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Considering Fassbinder’s ‘Querelle,’ Screening This Week In New York

Considering Fassbinder’s 'Querelle,' Screening This Week In New York

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last film,
“Querelle,” adapted from Jean Genet’s “Querelle de Brest,” is a curiosity piece
to be sure, but anyone keen to see (or rescreen) this highly stylized film
should take the opportunity to see “Querelle” at the Film Society of Lincoln
Center’s retrospective of Fassbinder’s late work.

One of
Fassbinder’s queerest films, “Querelle” drips with eroticism from its first
shot of the sweaty, shirtless title character (Brad Davis). Querelle cuts a
striking figure, and it is obvious why Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero) desires
him. The plot has Querelle entering a bar/brothel where he hopes to make a drug
deal. In the bar, he reunites with his brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl), who is
having an affair with Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Querelle, however, shuns them
and becomes intimate with Lysiane’s husband Nono (Günther Kaufmann). Querelle cheats
at a game of dice so he can be fucked by Nono. The act is shot in sweaty, dreamy
close up that emphasizes the pain and pleasure Querelle has in his first
experience of anal sex. [A fantastic poster Andy Warhol designed for the film
captures the feeling of this scene, even though the men in the image aren’t
reflective of those onscreen.]

Fassbinder refrains
from showing nudity in the explicit sex acts, but the sexual intensity remains
palpable throughout. This eroticism is what makes the film so stimulating for
gay viewers. What may be frustrating is that as Querelle becomes sexually
intimate with several other men, he continuously denies his homosexuality (as
do most of the other male characters). Gil (Pöschl, in a double role) has a
flirtation with the beautiful young man Roger (Laurent Malet) that underscores
this point.

Querelle finds leather clad bar patron Mario (Burkhard Driest), alluring. Mario
coaxes Querelle to touch his hard-on and give him a handjob, which he does.
Querelle also falls in love with Gil and would fuck him if Querelle, who
enjoyed being sodomized, knew how to be sexually dominant. Instead, Querelle
and Gil share some impassioned kisses. Querelle also teases Seblon, with his
sexiness; a scene where Querelle covered in coal dust talks with Lieutenant
Seblon may be the film’s most seductive.

Fassbinder may
be using these scenes of sexuality to counterbalance the film’s violence. But
despite the near constant threat of danger, a fight between Querelle and his
brother is described as a “lover’s quarrel” and plays like a dance sequence.
Likewise, Querelle’s murder of another sailor, is steeped in erotic gestures.
This violent attack mirrors Gil’s murder of a tormentor—an act that ultimately brings Gil and Querelle together.

“Querelle” has
its characters talk about masculinity throughout the film, but the film’s sex and
violence speak more clearly. This also may be why the acting is often stiff, as
if the performers—Davis included—had trouble with the English
dialogue. A few instances where Fassbinder inserts quotes from Genet and others
are meant to help the narrative, but these interruptions seem unnecessary.

That said, Fassbinder’s
film has many other visual merits. The artificial sets are inspired, as are the
erotic/phallic designs on the bar/brothel’s windows. The film is also bathed in
a burnished tone that simply glows. And the filmmaker shoots Davis, mostly clad
in his tight white sailor’s uniform, in a way that makes him irresistible. 

“Querelle” may
not be Fassbinder’s best film, but it yields considerable pleasures.

“Querelle” plays November 26 at 8:30
pm at Walter Reade.

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