Fassbinder had always wanted to film Genet’s novel but by the time he got around to it he did not live long enough to see the première of either the original English language version or the German dubbed version.
The movie did not attempt to transform the novel into what could be conceived as normal cinematic form instead he used spoken commentary, fading out to a blank white screen and allowing a written text, which appears on screen at regular intervals, explain what’s happening. For example this text accompanies a scene where we witness Querelle ass-fucked by another man ‘for the first time Querelle kissed another man on the mouth. It seemed to him as if he was thrusting his face against a mirror, which reflected his own image, as if his tongue were rooting in the stony interior of a granite head’ another follows an incident where Querelle offers to help an individual that resembles his brother, he dresses him in his brothers clothes, kisses him, declares his love and hands him over to the police. ‘Querelle had entered into a kind of unspoken pact with the devil. He didn’t sign away his soul or his body, but something just as precious: a friend. And the death of this friend sanctifies his crime. It is our task to express what is universal in a particular phenomenon. It’s no longer about a work of art – for the work of art is free’. I think you probable get the idea.
Everything was filmed in a studio with the use of ‘lurid expressionist colour’ it’s obvious that the sets are nothing more than cardboard cut outs, which make the whole film seem like a theatrical production. The film stars Brad Davis as Querelle, Franco Nero as Lieutenant Seblon, Jeanne Moreau, who had lost none of her sexual allure at the age of 54, plays Lysiane and RWF regular Gunter Kaufmann as Nono. The story is about a sailor Georges Querelle whose ship the Vengeur arrives in Brest. Going onshore with a quantity of opium he makes a deal to sell it to Nono the landlord of the Feria brothel. Subsequently he murders his accomplice to keep all the profit. Nono’s wife Lysiane is the lover of Querelle brother Robert with whom he has a love hate relationship. He also wants to sleep with Nono’s wife but to do so has to enter into a game of dice, if Nono loses Querelle will be allowed to make love to Lysiane, if Nono wins he will have to submit to anal sex with the bar owner first, allowing Nono to proclaim ‘That way, I can say my wife only sleeps with assholes’ Continuing with a life style of murder, thieving and sex Querelle embarks on a journey of self discovery. It’s not until the end of the film that Lieutenant Seblon reveals his love for our main protagonist.’
In his last interview Fassbinder stated ‘Someone who wants to liberate himself for a new society must go down to the deepest depths of this society. Someone who does that, in whatever way, is fascinating. That’s obvious’ a statement that the Danish author Christian Braad Thomsen claims has to do with living out all your repressed desires, something RWF describes as ‘doubling one self’ which is, I believe, the core component of the directors film, is it a coincidence that the final shot in RWF’s final film is a mirror image? He also sets out to prove that all human relationships are artificial and that life is just an extension of a three-act play: he does have a point. As normal with his films, violence and murder are interchangeable with sex although sex is temporary and death is the final release with Braad Thomsen opining that the whole film can be understood as Querelle’s journey into the realm of the dead! He also offers the opinion that our sailor is a Jesus substitute but without seeing the film again and watching from that point of view I would not presume to agree. Subject of much controversy, not least because of its free and provocative depiction of homosexuality and criminality, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final movie is a return to the early avant-garde films and one that the viewer would benefit from multiple viewings.
In the thirteen years during which he made films, he changed the face of cinematic art and our idea of what film can be. Until one day he disappeared as suddenly as he had come.