1982 — 108 minutes, color, aspect ratio 2.35:1 — Drama
Essential Fassbinder. His last film is a luridly experimental adaptation of Jean Genet's novel about the tragic adventures of a sailor turned smuggler and murderer.
It's taken many years, and several viewings, for me finally to connect with Querelle, but it now seems one of Fassbinder's greatest, and most labyrinthine, works. It is poignant to realize that this film, which reaches a new, albeit horrific, aesthetic peak for Fassbinder was also his last work. On June 10, 1982 he died some people say commited suicide from a heart attack caused by sleeping pills and cocaine, after he had finished the picture's editing but before its premiere.
Querelle is the tale of a beautiful, proud and hard-as-nails loner, the sailor Querelle (Brad Davis, Midnight Express this is one of Fassbinder's few films shot in English), whose commanding officer, Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero, Camelot), is obsessed with him. Querelle turns on his drug-smuggling partner and murders him. He goes to a notorious brothel run by the rapacious Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau, Jules and Jim), who leads him into his first homosexual encounter, with her husband Nono (Günther Kaufmann). Lysiane is madly in love with Querelle, but takes his brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl) as a substitute. Robert and Querelle have an incestuous relationship, which they try to hide. Later, Querelle falls in love with a fellow murderer, Gil, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his brother (both Robert and Gil are played by Hanno Pöschl). Gil is having an affair with an angelic young man named Roger (Laurent Male). Querelle's increasing passion for Gil, the first man he has loved, panics him, so he betrays him to the police. But by now Querelle has become vulnerable, and he at last allows himself to submit to Seblon.
Querelle is Fassbinder's most luridly experimental film, filled with extremes of visual design and debauched characters, his most grotesque since Whity and Satan's Brew. It's as if he had gone down into a maelstroml of operatic emotion (say, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Strauss's Salome, Berg's Wozzeck Fassbinder was an opera devotee), and then transformed that passion into shattering images; his extremes of color and composition are like the most intense music made flesh.
Of course, the film derives from Jean Genet's extraordinary and equally lurid 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 picturization.
Genet might also be surprised to find that several of his ancillary characters turn up with new last names, reflecting major figures of postwar French literature (Theo Celine, Roger Bataille) and cinema (Vic Rivette played by the film's producer, Dieter Schidor) whose influence Fassbinder wanted to acknowledge. (Genet claims never to have seen this picture, but he may have made that remark with his tongue in his cheek: how could he have missed one of the major cinematic events of its year, not to mention the final film of a fellow gay artist who shared some key parts of his own vision.)
I consider Genet one of the greatest novelists and playwrights of the last century; but I would recommend approaching his provocative world through the fictionalized 1949 autobiography, The Thief's Journal, rather than the nihilistically more in-your-face Querelle de Brest (1947). For people interested in literature, you can read Querelle as a sort of diabolical inversion of Herman Melville's late and homoerotic masterpiece, Billy Budd, Sailor (he died just before he finished the novella). Only Genet twists that saintly title character into the smuggler/murderer who is Querelle; and the sadistic, closeted-homosexual Master-At-Arms John Claggart and the "everyman" Captain Vere in Melville are conflated into the masochistic Lieutenant Seblon.
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 defense barriers and ornamentation). But more than Genet, this picture is unmistakably Fassbinder.
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. Pasolini's film, before revealing itself as the most explicit and nauseating work of art ever filmed, begins with an "Essential Bibliography" of works of philosophy and critical theory Fassbinder's quotations are rather less heavy-duty but more immediately relevant to shading our interpretation of his action, which superficially seems disconnected from the referenced passage.
For instance, the Plutrach passage mentioned above comes just before Querelle kills one of his partners in crime; but the ancient text brings out the emotional subtext of love, and honor, which form part of Querelle's twisted psychological motives. The hauntingly beautiful, even spiritual, music by Peer Raben (who scored almost all of Fassbinder's films) which plays under the scene adds yet another layer of complexity. Perhaps more than in any of Fassbinder's other films and in keeping with Genet's own literary technique (crystalline prose to embody the atrocities, and ambiguities, that he depicts) nothing is ever what it seems to be on the surface. [UPDATE: Thanks to Demetra K., who shared a fascinating insight about the scene in which "Lysiane confronts Robert about his sexuality. There's a cue taken from Jules Dassin's film Phaedra (1962), scored by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. It's a song (clip at YouTube) that comes up in the love scene between the older Phaedra and the younger man (her husband's son, played by Anthony Perkins). The scene in Querelle appears as the inversion of that scene. Here the older woman is rejected, as it actually happens in the original myth of Hyppolytus and Phaedra (from which Dassin adapted the story) where Hyppolytus reacts with a furious, misogynistic tirade on the 'poisonous' nature of women as soon as he learns of her love for him."]
