Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982
Starring: Brad Davis, Franco Nero, Jeanne Moreau, Laurent Malet
Querelle, a Belgian sailor, lands in the port of Brest. He runs into his brother, Robert, with whom he has a love-hate relationship, who is holed up in Feria, a local brothel and bar. There, Querelle gets involved in opium dealing and murder, and has an affair with Feria’s owner, Nono, as well as Nono’s wife, and the local police chief. He also falls in love with Gil, a man who has murdered a coworker, but ultimately betrays Gil by turning him in and pinning his own murder on Gil. Querelle is also the target of a naval commander who is obsessed with him and seems to be stalking him.
Based on Jean Genet’s novel, Querelle de Brest, Fassbinder’s final film, released months after his death, is certainly a troubled one. His second English-language film and second film with an international cast, Querelle is an excellent adaptation of its source material, which is the cause of its triumphs and flaws. This incredibly personal film – one of cinema’s first widely seen examinations of gay relationships – is a departure from the blend of accessibility and art house in Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy. The striking visual world of Querelle is vibrant, yet aggressively artificial, an evolution of his work on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Martha, Chinese Roulette, and Nora Helmer.
Like Effi Briest, Bolwieser, and Pioneers in Ingolstadt, among others, Querelle is set in an imaginary time and place. However, unlike these earlier films, it does not seem to have a relationship to actual history, but exists in a dream world of the liminal impulses between sex and violence, liberation and destruction. The themes of salvation and martyrdom present in many of his earlier films appear here, as Querelle seems to be on a quest for sexual or emotional liberation that takes the path of abjection: crime, murder, drug use, cruelty, betrayal, and, above all, anal sex. That forbidden pleasure – little seen in literature or cinema, and always controversial in both – is the locus point of desire and masculine identity in Querelle. Jack Sergeant, in an article on Serge Gainsbourg’s banned and little-seen film about heterosexual anal sex, Je t’aime moi non plus (1976), writes: “If discussed at all, anal sex is seen predominately as a Sadean fixation and hardcore porn staple. Certainly it is never viewed as an act of love.”
For both Genet and Fassbinder, it is a layered act, one that evokes the feminine and the masculine, violence and intimacy, hate and love, becoming and abandonment, blood, shit, and come. Homosexuality straddles the line between understood and forbidden in Querelle; men seduce other men while discussing their attraction for women. Others play a dice game for the privilege to have sex with Nono’s wife, the brothel madam, but the losers must have sex with Nono. Some men, including Querelle, lose intentionally, but are able to save face because they are merely following the rules of the game. Anal sex is the key to both the port of Brest and to Feria, which functions as a Technicolor hell and a sexually explicit rendering of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island (and its source material, Circe’s island) all in one.
Fassbinder’s fascination with the criminal – including theft, murder, and terrorism -- and the sexually explicit, as well as his identity as a gay man, made him perhaps uniquely suited to adapt Genet’s work. But there are undeniable flaws, primarily because Genet’s novels do not lend themselves well to cinematic adaptation. All the film’s characters are ciphers that explore distant and unknowable parts of the human psyche. Querelle is fascinating, but utterly unlikable. Though Fassbinder had a number of protagonists that could be described this way – including those of Effi Briest, Martha, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Satan’s Brew, Lili Marleen, and many more – Querelle suffers the most for it. In Despair and Nora Helmer – two of Fassbinder’s other adaptations – he gradually reveals the enigmatic protagonists through their relationships with others. But Querelle’s exchanges with other characters are often reduced to the physical and frustratingly retreat into the suggested and the symbolic.
The performance of spaghetti western and Italian crime film star Franco Nero (one of my favorite actors) is a key example of this. Though he is always compelling, Nero’s performance as the voyeuristic Lieutenant Seblon is ultimately baffling. He acts as a sort of stand-in for Fassbinder, an ever-present peeping Tom who is distant from the action but comments on it through narration (a favorite device of Fassbinder’s). Unfortunately, Nero’s character lacks much narrative force and ends the film resolving very little, though he is finally united with Querelle in the potential beginning of a romantic relationship.
Another strange presence is French star Jeanne Moreau as the brothel madam, the film’s only female character. She performs a widely hated musical number – an original song set to Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a poem about the inexorable connection between love and death, sex and violence – that speaks to Fassbinder’s love of camp. Moreau’s black-clad performance – similar to Marlene Dietrich’s lazy, yet suggestive musical romps, especially her later years in films like Touch of Evil and Rancho Notorious – recalls the frequent cabaret songs throughout Fassbinder’s career, all of which focus on scantily clad, sexually suggestive women who cannot sing (such as Lili Marleen, Gods of the Plague, and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven).
This blend of confrontational erotica, transgression, camp, and a highly artificial visual world will not be for everyone and, along with Satan’s Brew and The Third Generation, Querelle is one of Fassbinder’s most unusual, challenging films. It’s available on DVD and is a must-see for Genet fans and for anyone who appreciate Fassbinder’s more difficult, obscure works. It’s certainly not a failure, but, like Fassbinder’s early films and the later Lili Marleen, Querelle is a work of Brechtian distancing, intentional obscurity, and is deeply, uncomfortably personal film that stands as a fitting epilogue to one of cinema’s most prolific and brilliant careers.