Fassbinder’s final film, Querelle tells the story of the titular sailor in the French navy who, while ashore in the town of Brest, embarks on a voyage of sexual awakening…in what we might call “the company of men.”
It’s a strange film, oddly-hued with burnt yellows and oranges, conspicuously filmed on a sound stage. Among the accoutrements of the set are, atop a stone retaining wall, large turrets that—I’m not kidding—are sculpted to look like enormous cock-and-balls.
Fassbinder’s vision of the Jean Genet book upon which the film is based is nearly laughable (now) in its use of fetish and stereotype of gay experience:
We first encounter Querelle under the loving gaze of his lieutenant, who routinely narrates into a tape recorder the ups and downs of loving Querelle, who seems unaware of his lieutenant’s affections. As the lieutenant speaks, Querelle dutifully shines one of his commanding officer’s boots, his skin sheened with sweat, light reflecting off the contours of his muscles.
Querelle hears that, in town, at the local brothel, the owner challenges every man to play dice. Winners get their pick of the women; losers must allow themselves to be screwed by the owner himself. Querelle immediately dashes off to the bar, where he runs into his brother (Robert), a “police officer” wearing leather fetish gear, and the owner, a large African American man behind the bar.
Querelle cheats and loses at dice, then bends forward over a table to take his lumps.
A side story features the same actor who plays Robert as Gilles, a mason who is torn between his affections for a young man and his obligation to become romantically involves with the man’s sister. The other masons verbally abuse Gilles, effectively calling him a sissy and driving Gilles to murder a coworker, which lands him in jail. Querelle sends the poor guy up the river after seeming to “fall” for him.
Querelle is a tough character to like. He seems empty, shapeless—soulless. To get revenge against his brother, Querelle seduces the prostitute Robert loves (played inexplicably by Jeanne Moreau). He murders another sailor and blames it on Gilles. He smuggles drugs. He lies, cheats, steals, mostly to get laid and mostly to avoid being perceived as a homosexual. But Fassbinder’s direction of the film is loving, gentle—hazy, like a fond memory of the past. The dialogue is strange, jarring, non-narrative, even postmodern at times, and Fassbinder cuts in title cards with strange quotes, some which seem to come from Genet’s novel. Top this off with a voice-over narration from an unknown omniscient observer and well, you’ve got quite a cinematic puzzle on your hands.
The film isn’t homophobic, however, by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, I think it seeks to capture the oppression and exclusion of the closet. Brest is a city full of phallic masonry, fetish gear, and overt graffiti (“Younger man seeks boys with huge cocks,” for instance), and yet, all the man-on-man encounters, even the loving and non-sexual ones, occur away from everyone else, in alleys and bedrooms and around dark corners. That one man murders another in response to the victim’s harassment of him is almost vindicating in a we’re-not-going-to-take-this-anymore…especially as Gilles, the killer, is the film’s one and only sympathetic characters, victim of circumstance himself, wanting so desperately to love the man he knows he shouldn’t…
What is wonderful about this film, though, is Franco Nero.