When Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle was first released in cinemas in 1982, it was not received with much enthusiasm by the critics, despite its inspired imagery. Most of them thought the picture was messy; they found the plot confusing and the direction over-stylised. Nowadays, although it is still not considered a great picture, the film has managed to find its place among other cult classics.
The somewhat loose storyline follows a young, handsome sailor, Querelle (Brad Davis), as he arrives in the port of Brest, deals drugs, commits murder and has his first homosexual experiences. Adapted from Jean Genet’s novel Querelle of Brest, Fassbinder’s last film attempts a tricky balance between theatricality, striking visuals and heavy literary influences. This bold cocktail is not very well mixed, but the film should at least be applauded for its distinctive vision. Fassbinder’s brilliant and controversial idea to set the film in a fake set paid off, and it is testament to his talent as a film director that despite the stagey production design, the picture still feels extremely cinematic, thanks to the elegant and fluid camera work, and deep, vibrant colours.
The story takes place in the port of Brest during a seemingly endless (and painted) sunset. In this setting, time seems to be losing its significance. We are not sure if the story we’re watching takes place during one hour, one day, or one week, and this confusion adds to the film’s dream-like quality. This sun that never sets seems to be the film’s greatest symbol; perhaps a metaphor for ambivalence or hesitation, or an undecided state of mind. The film’s protagonist, Querelle, after all seems to be in such state of mind. Dressed in a veil of overbearing masculinity yet burning with homoerotic desires, he is the ideal representative of a world that Fassbinder seems to be mocking, although paradoxically, this dry, serious picture is bereft of humour. This world is based on a self-conscious masculinity and is heavy on pretensions.
These qualities are on full display in the scene where Querelle reunites with his brother after a long time. The two engage in a tender hug, and then, perhaps pressured by the other men’s persistent gazes, they start punching each other on the stomach. Although still not funny in any obvious way, that scene betrays Fassbinder’s bitterly sarcastic take on a ‘macho’ world that tries too hard to hide its many feminine sides. The men have to quarrel. And they have to fight. They even have to kill. But on the other hand they are allowed to have sex with each other. Not to kiss though. And they cannot fall in love with each other. For that would render them ‘fairies’ – weak, and feminine. Querelle shows the struggle of a young man to accept his homosexuality in such a world.
It is unfortunate that the film should get bogged down by its literary influences. Although Fassbinder stripped down the novel’s many and complicated storylines down to the essentials, it is still not enough. When the characters engage in endless philosophical conversations, both story and subtext become harder to follow. In addition to that, there are some confusing choices that don’t really have a clear dramatic pay-off and complicate things unsatisfactorily. The actor’s theatrical performances and the film’s deadpan serious tone and lack of humour do not help matters either.
However, Fassbinder’s bold visual choices make up for the film’s shortcomings. In perfect command of his tools, he makes inventive use of images and sounds to convey messages and emotions, even if some of the plot points and dialogue sidetrack the movie and may take the viewer out of the filmic experience. In all, Querelle might not be a great work of art, but it definitely is a distinctive one. And, in a strange way, that might be a much bigger compliment.