Querelle

Quer 2This is one of Fassbinder’s few films shot in English. The film derives from Jean Genet’s book, although the author would be surprised to see a video arcade, decades before its invention, in this adaptation. But such anachronistic shocks (there are others) are as intention as Fassbinder’s revolutionary extremes, even for him, image and sound: as he states, on a title card in the opening credits, this is a film about Genet’s novel, not a mere pasteurisation. Fassbinder captures the fever-dream quality of Genet’s decadent prose poetry, through his impossibly garish lighting and bizarre sets (how many forts boast ten-foot-tall phalluses as both strategic defence barriers and ornamentation). But more than Genet, this picture is unmistakably Fassbinder.

Plot:

French sailor Querelle arrives in Brest and starts frequenting a strange whorehouse. He discovers that his brother Robert is the lover of the lady owner, Lysiane. Here, you can play dice with Nono, Lysiane’s husband : if you win, you are allowed to make love with Lysiane, if you lose, you have to make love with Nono… Querelle loses on purpose.

One day, Lysiane reads the tarot for her lover, Robert , and learns in the cards of his intense passion for his brother, Querelle. Querelle himself soon arrives, and the brothers enact a bizarre greeting halfway between a hug and a wrestling match. Querelle, it seems, is looking for partners in a drug deal; Robert points him in the right direction. An argument about the merits of sex between men soon leads Querelle to murder his fellow smuggler, Vic. Back at the whorehouse, Querelle loses on purpose to Nono and finds he has a taste for passive gay sex. Meanwhile, fellow sailor Gil, who looks exactly like Querelle’s brother (and is played by the same actor), murders one of his compatriots after the brute publicly impugns his manhood. Wanted by the police for both his own crime and Querelle’s, Gil goes on the run.

When Querelle deals drugs with Nono, he is reunited with his rivalrous brother, Robert – the current boytoy of Nono’s wife, Madame Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Lysiane is smitten by Querelle from the moment he enters the brothel. The ship’s captain, Seblon (Franco Nero), is also smitten by Querelle and delivers long erotic monologues into his tape recorder.

Origins:

This is a surrealistic adaptation of writer and thief Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest by avant-garde German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Ambience:

The very artificial set is always bathed in a warm red glow, and is dotted with castle towers that are, literally, shaped like penises. The hell-like atmosphere oozes homo-eroticism at every turn, and every character is defined by his sexuality. One gets the impression that Fassbinder was trying to depict his favourite wet dream on celluloid. While obviously the work of a once-brilliant artist, many incoherent scenes suggest that the director’s drug-use was taking its toll.

Part of the blame can be assigned to Genet’s novel, a work which does not lend itself easily towards cinematic adaptation. Attempts to infuse Genet’s poetic language into the film bogs the storyline down with title cards and intrusive narration. This even seeps into the dialogue. For example, Querelle whispers to Seblon that “afterwards I may rest across your thighs, as a pieta, and you will watch over me as Mary watches over the dead Jesus.” Adding to this aura of seriousness is a baritone choir dominating the soundtrack. The action in Querelle moves at a snail’s pace.

Visually, the late Brad Davis is perfect as Querelle. Davis was handsome, in a Montgomery Clift mode, while resembling rough trade. He spends most of the film wearing skin tight white clothes, his large hairy chest continually on display through a sweeping tank top. Almost every shot is a pose, like a Tom of Finland drawing that has come to life. It’s hard to judge his acting, or anyone’s for that matter, because the film is often badly dubbed. Franco Nero comes off the best in a movie filled with lifeless performances. Jeanne Moreau, a longtime diva of European cinema, resembles an old drag queen doing Bette Davis.

Moreau singing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad Of Reading Gaol. In a scene of repressed intimacy, the sound of dripping water conjures up a visceral likeness of lovemaking. Multiple voiceovers not only layer the story but openly invite us to view characters in a specific way. The religious or operatic connotations of an a cappella choir encourage a mythical reading beyond the merely human or specific.

Fassbinder’s images glow – and melt hetero movie mythology. He shoots within the labyrinthine walls, studded with penis-shaped edifices, of a highly artificial backlot set – decorated with vulgar graffiti and graphic Kama-Sutra-style etchings of sex acts. Such tactics, like the voice-over narration, the fade-to-white inter-titles, the Jean Genet epigraph, distance the spectator. Fassbinder harkens back to German Expressionist filmmaking and Brechtian Epic Theatre to bare the oppressive ideology determining narrative structures.

