Episode 102: Querelle (1982)

Film chosen and introduced by Patrick

I haven’t had a pick on the podcast for a while now, so what better than Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s theatrical, queer, surrealist adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle De Brest huh?!

It’s a film that comes to mind every now and then, despite only one viewing back in 2007. I was a wide-eyed and impressionable 21-year-old abroad in Prague for 4 months of study at FAMU, the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Querelle was screened in a class called ‘Circulating Within the Postmodern Cinematic Image’, and I’m still not sure I understood what, in fact, we were all supposed to be interpreting back then. But that’s what the rest of the Rewinders are for, to help give me another perspective and further my education in cinema.

I think the sandwiches of Gali, Devlin and Matt are telling, given their lack of history with the film, and I suspect that might’ve been different had we all seen it at a similar age. But that’s all relative, right? I always felt I’d have responded differently to All The Real Girls or Empire Records, had I first viewed them at similar ages to the others, during my more formative years.

Our conversation was, I think, mature and reasoned, one I really enjoyed getting my teeth into. It was daunting to discuss this film but I feel we all got something out of it, even if some of our sandwiches weren’t especially filled with delicious fillings. One thing’s for sure, this is a film that will stay with you for a long time. When you listen to the episode (and thanks for sticking with it!), you may notice my summary has a degree of uncertainty – what it is about the film that maintains such a hold over me, I’m still not totally sure. Despite my research about the film, there were a few things we didn’t get round to discussing, so rapt in our conversation that I forget some of my notes! I was keen to write a few more down having taken on board Matt’s reflection that one may need a little guidance to get more out of Querelle.

For me, Querelle opened my eyes to sexuality, eroticism and queer cinema in a far more explicit and matter of fact aesthetic than, say, Brokeback Mountain’s muted and subtle story of love and repression, perhaps my only point of comparison at the time. Fassbinder is not interested in subtlety at all here, his set adorned with obscene graffiti and overtly phallic metaphors that clearly represent the male appendage proudly.

When Querelle murders Vic during the drug deal, note the lingering knife on Vic’s chest, suggesting a post-coital affair with bodily fluids (blood) wiped on the worn out body; the dying Vic reaching for his crotch after the fact. Or Mario, the corrupt, leather-clad, Village People-esque Policeman encouraging Querelle to feel his hard on, while pulling both a knife and a gun out of his trousers in succession. And do we need to point out the literal Cock Shafts (mooring shafts) that tower over the bay, erect and proud!? There’s something too, in the direction of the eponymous Querelle, the way Brad Davis holds himself, his body language and aesthetic, dressed as a sailor in a low-slung string vest, dirt and sweat glistening on his ripped body and attractive face. Davis holds Querelle upright, walking tall and stiff, like an erection wandering around town, noticed by all. This must be a deliberate personification, a penis that’s worn out by the final act from all the sex and action, conquered, flaccid and deflated.

Querelle is unlike any film I have seen. The language is, as Devlin rightly points out, dense and unrelenting throughout. Fassbinder stays, perhaps, too loyal to the source material, including much of the prose and poetry of Genet, but the garish white narrative cards flashing sections of the text wholesale on screen are a really displeasing and unwelcome addition, often labouring the point. Much of the book was written as inner monologues, and doesn’t work as cinematic dialogue. Often the actors feel as though they’re struggling under the weight of the words as it’s so poetic and convoluted, but Shakespeare it does not achieve. Jeanne Moreau, a consummate professional, does particularly well with the dialogue, as does Franco Nero, with his narrative device, a dictophone tape-recorder, a particularly good directorial decision to allow the actor to plausibly speak at length so effusively and floridly of his attraction to and love for Querelle.

One thing we all agreed on, is the aesthetic. It’s sumptuous, alluring, seductive even, its glowing streets captured with precise camera movements. Built on a 300m2 set, it’s an impressive interconnecting stage for Querelle’s claustrophobic landscape from Oscar-winning (Cabaret) Production Designer Rolf Zehetbauer, and filled with life and movement in the background. It recalls Altman’s Popeye set. All the characters and supporting artists are dressed provocatively, Designer Monika Jacobs (Run Lola Run) realising Fassbinder’s image perfectly. There’s no wonder Jean Paul Gautier used Querelle as inspiration!

