Saturday 30 January 2016

Querelle [1982]

QUERELLE is a German-French drama that was written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and originally released in August 1982, two months after Fassbinder's death.  It stars Brad Davis, Franco Nero, Jeanne Moreau and Gunther Kaufmann.  Based on a novel by Jean Genet, the film concerns Querelle, an amoral bisexual sailor who gets mixed up in drug smuggling and murder when his ship docks in Brest.

It's the best I could do in one sentence but that short summary reveals virtually nothing about what is really going on in this movie.  It's one of the most super-heated, sexually-charged, febrile, delirious, oneiric, erotic dramas I've ever seen and as such is the natural culmination of all the themes and emotions that Fassbinder explored in his brief but blazing career.  The film encompasses heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality but it's more accurate to say it chiefly concerns lust.

Heterosexual lust...

...and homosexual lust.
I think it's important to state at the outset that Jean Genet and Fassbinder were homosexual.  I'm ashamed to say I know very little about Genet but it's certainly true of Fassbinder that he was a homosexual who also needed women in his life. Obviously Fassbinder made many brilliant films about women but QUERELLE is his most explicitly queer film.  I say "queer" not as a pejorative but in the manner it has come to be used to describe a genre of film-making.  The ever-reliable wikipedia sums it up well:

In the films of New Queer Cinema, the protagonists and narratives were predominantly LGBT, but were presented invariably as outsiders and renegades from the rules of conventional society, and embraced radical and unconventional gender roles and ways of life, frequently casting themselves as outlaws or fugitives.

That sentence is entirely true of QUERELLE.  This film makes absolutely no bones, if you'll pardon the expression, about what it is; there is no beating around the bush, if you'll pardon that expression too, in depicting the characters' desires and actions.  Unless you have a particularly broad-minded maiden aunt this is not the kind of film you should choose to settle down and watch with her.  The imagery and dialogue are full on; that's not to say it is explicit in the conventional sense, for there is no real nudity, more that it gets up close and very personal.

Central to this is Brad Davis as Querelle.  Davis, himself a bisexual man, is presented as a sexual being, almost the embodiment of sexual desire.  His perfect physique is objectified both by the other characters and by Fassbinder's camera.  On the blu-ray edition of the film there is an interesting documentary in which the themes of the film are explored and one interviewee states that Davis represents the phallus that all the other characters, male or female, desire.

The perfunctory narrative sees Querelle, a sailor, come ashore in Brest where his ship has docked.  We are shown that his officer, Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), is a closeted homosexual who harbours a secret longing for him.  Querelle heads to a bar / brothel owned by Lisianne (Jeanne Moreau) but run by her husband Nono (Gunther Kaufmann).  Lisianne is straight but Nono is gay; as such they have an open relationship.  When a new client comes in, he must play dice with Nono: if the client wins, he can have his pick of the women, including Lisianne; if Nono wins, he can have sex with the client.

Lisianne dances with Querelle.  NB  Note Lieutenant Seblon watching them through the window.

This is the situation Querelle walks into.  He meets his brother Robert (Hanno Poschl), Lisianne's lover.  Despite having an uneasy relationship with Querelle, Robert introduces him to Nono to facilitate an opium smuggling score that Querelle wants to set up.  Nono and friend Mario (Burkhardt Driest), a police officer, are immediately drawn to Querelle as, for that matter, is Lisianne.

Vic Rivette and Querelle

Querelle arranges for a sailor colleague Vic (Dieter Schidor) to bring the drugs to the dock, where Querelle will pick them up.  Rendezvousing with Vic afterwards, the two start arguing about whether one or both of them would enjoy making it with another man and Querelle slits Vic's throat.  This starts Querelle along a path which draws him closer to other criminals in a reverse morality in which one's stature and attraction to others grows as one's crimes become more serious.

Querelle is an amoral narcissist for whom sex and death are interchangeable.  He is as likely to make love to someone as he is to kill them.  In that sense, his desire is for power as much as it is for pleasure.  There are several sequences in which Querelle, turned on by violence as well as lust, whips out his flick-knife the symbolism of which is obvious.

Not that that is the most overt symbolism: the notorious columns on the quayside in Brest are the most obvious example but the whole production and set design are absolutely incredible, underlining themes above and beyond sexuality.

