Did the Dos Equis guy ever work with the Black Panthers? Did he ever write a book about homosexuality while in prison? How about inspire a David Bowie song?
No? Well, move over Jonathan Goldsmith, because Jean Genet is grabbing your title.
Born in 1910 to a French prostitute, Genet was an excellent student who soon became bored with school and turned to petty theft, cavorting with criminal elements, and sex work. These acts landed him in the Mettray Penal Colony, a “reformatory” for delinquent young men. “It seems to me that the judges didn’t think of this,” Genet says in the 1981 film Jean Genet: An Interview with Antoine Bourseiller, “kids who go to jail once always go back to jail, because why not? Kids who have never been to jail are scared of it; kids who go back to jail don’t think it’s a big deal.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Genet found himself imprisoned. In the 1930s, he was repeatedly arrested and jailed for crimes ranging from theft to homosexual acts. It was in prison that he wrote his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. When the guards discovered that Genet had been using the rough brown paper provided to prisoners for this purpose, they confiscated and destroyed the manuscript.
What would you do in that situation? Sink into despair? Rage at the inhumanity of your treatment? Not Genet, who rewrote the entire book, took it with him after leaving prison, and published it in 1943—after which it became a powerful influence on French thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, the American beat poets, and, eventually, even David Bowie.
Our Lady of the Flowers is a wild read. The narrative centers on Divine, and the coterie of lovers and criminal partners she accumulates. It’s a deeply uncomfortable read for many—the character regularly commit vicious crimes and acts of betrayal. But underlying all of this is a kind of tenderness, love, and intimacy. Genet’s portrait of criminalized queer life on the margins of society is a foundational one, and a critical read for anyone interested in the history of gay literature.
Genet wasn’t just an author, either. He was involved with the Black Panthers and Palestinian liberation movements, eventually documenting those experiences in his final book, Prisoner of Love. He also relates some of these experiences in his interview with Antoine Bourseiller, a somewhat unusual film that quite literally centers Genet—most of the film is tight footage of his face and upper body as he reclines in various settings, smoking cigarettes and discussing subjects from God to romance to prison.
Interspersed with readings of his work, it’s hard to call the film a documentary. It’s not even a conversation or an interview, really, as Genet’s interlocutor barely speaks. And at times one wishes there was more structure, or that the interviewer would pursue specific subjects at greater length. But the open format gives Genet space to ruminate in beautiful language. He lingers on what he calls “dark places”: prisons, bathhouses, and cinemas. And then he expounds on his belief in a “smiling god” who guides him and helps him with chess games: “He doesn’t dance, but he’s having fun. He’s having fun with me.”
Best watched alone in the evening with a glass of wine, this interview is a treat for those already familiar with Genet’s work and an invitation to explore it for anyone who has yet to encounter him. In a political atmosphere increasingly hostile to queer people, Genet’s life and work provides artful and haunting illustrations of queer survival, resilience, and love.