Brad Davis in Querelle (1982)

(director/writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; screenwriters: based on the novel Querelle de Brest by Jean Genet/Burkhard Driest; cinematographers: Xaver Schwarzenberger/Josef Vavra; editors: Rainer Werner Fassbinder/Juliane Lorenz; music: Peer Raben; cast: Brad Davis (Querelle), Franco Nero (Lieutenant Seblon), Jeanne Moreau (Lysiane), Laurent Malet (Roger Bataille), Hanno Pöschl (Robert/Gil), Günther Kaufmann (Nono), Burkhard Driest (Mario), Dieter Schidor (Vic); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Dieter Schidor; New Yorker Films; 1982-West Germany-in English)

“Stays faithful to Genet’s lurid poetry.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s (“The Marriage of Maria Braun”/”Ali–Fear Eats the Soul”) final film before his drug overdose suspected suicide in June 1982 asks what’s normal and is addressed more to gays than a wider audience. It’s dedicated to the director’s former Arab lover El Hedi Ben Salem, who had recently committed suicide. The film was not received well by the mainstream critics, perhaps because it was misunderstood, too difficult a story to tell, too messy or because it at times veered from arty pretensions to listless dramatics to an immature nihilism. It’s based on Jean Genet’s 1953 novel Querelle de Brest, admittedly a most difficult story to film; it’s perhaps the most radical novel in world literature (at least Fassbinder thought so). The film stays faithful to Genet’s lurid poetry and his belief that human existence is actually consummated only when you’ve sunk to the lowest level possible in society. In the romantic anarchistic Fassbinder’s hands it’s tendered a fine line that tries to keep it from becoming too childish a fantasy, too corny or too violent. The story itself is slight, unpleasant and tedious (which I can easily see turning off many viewers). What is fascinating is the re-creation of Genet’s dark images through Fassbinder’s visions and the imagination it inspires about a world that appears at first alien but slowly pushes its way forward as an absorbing mind-bending mythology. To hook onto this film the viewer must find a way to free himself and relate the strange world observed to his own subjective take on reality. The film aims like the novel to make us take a closer look at ourselves before we judge others. If one can identify with one’s own self then he will be able to overcome the fear of living, something everyone has to overcome to live one’s own life.

It’s shot in highly styled theatrical dramatics with the actors speaking in deliberately stilted tones and it’s filmed in splashy sepia tones in a dreamlike form; its port of Brest setting is given a surreal stagy treatment (the first time Fassbinder experimented in surrealism). This is the risky filmmaker’s first wide-screen work. It’s also done in English and there’s a voiceover throughout by Franco Nero, who talks into a tape recorder about his lust for the titular character.

A handsome French sailor named Querelle (Brad Davis, an American), referred to by Genet as ”the Angel of the Apocalypse,” gets a pass in the port of Brest and goes to a brothel, the Hotel Feria, to sell opium. There he surprisingly meets his brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl), someone he has a love/hate relationship with, who steers him to contact a corrupt police inspector named Mario (Burkhard Driest)– dressed as a Hell’s Angel (looking like one of the Village People), which of course turns on our boy Querelle. Robert is having an open affair with the club’s jaded singer and brothel madam, Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). She’s the wife of the proprietor Nono (Gunther Kaufmann, Fassbinder’s ex-lover), who doesn’t mind the affair. Nono is in the habit of throwing the dice with his customers to see what kind of sex they get, if they win they get to make love with his wife and if they lose they get fucked up the ass by him. Querelle loses on purpose and claims this is his first gay encounter, as he seeks to accept what he is. From here-on we will follow the clean-cut, muscular young sailor’s descent into Hell.

Querelle after a slight disagreement with his fellow smuggler, Vic (Dieter Schidor), about the meaning of manhood, knifes him to death. The sailor soon has a troubling sexual affair with Lysiane that he doesn’t enjoy as much as she does (he’s still in seventh heaven over the fucking Nono gave him). Querelle finds tenderness in his encounter with a straightforward gay Polish dockworker named Gil (also played by Hanno Pöschl), a good-hearted criminal he falls in love with who murdered a fellow laborer and is helped by him to escape and then is betrayed as Querelle goes as a stoolie to the police. In the station Gil confesses to his crimes, but the police want him to take the rap for Querelle’s murder so they can close the book on it. Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero) is a naval officer on Querelle’s ship who knows Querelle is the killer and not Gil and refuses to identify Gil as the culprit to the police, but won’t rat Querelle out as he openly pines for him though he doesn’t dare come out of the closet.

Miss Moreau sings ”Each man kills the thing he loves,” whose lyrics are by Oscar Wilde and the music is by Peer Rabin. To keep the film in check with Genet’s book, Fassbinder inserts long monologues and numerous quotes of Genet’s prose. Though the film didn’t work on all levels for me as I found Davis’s characterization of Querelle as a self-centered angelic looking brute (maybe symbolizing America) to be a flat performance without the depth I think Fassbinder was reaching for, nevertheless this overheated fantasy takes us smack into Genet’s sadomasochistic world of sex games for better or worse. There was no fun in this tale (Fassbinder keeps it humorless and self-important) and it’s not a film that you can honestly say you enjoyed, but it held my interest throughout even when I was infuriated at it for being such a sickening nightmare to behold. When you think of it, it’s the kind of controversial, self-destructive, wacko parting shot you should expect from the talented but drug-crazed gay filmmaker, who seems to be rehearsing for his soon-to-be suicide.