Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Cast: Brad Davis, Hanno Pöschl, Jeanne Moreau, Franco Nero, Günther Kaufmann, Burkhard Driest. Screenplay: Burkhard Driest and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Jean Genet).
The abominating critical response to Fassbinder's Querelle seems to me a prime instantiation of the hypocrisy that can take hold when empty liberal rhetoric is confronted with the direct images of what it pretends to embrace. Though certainly Rainer Werner Fassbinder was never everyone's cup of tea, many of the same writers who praised the investigations into heterosexual and lesbian eroticism in movies such as The Marriage of Maria Braun and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant quailed loudly over Querelle, which takes as its theme the explicit homoeroticism that dominates all sorts of social networks and relationships: among soldiers and sailors, criminals and protectors, commanders and laborers, even between brothers. Literary critics after Eve Sedgwick, whose Between Men seems almost as directly the "source" material for Fassbinder's film as Genet's novel, have pointed out that the love-triangle formulation so familiar from American literature, romantic comedies, and real lifetwo men fighting over the same womananxiously substitutes competition between males, with a woman as the object, in the place of inexpressible desires, whether the desire of identification (I wish I were like him) or that of libido (I wish I were with him), neither of which the dominant culture comfortably allows its men to proclaim.
Fassbinder's Querelle, his final film before dying at the age of 37, dares to dramatize these buried connections and attractions among men. The film directly and giddily divests itself of the various "covers" that fictional convention often places over top of male rapportgun violence, political intrigue, cops-and-robbersand imagines a world in which everyone seems insatiably attracted to everyone (or almost everyone) else. It is a world in which no one pretends that desire is not motivating their jealousies, their ambitions, their flirtations, their dares. Occasionally, Querelle seems to be having too much fun making its outsized points to attend to more mundane concerns (framing, dialogue), and the atmosphere of parody sometimes seems like its own "cover" for a misjudged narrative or awkward performance. Still, Fassbinder's seaport melodrama comprises indelible filmmaking, brazen because it both needs and wants to be, a seamy, humid countermyth to the more familiar but equally false dramas of daily life in which men pass each other indifferently, like ships in the night.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Querelle (Brad Davis, the Chris Isaak-lookalike from Midnight Express), a sailor and sometime drug trafficker who drops into a saloon in Brest after hearing of the ambisexual possibilities inside. Having entered, he makes three important acquaintances. One is Nono (Günther Kauffman), the black owner of the bordello-bar, and the second Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), his wife and co-owner. The third personage is none other than Querelle's own brother, Robert (Hanno Pöschl), who has been Lysiane's lover for many months. The siblings greet each other with a peculiar ceremony involving both hugs and punches, which essentially sets the tone for the whole field of desire, both tender and violent, that pulses through every orange, over-lit frame in the picture. To keep a short story short, Querelle murders a fellow sailor late that evening, but evades discovery. Instead, he elects to palm off responsibility on Gil (Pöschl again), a known homosexual who recently killed another man in full view of the bar's patrons on the same evening. However, after implicating Gil, Querelle's already nascent enthusiasm for gay intercourse grows into something like homosexual love, as he feels powerfullyand, it should be said, reciprocallydrawn to the man he has damned.
Though the story is fun to the extent it is followable, Fassbinder goes out of his way to sabotage narrative as the source of either his pleasures or ours. Querelle's murder is purposefully under-motivated and quite early in the picture, while devices like the cross-casting of Pöschl and a portentous voice-over, often describing characters who are not at that moment visible on-screen, reinforce our impression that Querelle is using the melodramatic form not for any specific reason of story but for the atmosphere of excited emotion it so instantly conjures. Over and over again, which is why Querelle can feel taxing and limited even when it is most perfectly realized, Fassbinder documents how his characters tend to project absurd roles (hero, innocent, martyr, ideal) on to people they know only by appearance. He also tropes repeatedly on the theme of displacement: the context of sailors in an unfamiliar port; the transferrence of Querelle's hate-love for his brother onto the identical-looking Gil; the bevy of scenes in which the camera and the soundtrack renounce a direct involvement within an event in favor of an onlooker's point of view. In fact, the character with whom Fassbinder seems most to identify is Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero, a long way from Camelot), Querelle's commanding officer, whose slavering fixations on the sailor's body and movements are clearly pathetic but, equally clearly, sympathetic. Seblon's obsession seems like the most honest and direct version of equally hot affections over which the other characters are busily prevaricating.
In this universe of male inhibitions, releases, and beauties, the character of Lysiane, quite self-consciously, stands to suffer. She knows that she is only the vehicle for other men's relationships; Querelle sleeps with her to avenge himself on his brother, her lover, and so on. Even more than Lysiane's insight into her own abuse, howeverfor a role can still be demeaning even when recognized as suchit is the presence of Jeanne Moreau in the role that keeps the part as far from denigration as possible. No matter how ridiculous her set-pieces, especially in singing a dismal cabaret number called "Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves," Moreau's star quality wipes the floor with Nero's grotty self-loathing (he could be the father of Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator) and Davis' vapid performance, which suits Fassbinder's needs perfectly even if, as appears likely, it represents the actor's best try. Moreau strides over all of them, salvaging a tough role much as Tilda Swinton turned her part in Jarman's Edward II into an unlikely triumph.
In terms of design and pictorials, Querelle looks precisely as Fassbinder seemed to have wanted it. Object, if you will, to the hyperstylized lighting and the insolently overdetermined setsincluding a statue of an erect penis, complete with testiclesthat occupies the sidewalk outside the saloonbut to accuse Fassbinder, as so many have done, of over-sexualizing the imagery or rendering the narrative ridiculous, is to apply a direction of criticism that the film deliberately prohibits. Everything in Querelle, every plot point and performance, is designed to show how ceremonialized and insensible "normal" behavior becomes when hell-bent, as it usually is, on extinguishing unwanted sexual resonance. Perhaps because Fassbinder died after finishing Querelle, making the picture seem like a career summary instead of a ribald recreation, further inclined its audience to misread it. Doubtless not a masterpiece, the movie nevertheless puts words, sounds, and images on screen, with welcome creative energy, that have never paraded there beforeor, if in fact they're always on screen, never before so openly. B+