Fassbinder uses a considerable amount of religious symbolism.  For instance, there are repeated scenes involving blood and saliva which, along with sweat - and Querelle is often shown bathed in sweat - represent the essential bodily fluids. It is also worth mentioning, and there's no polite way to put this, sperm which although never shown on screen is clearly produced in significant amounts by a number of different characters.  These fluids represent life, in the sense of vitality.

Life, in the sense of fertility, is represented by the fruit of the orangery where, ironically, Querelle murders Vic Rivette.  The murder itself, or at least Vic's dead body, is Christ-like in its pose and also with respect to the wound Querelle inflicts post-mortem.

Querelle murders Vic in the orangery.

Rings also feature a great deal, presumably for their religious connotations but also for the binding they represent: when bride and groom exchange rings at a wedding ceremony they become, by placing a ring on each other's finger, master and slave at the same time.

As is usual in Fassbinder's films, colour is a key element.  The dominant colour in QUERELLE is orange.  Orange is also the colour most commonly used to depict the god Bacchus (or, in the Greek pantheon Dionysus) who inter alia was the god of fertility.  As the mid-point between yellow and red, orange also represents the balance between spirit and libido.  Fassbinder sometimes darkens the shade of orange, indicating a shift towards the libido, or lust; sometimes it lightens, towards yellow, indicating divine love.

Lt Seblon daydreams about his love for Querelle.  Note the deep orange background.

Querelle offers to help Gil.  Note the pale orange background.

Another duality, this time black and white, is applied to Querelle's personality as depicted through his clothes.  He is often seen in his white sailor's uniform, representing innocence and purity, sometimes with his dark naval coat worn over it, and in one sequence is covered head to foot in coal dust, the primeval antithesis of white.

Querelle spends most of his life at sea which traditionally has been used as a symbol for the human heart as the seat of passion and the dynamism of life, which underlines the point about body fluids being used to represent vitality.

In the documentary on the blu-ray edition an interviewee talks about Genet's novel which provides more detail about Querelle than Fassbinder's film does.  Evidently Querelle has murdered before, in several ports around the world, and as this restless, questing figure can be seen as a Flying Dutchman figure who in some interpretations of that legend must roam the seas until he finds a faithful lover.

The Bar Feria.  Note the Parisian cafe decor, the French policeman's kepi, the modern stone mason's helmet, and the arcade machine being played by the man in the beard.

In general the production design suggests the film is set in an unspecified past historical period. The bar, in particular, recalls both the Weimar Republic and French cafes of the 1940s. However, Fassbinder inserts all sorts of anachronisms, much as Alex Cox does in his film WALKER [1987], to suggest that his themes are applicable now as then.

Lt Seblon uses a dictaphone to record his lustful thoughts about Querelle.

For instance, Lieutenant Seblon dictates his love for Querelle to a Sony voice recorder; in the bar, one of the stone masons, Theo, plays an arcade game; parked on the dock is a modern Suzuki motorbike.

Note the Suzuki motorbike in the foreground.
The Weimar Republic look is no accident since the production / set designer on QUERELLE was Rolf Zehetbauer who had previously worked on Bob Fosse's CABARET [1972] and Fassbinder's own LILI MARLEEN [1981].  The two collaborated to devise one single set on which the entire film would be shot. Fassbinder considered that Genet's novel would be impossible to film using a realist aesthetic and therefore decided to do it in a stylised manner. Thus the film has an intentionally artificial, staged look much like a theatrical production.

This is probably why, more than anything, QUERELLE resembles an opera without a score. The intensity of the emotions, the passion, the love, jealousy, ambition, betrayal and desire are the stuff of opera, the grand stage. Indeed, there is one remarkable sequence in which Querelle and his brother face off with each other in a knife fight.

Beautifully choreographed, it is essentially a dance without music.  It's true there is one song, performed by Jeanne Moreau, which is repeated several times (as in a Wagnerian leitmotif) but frankly it's a bit crap.

The 'male gaze' at a man, Querelle (L) polishing Lt Seblon's boots.

QUERELLE is the kind of film which doesn't sit well with film theorist Laura Mulvey's conception of the 'male gaze', the masculine perspective which dominates cinema.  Fassbinder puts the spectator into the place of a homosexual observer; in this case the camera fetishises not a woman's body but a man's.  This is nowhere more the case than in the camera's adoration of Brad Davis.  His costumes are designed specifically to show off his body.