One of the two 'human-based' narrators is Seblon, who micro-analyzes, yet never understands, his growing obsession with Querelle.
The other voice, although it sounds like William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch) at his most gruff yet saintly, comments on the action from the paradoxica/omniscient, perspective of Genet, with some passages taken directly from the novel. On occasion this second narrator reaches heights of prophetic force, connecting the surreal and amoral we are watching with the biblical Apocalypse. (During some of the most stomach-churning scenes, Fassbinder employs composer Peer Raben's most ethereal vocal music, as if only the voice of angels could restore a kind of balance.) While each narrator offers a fascinating but divergent interpretation of the action (Seblon's intense subjectivity against the other man's mystical musings), it's also possible that Fassbinder left both purposely blind to many psychological, as well as ethical and spiritul, layers of this work. In other words, each of us must act, and react, to the tale of Querelle as a third narrator, as ourself, relating this film to our own life in whatever way seems most meaningful.
Fassbinder maintained total control over the production by shooting it entirely in a claustrophobic sound stage (like the one in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, only ten times larger yet still cramped). There is an almost unbearable tension between a nightmare world which is at once obsessively controlled to the smallest detail yet hideously out of control: self-restraint, self-respect, any sane forms of human interaction have all been jettisoned. By contrast, Fassbinder's earlier films are scrupulously moral, even though he uses his razor-sharp irony mercilessly to expose all forms of hypocrisy, including the sexual kinds.
In Fassbinder's canon, the mirror image of this film would be his early masterpiece, Effi Briest, in which he exerts a comparable level of control over every stylistically brilliant, and symbolically trenchant, detail. Only in that depiction of ultra-conservative Prussia in the late nineteenth century he creates a world of unrelenting emotional and visual constraint, as even the lace curtains become like prison bars, binding the repressed characters.
In Fassbinder's Querelle, you get the terrible, but fascinating, sense that you are watching a wholly-created world perhaps even an externalization of an artist's subconscious mind imploding right before your eyes. When you recall that Fassbinder died, some say committed suicide, before this film premiered, the sensual horrors of his Querelle seem prophetic and maybe poignant too. (His death came just weeks after the suicide of his former lover, El Hedi ben Salem, star of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; some people see a direct link between the two events).
Melville who could never have dreamed what Genet would do with Billy Budd 50 years later, let alone Fassbinder 25 years beyond that subtitled his manuscript "An Inside Narrative." That also fits Fassbinder's hallucinatory reimagining of Genet's novel. Despite the riotous use of color, costumes and sets, Fassbinder's picture is very much "an inside narrative" and tragically so. Not only was he probing the mind of the criminal cum literary genius, Jean Genet; he was exposing some of his own deepest fears and torments, in his final weeks.
Querelle is not for the squeamish; and if you are interested in exploring Fassbinder, I suggest you see a few of his earlier films first, to get some perspective on his final picture. But eventually you should find your way to this visually astonishing and luridly visionary work. It is an enigmatic key to two of the twentieth century's most perceptively disturbing, and illuminating, artists: Genet and Fassbinder.
REVIEW REVISED on October 30, 2005: I'm not sure if Columbia TriStar has without fanfare remastered this DVD in the early days of this site I had received messages from various readers complaining of its poor image and sound quality but when I finally saw it in summer 2005 (several years after the initial release) it had very good image and sound. To say the least, it is infinitely better than the disgraceful pan & scan VHS: this film must be seen in its intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio, since Fassbinder meticulously and brilliantly uses every part of the frame not only to depict the (highly-stylized) action but to provide multiple layers of commentary on it.
- Digitally Mastered Audio & Anamorphic Video
- Widescreen Presentation of the Unrated Version in the original widescreen theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1
- Audio: English (Mono) and French (Mono)
- Trailers for other Columbia TriStar releases
- $24.95 suggested retail
Reviewed August 10, 2004
This search engine covers the entire website (GLBT literature, film, and all other pages) — results will open in a new window. You can also use the site map.