“The idea of murder often evokes the idea of sea and seafarers ...” opens Querelle of Brest, French literary bad boy Jean Genet's notorious novel (written in 1947, published in 1953). It’s also the opening line of Querelle (1982), the great German filmmaker Rainer Werner’s Fassbinder’s last film. He died of a drug overdose (which may have been suicide) aged just 37 before it premiered. (The film is dedicated to his Moroccan lover El Hedi Ben Salem, who had just recently committed suicide. Salem appeared in several Fassbinder films; he’s unforgettable in 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). In theory, Fassbinder’s hallucinatory adaptation of Genet’s book should have been a perfect meeting of minds. Genet (dubbed “the poet of evil of our times” by Cyril Connolly) and Fassbinder would appear to be kindred spirits (both are certainly heroes of mine): both were scathingly brilliant and uncompromising anarchistic outlaw gay artists in their respective fields. Who better to translate Genet’s lurid, scatological, profane and homoerotic poetry to the screen than Fassbinder? In fact the resulting film aroused controversy and disappointment, was not a critical success and still has a problematic reputation.
Saint Genet at the height of his powers
Set in the port of Brest (or “the fetid, stinking port of Brest” as its described on the back of my paperback), the plot focuses on Angel of the Apocalypse, the titular young sailor Georges Querelle (Brad Davis), a totally amoral anti-hero with a sideline in murder, theft and opium smuggling. (He can be interpreted as Genet's ideal man). Querelle is so physically beautiful he’s irresistible to both men and women: pretty much every character he encounters becomes fatally attracted to him. Beneath his aloof and patrician militaristic exterior, Querelle’s superior Lieutenant Sablon (Franco Nero) secretly pines for him in his diary entries. When he goes to investigate the local brothel La Feria (described by a fellow sailor to Querelle as “the raunchiest whorehouse in the world”), Querelle becomes embroiled in the sex games of its owners, kinky married couple Nono (Fassbinder regular and ex-lover Günther Kaufmann) and Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau) – and is re-united with his lookalike brother Robert (who’s having an affair with Lysiane). Querelle winds up having a complex sexual relationship with both Nono and Lysiane, a corrupt cop called Mario (Burkhard Driest), and Gil, a Polish laborer and murderer-on-the-lam. To complicate things, the characters of Gil and Robert are both played by the same actor (Hanno Pöschl). Confused yet? In fact the plot is far more complicated than this summary suggests. There are several subplots involving double-crossing, betrayals, anal sex and murders. Maybe read a more detailed precis here.
Querelle’s “failure” is perhaps not surprising. But in fairness to Fassbinder, its “failure” is rooted in his faithfulness to Genet’s vision. In the book, Genet withholds conventional literary / novelistic pleasures. (As the novel speeds towards its abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion, Genet interjects to opine, “This book has already occupied too many pages and is beginning to become a bore.” What other author would do that?). True to the sensibility of his source material, in the film Fassbinder denies conventional filmic pleasures like plausibility, coherence, psychological realism, character motivation and a linear plot that’s resolved tidily at the end. The characters are almost entirely unsympathetic and their motivations are opaque. (Well, their motivations are mostly lust-driven). Instead he offers a total rejection of naturalism and realism. The whole highly-stylised film was filmed on a soundstage without a single exterior scene or glimpses of nature or natural light. The effect is distancing, even alienating. When everything is artifice, it creates a sense of airlessness and claustrophobia.
Querelle also frequently feels theatrical rather than cinematic – like watching a filmed play. The novel Querelle of Brest has a sexy and violent reputation. While the film is permeated with an atmosphere of sleaze, there is actually minimal nudity and the sex scenes are surprisingly chaste (when Nono sodomises Querelle, we mostly only see close-ups of their sweaty faces). The sporadic eruptions of violence are choreographed to look ridiculously fake (the knife fight between Querelle and Robert, for example, is almost balletic and looks like something out of Westside Story). Even when someone is stabbed with a flick-knife or gouged with a broken bottle, it feels bloodless and coolly detached.
Still, Fassbinder’s vision is alluring and seductive: the film looks like one of Pierre et Gilles sailor photos or a Tom of Finland drawing come to life. (In fact, according to Wikipedia, Fassbinder was primarily inspired by the pre-Tom of Finland artwork of George Quaintance, one of whose specialties was campy, kitsch homoerotic drawings of idealized sailors. I’d never heard of him before, but he certainly is intriguing).
Pierre et Gilles photos of sailors
"Shore Leave" by George Quaintance. Looks like a fun party!