Davis was a rather tragic individual.  Allegedly he was sexually abused by one or possibly both of his parents and as a result became a troubled young man.  He had drug and alcohol problems and, presumably in part as a consequence of becoming sexualised at a young age, was bisexual.  His breakthrough role was in Alan Parker's MIDNIGHT EXPRESS [1978] in which he plays another young man who gets mixed up in drug smuggling, violence, murder and illicit sex.  Sadly Davis did not go on to major stardom.  On the one hand that is surprising because he had the looks and the talent and the world at his feet in 1978.  On the other hand, it isn't surprising because he had significant personal problems and, no doubt, because he played the lead in QUERELLE.

Brad Davis as Querelle

It was an incredibly risky move for an actor to take.  It's hard now to think of anyone else playing Querelle, so inextricably linked is Davis to the role, but in 1982 it's hard to think of any other American movie star wanting to be involved.  As a bisexual man, the homosexual love scenes were, one assumes, not an issue for him but the impact they would have had on the public and industry perceptions of him were plainly catastrophic.  Never again did he make a major film, much less in a lead role.  He made a handful of desultory B-movies and worked on forgettable TV movies but that was that.  In 1985 he contracted HIV and his health worsened gradually to the point where in 1991, aged just 41, he carried out an assisted suicide.

Brad Davis (1949 - 1991)

I think QUERELLE is such an extraordinary film that Brad Davis will be remembered for a long, long time.  He is absolutely central to the film working at all and his performance, which at first seems somewhat blank, becomes on subsequent viewings noticeably subtle and full of attention to detail.  At times he reminds me of the magnetism of James Dean.

L-R Dieter Schidor, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Brad Davis, Andy Warhol

Rainer Werner Fassbinder who lived life if anything even faster than Brad Davis died of a drug overdose before QUERELLE had its premiere.  A quite extraordinary individual, and I mean that in the literal sense, Fassbinder worked at a frantic pace throughout his relatively brief career but left behind a body of work unique in cinema.  It would be impossible to do him or his films justice in two or three paragraphs here so I will limit myself to a few remarks and perhaps give the man a post of his own at a later date.

Fassbinder made his first feature film in 1969 and QUERELLE, his last, in 1982.  In that 13-year period he made a staggering 40 features, two TV mini-series (including the mammoth 15-hour BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ [1980]) as well as two dozen stage plays.  Some of it, a lot of it in fact, encompasses the best that European cinema has ever produced.  He was by all accounts a mercurial, capricious man but as far as his work is concerned, what I like about Fassbinder is that he sees beauty everywhere, most often in places where one would least expect to find it, such as in the tentative romance between a middle-aged German woman and a black immigrant in FEAR EATS THE SOUL [1974].

Gunther Kaufmann as Nono

Like Peckinpah, John Ford and others before him, Fassbinder had a stock company of actors whom he used many times in his films.  In his early career, for reasons of cost and expediency, these tended to be friends - non-actors who were drafted in to help out.  For instance, Gunther Kaufmann who plays Nono was Fassbinder's sometime lover who worked with him a dozen times 

Jeanne Moreau as Lisianne

Franco Nero as Lieutenant Seblon

Latterly, after he had experienced belated success Fassbinder's productions got larger and more expensive; he was able therefore to use more well-known actors.  QUERELLE is a case in point: aside from Brad Davis, he got Franco Nero and Jeanne Moreau, which considering the nature of the film is some achievement.  Also involved are three actors from Peckinpah's CROSS OF IRON [1977], namely Burkhard Driest, Dieter Schidor and Roger Fritz.

Burkhardt Driest (R) as Mario

Dieter Schidor as Vic Rivette

Roger Fritz as Marcellin

Similarly, many of the crew were regular collaborators.  The two cinematographers Xaver Schwerzenberger and Josef Vavra had worked with him numerous times.  Co-editor Julie Lorenz worked in a wide range of capacities for Fassbinder, not least as his companion towards the end of his life.  The score is by Peer Raben who was another long-serving collaborator and who, incidentally, became Kaufmann's lover when the latter split with Fassbinder.  It says something, I'm not quite sure what, about the director that despite this he continued to involve both Raben and Kaufmann in his films.  As well as their acting roles, Driest co-wrote the script, Schidor was the producer and Fritz functioned as the stills photographer.

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