 This is Fassbinder’s sole film, and the only one by any filmmaker which comes to mind, featuring two distinct – and at times even combative – voice-over narrators; and you could even argue that there is yet a third narrative voice. This one appears at key moments, and consists of printed quotations which range from the classical historian Plutarch (in a moving passage about the honor of gay soldiers in the ancient world, who wanted to face their fellow soldiers/lovers as they died in battle – some countries today take a rather different view of same-sex oriented servicemembers) to Genet himself (in an actual manuscript page from Genet – which the “omniscient” voice-over narrator translates into English – in which he purports to be the actual Querelle: since Genet was both an artist and a professional con-man and thief, we need not take his confession too literally). Pasolini used a similar ‘bibliographic’ technique in his notorious last film, Salò, which was one of Fassbinder’s list of the ten greatest films ever made.

Religious imagery

Quer 3Rings feature a great deal, presumably for their religious connotations but also for the binding they represent cf. the recurring images of the seaman’s rope, chains, rosaries, pieces of clothing, blankets, and a whole series of repeated patterns by which Genet represents the binding together of men.

The dominant colour in QUERELLE is orange.  Orange is also the colour most commonly used to depict the god Bacchus (or, in the Greek pantheon Dionysus) who inter alia was the god of fertility.  As the mid-point between yellow and red, orange also represents the balance between spirit and libido.  Fassbinder sometimes darkens the shade of orange, indicating a shift towards the libido, or lust; sometimes it lightens, towards yellow, indicating divine love.

Another duality, this time black and white, is applied to Querelle’s personality as depicted through his clothes.  He is often seen in his white sailor’s uniform, representing innocence and purity, sometimes with his dark naval coat worn over it, and in one sequence is covered head to foot in coal dust, the primeval antithesis of white.

A frequent setting is decorated with vulgar graffiti and graphic Kama-Sutra-style etchings.

In Genet’s book, Lieutenant Seblon’s warship lies anchored in the Roads off Brest, and his longing for Georges Querelle mounts with each day; yet no sooner has the able-bodied seaman rebutted his advances on the grounds that he is suffering from a dose of clap, than the lieutenant’s vivid vision of ‘an ulcerated penis’ becomes instantly linked with that of ‘a guttering Easter candle to which five grains of incense had become encrusted.’ The passage is highly characteristic: the ideal Genet reader must have both a strong stomach and a taste for religious imagery that is heavily baroque. St Theresa of Avila’s delight when the angel plunged a golden dart into her and the assault left her aflame with Divine Love is an experience that Genet fully understands.

Querelle whispers to Seblon that “afterwards I may rest across your thighs, as a pieta, and you will watch over me as Mary watches over the dead Jesus.”

Earlier, a scene where a young man portrays Christ carrying his cross, leading a procession, is followed by the murder and blood-letting. Some sort of stonement?

On the last page, the madam of a brothel dreams of her lovers and sees them all united as one—`They is singing.’ Would it be too far-fetched to see in that use of is a development of the doctrine that in Christ ‘we are all one’?

 Plaudits or otherwise:

Critically derided even by many of Fassbinder’s admirers, Querelle earned a Golden Raspberry award for Worst “Original” Song for “Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves,” an Oscar Wilde poem set to music by Peer Raben and sung repeatedly by Jeanne Moreau.

One juror resigned after releasing the following statement: “I would love to make a personal statement. While being President of the Jury, I would love to express my disappointment in not having been able to convince my colleagues to place R.W. Fassbinder’s ‘Querelle’ among the winners. As a matter of fact, I’ve found myself alone in defending the movie. Nevertheless, I keep on thinking that, although controversial, R.W. Fassbinder’s final movie, want it or not, love it or hate it, will one day find its place in the history of cinema”.

one of the “gayest” films in cinema history

Critical opinions on the film differed. Andy Warhol told Fassbinder that it made him hard and The Advocate called it a “pretentious bore.” I, myself, have seen it several times over the last decade and I still don’t know what to make of it. Yet Querelle’s images have haunted me for most of my adult life. Love it or hate it, no viewer will ever forget

Made shortly before his death, Querelle was the film that Fassbinder considered his best.

