Written by Burkhard Driest and R.W. Fassbinder, based on the novel by Jean Genet
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring Brad Davis, Franco Nero, and Jeanne Moreau
Cinematography by Xaver Schwarzenberger and Josef Vavra
Everything about Querelle, Fassbinder’s lush and preposterous final work, demonstrates the director’s immense love for his source material. But as the aging madame Lysiane’s off-key belting reminds us throughout the film, “each man kills the thing he loves”. To say that Fassbinder’s film constitutes first degree murder by adaptation would be unfair; like the novel’s eponymous protagonist, Querelle is shielded by its own untouchable beauty. That beauty is far more seductive in Genet’s novel, however, where most of the text consists of a rich exploration of desire and motivation. On screen, Querelle’s murders and liaisons appear as no more than a shimmering, baffling spectacle.
Luckily that spectacle manages to sustain the film’s 110 minutes of running time. The film set, thoroughly theatrical and absurd, invites the viewer into a fun-house of phallic turrets and endless sunsets (the entire film takes place under an orange glow). As Querelle, the murderous homosexual sailor at the center of all this mayhem, bounces among his many buddies, pals, and admirers, from one fight or love scene to the next, he is always framed within a maze of railings, bridges, and trenches, posed beside various uniforms that ogle or grope him. Fassbinder allows the viewer the same scopophilic pleasures which the Lieutenant indulges in by peering down at the workmen on the deck below, and his camera constantly moves and reframes Brad Davis with detached fascination. He lights his actors with an affection normally reserved for old movie heroines, bathing them in a soft, glittering glow even when their bodies are soiled with coal dust. In an especially surreal touch, he frequently lights the actors’ eyes with a stark blue rectangle. One of the most moving aspects of the novel is how the men express affection through verbal or physical violence, and the fight scenes, staged like dances, are affecting in spite of their comical absurdity. Various anachronisms reinterpret and modernize the narrative without distracting from it: pinball machines, tape recorders, gangster-flick detective costumes, and leather-daddy police uniforms are all integrated into Fassbinder’s dream of Brest, a small French coastal town. It’s such a glorious dream that we might never wake up, if it only had more weight.
The actors present enough surprises that we always feel there might be more to learn about them. Jeanne Moreau’s Lysiane, the only female character in the movie, has a laugh whose unexpected violence surpasses the many stab wounds incurred by the men. Brad Davis’ Querelle has an enchanting naiveté that somehow comes close to explaining his inexplicable crimes. Yet none of this reaches Genet’s level of insight. For example, one of the book’s most fascinating characters, the quasi-accidental murderer Gil who is forced into hiding after killing a fellow sailor in a drunken rage, is rendered flat and dull. Whereas Genet probed Gil’s inability to comprehend his crime and the burgeoning fatalism that results from it, Hanno Pöschl plays him as an unchanged street rat; the screenplay provides little room for much else.
The film’s great flaw, then, is Fassbinder’s willful adherence to the text, a product of the same palpable love that gives the film its surface beauty. Rarely does the director avoid a novelistic device in favor of a cinematic one; Genet’s text is squeezed into the film by way of an invisible voice-over narrator, title cards, and even the actors, who present the novel’s narration in unnatural monologues. All this comes across as unyieldingly faithful rather than avant-garde. A radical restructuring akin to David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, for example, could have allowed the truest essence of the novel to shine through in an entirely new form.
Fassbinder focuses the narrative somewhat through the framing device of Lysiane’s tarot readings, which she presents to Querelle’s brother Robert. The film begins with an ominous portent: Querelle is in grave danger of “finding himself”. As she lays the cards out at the end of the film, she recants. “I was wrong”, she tells Robert, delighted, “You haven’t got a brother!” For all the beauty of such inscrutable poetry, a movie in which the protagonist does not really exist is a movie in which the director’s vision is rendered nonexistent. As a result, Querelle floats away when you’re done with it, like an aimless hustler.