve-jangling score.

Unseen for decades, The Maids looks sparkling and fresh on Kino's DVD edition, one of their best editions to date. The anamorphic presentation looks crystal clear and colorful, with only some extremely minor print damage visible. Extras are mostly centered around the AFT, with Landau contributing both a new interview and an archival promotional reel about the series, along with an AFT scrapbook, stills gallery, and "Cinebill." Also included are the film's original theatrical trailer, a bonus trailer for Murderous Maids, and an insert containing an essay, "Jean Genet and The Maids," by The Village Voice's Michael Feingold.

Mondo Digital Reviews Mondo Digital Links Frequently Asked Questions