"But what's normal?"—Nono (Günther Kaufmann) to Mario (Burkhard Driest)
What can you say about Rainer Werner Fassbinder's final film, in which he seems to rehearse his own excessive death through the self-destruction of a narcissistic anti-hero? A puzzle even to Fassbinder's own fans, Querelle marks the climax of an unconventional director's risky career.
Facts of the Case
Welcome to the port town of Brest, where nothing is quite what it seems. The local bartender runs a brothel, prostituting his own wife for kicks. But his real kicks come when the johns play dice first. If they win, they get their pick of the girls. If Nono (Günther Kaufmann) wins, he gets to screw the loser. Nono's wife, Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau) is having an open affair with the oily Robert (Hanno Pöschl), whose brother and life-long rival, Querelle (Brad Davis) in on his way to town for a visit.
Querelle is a sailor. A beefy, hunky sailor. And no one is more enamored of him than his own commanding officer, Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), who narrates his lust into a tape recorder and watches Querelle from afar. But Querelle has other plans: he wants to prove himself a criminal mastermind, capable of engineering two perfect murders: that of a fellow sailor, and his own execution. Will Querelle's desire to test the limits of justice and his own monstrous free will make him a hero, or will he be reduced to a mere object?
Based on Jean Genet's dreamlike novel of obsession, Querelle is a difficult film to like, and an even more difficult one to understand. The key lay in willingly embracing Genet's themes: crime as means of elevating one's ego above the meaningless lives of others. Genet himself embraced these radical ideas, as pimp and thief, as openly homosexual, as artist. Genet's own "Theater of Hatred" (the next step beyond Artaud and Brecht) was designed to challenge moral authority through confrontational attacks on its audience's sensibilities.
And Rainer Werner Fassbinder embraces it all in a way that can only suggest an artist who has reached his own breaking point. Indeed, Querelle marked Fassbinder's final film; he would shortly thereafter die from a massive drug overdose. His own body of work drew from the painful realities of everyday existence: characters struggling to overcome the pressures of poverty and social control through acts of defiance that gradually dehumanize them in the process. But most of these films—Fear Eats the Soul, The Merchant of Four Seasons, and the television mini-series Berlin Alexanderplatz—work their dark magic subtly, through careful use of exaggeration (as opposed to hysterical melodrama) and calculated emotional distance (borrowed from Brecht's ideas about "alienation" as a tool of political critique in theater).
Querelle is nothing like those films, as much an attack on Fassbinder's own body of work as it is an attack on the conventions of sexual identity in film. Like Jack London (in Martin Eden) or Yukio Mishima (in Runaway Horses), Fassbinder seems to be rehearsing his own suicide in Querelle, stepping outside himself and scrutinizing his own place in the cosmos with a wickedly objective eye. Fassbinder plays with the camera's own tendency toward objectivity. As Querelle tells us, "Objectivity is the companion of total power. It holds sway over unchallengeable moral authority." The camera watches all things, and voice-over narration explains the actions and thoughts of the characters. At times, the scene dissolves into on-screen text—quotes from writers like Plutarch or explanations of the story—in order to thwart our immersion into the film. We are held at a distance, watching the stylized sets, the deliberately stiff acting—always reminded that we are viewing a fiction unrolling inside Fassbinder's head (or perhaps Genet's, since his signature is affixed to the final image of the film).
The power of the gaze: while Querelle is always watched with desire by others (Nono, Robert, Lysiane, Seblon), he only sees himself. The supreme narcissist, Querelle uses his own sexuality as a weapon to manipulate others, seducing men and women alike. In a perverse way, he is the hero of this story, the only character driven toward some sort of authenticity, even if that truth manifests itself as pure crime. The murder of Vic is easy: a quick knife, then a kiss. Engineering his own destruction is much harder: Querelle allows himself to be seduced (or so they all think) by Nono, the cop Mario, and fellow murderer Gil (also played by Hanno Pöschl, suggesting the desire between the two brothers), all as part of a complex plan to frame Gil for Vic's murder, then betray him—and in doing so, Querelle betrays himself. This is his destruction: to obliterate his own ego through empathy for Gil, and to become Seblon's prize. And Seblon's objective narration becomes real power. Humility is Querelle's method of self-execution, and as Seblon tells us through his tape, "Humility can only be born of humiliation."
Querelle is a film about gazing, in which we (the audience) are forced to gaze from a distance as well, to render order on the morally disjointed world where legal and sexual standards shift constantly. But this objectivity borders on farce: Fassbinder mocks morality, and himself, even blotting out a plaintive, romantic song by one of the characters with the sounds of a cheap video game. And he certainly does not want the film to be easy to watch. Casual viewers will be extremely offended by the obscene language and explicit homosexual acts. But the film is meant as a challenge to its audience, a final act of defiance by a director who certainly had nothing left to lose.
In the spirit of resistance to convention, Fassbinder shot Querelle in English (as opposed to his native German), and the Columbia DVD release preserves the mono soundtrack (and adds a stereo French dub). No extras are included with the film (some snippets from Genet's novel would have been quite welcome, or at least an essay on the insert helping to explain the film to those unfamiliar with the work of Genet or Fassbinder), other than a pair of trailers for other films which bear little thematic resemblance to this one: The Opposite of Sex and sex, lies and videotape (this second one quite faded and jittery).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The audio is unspectacular but fine (the lack of audio immersion is part of the alienating effect of the film), and the print is deliberately garish, but not overbright thanks to a solid anamorphic transfer. The lack of extras is certainly a problem. Querelle is, as I stated up front, a difficult film to understand, and Columbia seems to have released it in a vacuum. So little Fassbinder is available on DVD anyway, and I suspect only fans of his work (and those mistaking this film for something else) are going to approach this disc—and most of those are likely to find it so radically different from his other work that they will probably be baffled.
Do I recommend Querelle? Certainly not to a casual viewer who is hoping for something relaxing and entertaining. That is not to say that Querelle is a bad film; categories of ordinary aesthetics do not really apply to it. Those familiar with the work of Genet will certainly get what Fassbinder is trying to do here. And those up to an intellectual challenge are encouraged to try a rental (although you likely will not find this in your local video store—the content is far too rough). Fassbinder sets out to deliberately offend you and make you rethink your moral standards. So if the film offends you, he is doing his job.
This is one of those films where the "Scales of Justice" we DVD Verdict reviewers are obligated to use seem oddly out of place. How do you evaluate acting that is deliberately forced in order to alienate you from the characters? How do you rate a story whose effect depends on how deeply you are offended by it? And if you do not get angry at the movie, has Fassbinder failed? Like Querelle, who must become a slave, erase his identity, in order to succeed in proving himself truly free and the architect of his own destiny, Fassbinder seems bent on picking a fight, wanting to construct a haughty crime of a movie in order to prove that he can thumb his nose at convention. And in succeeding to make himself understood, he fails. Genet would have been proud.
Querelle and Fassbinder place themselves above the ordinary concerns of justice, and the court finds it has no jurisdiction in this case. Columbia Tristar however is stripped to the waist and forced to submit to ten lashes for releasing this DVD with no relevant extra content. Next time, we will turn you over to Nono for a game of dice.
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Scales of Justice
• Trailers for The Opposite of Sex and sex, lies and videotape
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