You truly feel as though you have Fassbinder’s vision completely realised on screen during Querelle. In the cinematography, the lighting accentuates every inch of the set, basking us in perpetual sunset and drama. His framing, through windows, mirrors, bars or startling close ups, tell you everything a character is thinking or reflecting upon as we watch men destroy the things they love in this womanless world, filled with betrayal, lust and love. Watch a spotlight highlight one’s eyes as they see truth, or a red illuminated slash mark across a character’s throat to denote murderous thoughts.

There’s a fluidity to Fassbinder’s storytelling and characterisation. It can be confusing, as Querelle finds himself truly falling for Gil, the first man he kisses on the lips. In order to help Gil escape the local Police after murdering a bullying colleague, Querelle disguises him with a moustache to imitate his brother Robert (both men are played by the same actor, Hanno Pöschl) to perform an armed robbery of his commanding officer – a man who openly pines for Querelle – to implicate his brother, before betraying Gil anyway in a flurry of extremely confusing sexual politics. Motives aren’t always clear, further obscured by emotionally stunted performances and ambiguous narration that gropes around in an effort to discover what it means to be a man. But the film’s explicit subject of men inventing woman and femininity in a womanless world lends a fascinating arc to the characters. Querelle says he’s “no fairy” when deliberately losing the dice roll so that Nono can sodomise him in an act of submission, after asserting his masculinity with an act of brutal violence against his shipmate and accomplice Vic that fundamentally changes him. Fassbinder shared an ideology with Genet that human existence is actually consummated only when you’ve sunk to the lowest level possible in society. I think this is key to reading the film.

The only woman in the film, Lysiane, is the least ambiguous, her beliefs and human desires far more consistent throughout. Born of her ignominy due to Querelle’s sex and power games against his brother, Lysiane literally has the last laugh of the film. Is the message that women are the nobler sex? That men are destructive in their nature? You could talk endlessly about the different readings throughout this film, so layered and suggestive throughout, and one that was really great to pontificate upon for the podcast.

Devlin recently brought our to our attention a seemingly growing concern among a number of viewers with sex being shown on screen, with some arguing that performers are somehow betraying their real life partners with their on screen actions, or are otherwise somehow coercing the viewer to participate in some sexual act that they have not consented to. A sudden rush to reinstate the restrictive Hays Code era seems to have sprung forth. Sex aversion is a thing, absolutely, but denying sex a place in art and expression in general feels wholly unreasonable. Querelle is an excellent example of sex as an important character development and plot point to further and transform a character. He uses sex as penitence, submission, even vindictive empowerment, before understanding what sex means to him during an affair with Lysiane during which he cannot maintain an erection. Sex is clearly a mission statement of Fassbinder too, the whole film is somewhat masturbatory, a blank canvas of gay fantasy that Fassbinder has expressionistically painted a vivid tale of desires and, well, sex. That Fassbinder is an anarchist in the wake of the war and the intentionally uncontroversial German Heimatfilme movement that followed, is rather commendable as he unapologetically portrays his sexuality proudly. Make movies horny again!!

Twitter user @gvaughnjoy words it better than I ever could: “Sex is beautiful. It is human. It is expressive and it is natural and it is pure in itself, ‘purity’ culture be damned” in her thread about ‘Pretty Woman’ that is well worth reading on the point. https://twitter.com/gvaughnjoy/status/1625854516334845953?s=46&t=sTS5nmI_-5FJvEsIJ27hfw

Usually when we are approaching an episode, we will send each other ‘shownotes’, some bullet points on which to consider our points and give us structure. With that, if you venture down to the moody dock of Brest, please consider the following questions while watching each man destroy the thing they love…

  • Is Brest representative of purgatory?
  • Can these men draw femininity from one another to invent the ‘woman’ in a relationship?
  • Is it human nature to destroy one’s self?
  • Can Querelle accept his sexuality?
  • Is melodrama a radical act in a post-war world?

Thanks for reading, happy rewinding!
Patrick (from Leicester)

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