The film's poster was designed by Andy Warhol
Nice ass: In the 1950s there was a limited edition of Querelle of Brest featuring erotic illustrations by Jean Cocteau. Presumably this drawing represents Querelle himself. Google these: they are a bit too explicit to post here and they're definitely worth seeing
The art direction is outrageous: Brest is depicted as a lurid, neon-lit, highly-sexualised playground, an entirely self-contained universe. In particular note the obscene phallic brick "cock and balls" tower that juts out of the high fortressed wall of Brest in front of the brothel. The most immediately noticeable aspect of Querelle’s look is the permanent glowing amber / orange light that everything and everyone is constantly bathed in. It’s a netherworld of perpetual autumnal sunset, la vie en orange. (There’s a weird moment when Querelle greets Lieutenant Seblon with “Good morning” and it appears to be night-time).
Franco Nero as the tortured Lieutenant Seblon
Fassbinder also messes with the audience’s expectations by creating a disorienting sense of timelessness: the film belongs to no particular era. Genet’s novel was written in the late 1940s and Edmund White (author of Genet: A Biography, surely the definitive Genet biography) estimates the action takes place at some point before the outbreak of World War II. The actors mostly wear retro 1940s era clothes and coiffures, but Fassbinder scrambles things by introducing 1980s-era touches, like a video game in La Feria and Seblon dictating his diary entries into a portable mini tape recorder.
The film even sounds odd: strange choral music by Peer Raben, who composed the music for virtually all Fassbinder’s films, is loud and intrusive on the soundtrack, sometimes jarring with what’s being shown onscreen. Querelle is filmed in English, which was certainly rare for Fassbinder (all his masterpieces are made in German). A European co-production, the international cast speak in the full gamut of every potential accent: Davis’s flat American, Moreau’s throaty French, Franco Nero’s Italian, and almost everyone else’s German. The minor characters are appallingly dubbed. (Apparently Fassbinder’s favourite version has everyone dubbed into German, with English subtitles). Actors have to speak out loud what in the book were internal monologues. They translate horribly into spoken dialogue: Genet’s lengthy Existential meditations about the nature of evil, the allure of crime and murder and the sexual attraction between men were never meant to be spoken out loud (in Genet’s novels, there are long stretches without any dialogue at all. When characters do speak, what they say often reads like terse hard-boiled 1930s gangster slang. Interestingly, the only time Genet directed a film himself – the lyrical and erotic Un Chant d’Amour (1950) – it was a silent film). Everyone in Querelle seems to snarl their lines. (The acting style appears to be deliberately flat and unemotional). With dialogue this stilted, it’s hard to judge between “good” acting and “bad” acting (for example, what to make of Brad Davis's blank, stony-faced performance as Querelle? He’s frequently upstaged by his own -- admittededly impressive -- furry, baby-oiled pecs).
Fassbinder makes some interesting amendments. I don’t recall the image of Lysiane as a fortune teller consulting tarot cards from the book, but it’s a nice touch, evoking Marlene Dietrich as Tania the bordello madam in Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil (1958). In the book brothers Querelle and Robert are meant to be identical, which confuses and torments Lysiane. Onscreen actors Brad Davis and Hanno Poschl don’t look remotely alike. But having Poschl play the dual role of Robert and Gil (the fellow murderer Querelle falls in love with) suggests that Lysiane is right and Querelle is in fact sexually attracted to his brother.
Querelle watches as Lysiane and Robert dance. Who's he jealous of?
Strangely, Fassbinder also seems to cast actors who are uniformly older than how Genet describes the characters in the book. (Querelle himself is meant to be permanently smiling, with an angelic appearance that belies how corrupt he really is. Tough as nails Brad Davis looks like a thug who's been around the block a few times and is clearly already corrupted from the start). This is especially true of Mario the police officer: Genet rhapsodises at length about how handsome he is, whereas (all due regards to Burkhard Driest) the actor who he plays him looks like a grizzled and dessicated S&M leather daddy in Village People drag.
Querelle, Mario and Nono gathered at the bar of La Feria
Jeanne Moreau strives to breathe dignity and humanity into Lysiane. She certainly has some truly thankless dialogue (“You know, I’ve dreamt about your prick a lot lately,” she says with a straight face to Querelle). There’s something abject and masochistic about the deluded Lysiane, in love with younger men who would rather be with each other. Genet was not known for writing strong female characters (they certainly weren’t his priority), but Fassbinder is known as a truly great director of actresses. It’s easy to see why Moreau – one of the high empresses of European art cinema, a muse for many of the great art house auteurs – would have leapt at the chance to work with Fassbinder, but she draws the short straw here.