Feminists have remarked how Fassbinder challenges stereotypical images of older women, for instance. Moreau, about 60 years of age at the time of this film, plays a strongly sexual woman.

At times there are almost Shakespearean touches. “He wrapped himself in prudence,

“He waited for the angel to strike.” The narrator is describing a murderer, just after the act. It prepares us for an Iago-like theme that will follow. This gritty, sometimes murderous backdrop of the sailors on shore leave also gives the non-gay viewer some respite.

The theme of murder is given a psychological depth as the murderer is viewed without ethical consideration: “Added to the moral solitude of the murderer comes the solitude of the artist, which can acknowledge no authority save that of another artist.”

Quer“No kissing,”

“I’m too fat!”

“You’ve destroyed me. You have mystical powers. They multiply infinitely.” You cannot look away.

Narrator: And humility can only be born of humiliation, otherwise it is nothing but vanity.

Lysiane: [singing] Each man kills the thing he loves!

Querelle: I’m no fairy!

“You got the same eyes. You got the same chops.”

That’s what other people say…but it isn’t true.
Querelle is a sailor.
Maybe it’s true.
And you love one another…

Just the opposite.
He’s our safety guarantee.
This is Querelle, my brother.
He has a deal for you.
He’s all right.

Cash.
Of course.
Querelle was frozen by Mario’s gaze.
More than indifferent…
Mario’s gaze and stance were glacial.

I’m Robert’s brother.
I know.
A penny for your thoughts, Querelle.
I acknowledge the existence of authority in Mario.
I note his objective gestures.

Querelle was not used to the idea that he was a monster.
A young man, he knew the terror of being alone…
caught in the world of the living.

It’s okay with me.
Perhaps love is a den of killers, and if this is true…
will Querelle draw me into it?
And I?
When the time comes for me to drown in my emotion for Querelle…

 

which seems to be his own will and his own destiny.
The scene we shall relate is a transposition of the event…
which revealed Querelle to us.
We can say that it is comparable to the Visitation.
Okay, you can go now.

Morning, Lieutenant.
Hello, Querelle.
I must say, you’re doing a very good job.
Without even telling me, you’ve offered to do another duty.

What worked? Your business deal? – That worked out fine too.
But I mean something else. I made it.
With Querelle?
That’s news to me.
I swear it.

Sometimes there’s something so female about him…
especially when he does one of those sweet, silly gestures.
But this Querelle is an okay guy.
Hi, Nono.
Let’s go outside.

I’ve become less of a disciplinarian.
My love makes me softer.
The more I love Querelle…
the more gentle and definite…
the sadder the woman in myself becomes…

because she cannot achieve fulfillment.
During one of these strange revelations…
defining my relationship with Querelle…
I think amidst all these sorrows and inner defeats…
“What’s the point?”

Querelle’s friendship for Gil developed to the brink of love.
Like himself, Gil had killed.
He was a little Querelle for whom Querelle maintained…
a strange feeling of respect and curiosity.
As though he was standing before the foetus of a baby Querelle.

And will you? – Yes.
In some obscure way…
Querelle understood that love is voluntary.
You have to want it.
When you don’t love men…

even if only at the moment you’re fucking.
So if he was to love Gil, he would have to give up his passivity.
Querelle tried.
My friend.
What a shame we can’t stay together forever.

will be on the train that leaves for Bordeaux at 4:20.
Ciao.
But loved by Querelle…
I would be loved by every sailor in France…
because Querelle is a compendium of all their masculine and naive virtues.

Then I’ll be glad to come along with you.
Let’s go.
Querelle was now Lysiane’s lover.
The excitement she felt thinking about the identity of the two brothers…
exasperated her to such a degree that she felt lost.

Some with a flattering word
The coward does it with a kiss
Careful, Querelle!
If you lose your footing, you can sometimes fall very far.
Thanks, Inspector.

cradling a dead Jesus.
That’s the guy who shot me. I recognize him.
Querelle, finally!
Why did you keep me waiting so long?
You want to hurt me?

I know now…why I feel so abandoned.
Querelle’s inner harmony was indestructible…
because it was sealed in that heaven of heavens…
where beauty unites with beauty.

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