Swathed in a wardrobe of black sequins and feathers, Moreau seems to be channelling Marlene Dietrich. In Fassbinder’s interpretation, Lysiane isn’t just a whorehouse madam: she’s a French-accented Dietrich-style cabaret chanteuse, too. Moreau has to huskily warble her way through a much-loathed song that’s meant to comment on the action, with lyrics that paraphrase the line “Each man kills what he loves best” from Oscar Wilde’s 1898 poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. “Each man kills the thing he loves ....” she sings ad nauseum, until it becomes grating and unintentionally funny.
La Feria must be one of the most dissolute settings ever captured on celluloid. We get only the most teasing glimpses of Lysiane’s “girls”, but they appear to be mostly trannies. The patrons of the brothel are a freak show collection of drag queens, leather daddies and clones. Ostensibly a heterosexual brothel, most of the clientele appear to be gay. (In the book, a sailor warns Querelle, "La Feria's a queer sort of joint." He's not wrong). La Feria’s vibe is Josef von Sternberg-ian, evoking the debauched fleshpot / casino settings in his films like The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Macao (1952). (Moreau as Lysiane is Dietrich-like, but also suggests Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling, the regally sinister proprietoress of the casino in Shanghai Gesture).
Dragon Lady: Ona Munson, unforgettable as Mother Gin Sling (with Gene Tierney) in Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
But La Feria also functions as a saloon, and the saloon is one of the crucial locales of the Western genre. The image of butch cowboys swaggering through the swinging doors into the saloon presided over by the saloon mistress / love interest and ordering whisky is one of the key tropes of the Western, and it’s a recurrent image in Querelle. Querelle’s setting is a seaport and its main characters sailors (and it's absinthe they're drinking rather than whisky), but maybe Querelle can be read as a quasi Western, in particular in the tradition of the dark, twisted and kinky “psychological” noir Westerns of the 1950s: Johnny Guitar (1954) by Nicholas Ray or especially Fritz Lang's German Expressionist Western Rancho Notorious (1952)(starring a mature Marlene Dietrich, who would've been roughly the same age as Moreau here.) (It's also worth noting Franco Nero's presence as Seblon: he did after all star in Django (1966), making him a Spaghetti Western icon). In queer studies courses, the romantic triangles in Westerns where two men fight over one woman is re-interpreted as veiled homoerotic tension, suggesting perhaps the real erotic frisson is actually between the men. (Indeed that’s been said of Rancho Notorious, where Jose Ferrer and Arthur Kennedy vie for the attentions of Dietrich). In Querelle, Fassbinder rips away that veil.
Arthur Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich and Jose Ferrer in Fritz Lang's 1952 noir Western Rancho Notorious. Gee, do you think Dietrich's waist may have been re-touched?
Fassbinder’s masterstroke is implying Genet’s characters are trapped in hell. The look of the film is frequently described as “dreamlike” or “surreal” – but in truth it’s more like a vision of fiery orange hell. Fassbinder’s Brest is not just a hell hole; it is hell (or maybe purgatory or limbo) and the brothel the inner circle. Characters may enter and leave through its Art Deco frosted glass doors, but their apparent mobility is deceptive. In some sense there is no exit – everyone always returns to the spiderweb-like La Feria. At the conclusion, the film has come full circle: it ends with seemingly the very same shot of sailors toiling onboard the ship that it opened with, except this time it’s overlaid with the sound of the defeated Lysiane’s malevolent / maniacal laughter on the soundtrack (she quite literally gets the last laugh). The novel ends with Seblon finally able to declare his love for Querelle and the two going off together. In the film, this is more ambiguous: our very last glimpse of Querelle sees him alone, through the window of the brothel, suffused in blue neon light. The characters will continue playing their self-destructive (and other people destructive) games, trapped in their rituals, doomed to repeat their roles, captives of the brothel. Seblon will continue endlessly dictating his journals into his tape recorder; Lysiane will endlessly trill her tuneless dirge. It’s a wonderfully bleak and unsettling ending, and characteristic of Fassbinder’s (and Genet's) pessimistic vision.
Querelle is perhaps not the most fitting end to Fassbinder’s career (the towering Veronika Voss (1982) is a better final statement), and if you’ve never seen a Fassbinder film before, it’s not a good representative introduction to his work. Still, as a fascinating experiment, a noble failure and a powerful study of decadence, it’s ripe for reappraisal. Edmund White has praised Fassbinder’s film as “magisterial” (the Village Voice calls it "galvanic") and declared it the best screen adaptation of Genet’s work. Previous directors, he explained, couldn’t manage “to find a visual equivalent to Genet’s eloquence. The only exception is Fassbinder’s Querelle, which is visually as artificial and menacing as Genet’s prose.” Once seen, Querelle is unforgettable. It lingers in the mind like a feverish (wet) dream.