Anyone who hasn’t experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing of ecstasy at all.”
– Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love (1986)

Querelle was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film, shot only a few months before his death at age 37. For filmmaker Monika Treut, Querelle “sums up what Fassbinder expressed in many of his earlier films,”1 but Querelle is intriguing also for intimating new and unexplored directions. It shares the common Fassbinder themes of betrayal, power relations, rivalry, ritual, and love, but its stylized set, stiff performances, and use of colour contrasts with his more naturalistic style in the 1970s.

Querelle was met with controversy, disappointment, and what Frank Episale describes as “disorientation” amongst critics.2 Fassbinder followed but also challenged his source material, genre and other film conventions, the politics and preferred representation of Gay Liberation, and the expectations of his audience. Critics have faithlessly failed to appreciate how on several levels, Fassbinder’s film—like his protagonist Querelle—performs a consummate act of betrayal.

The opening credits announce Querelle as “a film about Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest,” suggesting that it is more of a response to the French author’s 1947 novel than an adaptation that prioritises fidelity. The basic story, which Fassbinder described as “a fairly uninteresting (in fact, third-class) story about a criminal”3 is essentially adhered to, but Genet’s strange world is redesigned into a surreal landscape or Fassbinder’s own fetishistic fantasy of the novel.

Although Fassbinder approached other genres such as melodrama with a combination of sincerity and irony—for instance, in Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1973)—the way he approached Genet with this double-vision, “simultaneously embracing the lush angst of the source material and recontextualizing it within a post-Brechtian, post-modern sensibility,” is more disorientating for the audience.4 Fassbinder decontextualises Genet’s Querelle de Brest: the setting of Brest, anchored in a real and nostalgic sense of place for Genet, is made artificial and kitsch, and costumes and props make it difficult to locate in one recognisable era. The tension between sincerity and irony may also be due to the struggles that Fassbinder reportedly had in adapting the erotic themes of the novel: “He groped his way through the different layers of the text, trying to decide how to handle the sexuality,” according to Harry Baer (assistant director and actor).5

Querelle is arguably both the last film of New German Cinema and a precursor to New Queer Cinema.6 In the early 1990s, New Queer Cinema filmmakers such as Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, and Todd Haynes7 embraced and politicised the elements of transgression, perversion, and association between criminality and homosexuality that Fassbinder had more ambivalently or ironically begun to appropriate from Genet in 1982. These later filmmakers return to the spirit of Genet, who belonged to a tradition of transgressive literature that portrayed depravity, betrayal, and criminality as transcendent or utopian.

Fassbinder’s ambivalent representations of homosexuality were controversial at the time, for instance, James Roy MacBean saw Querelle as offering “little, if anything, that could be constructive, either toward harmonious understanding between gays and straights or toward a vibrant and viable esthetics of gay cinema.”8 A decade later, the film’s place in queer cinema was more appreciated.9 Looking back at Fassbinder’s gay films, Al LaValley wrote in 1994 that “they pay no attention to the tenets of Gay Liberation yet somehow come out of them, [which] seems to me a mark of their power and continuing excitement.’10 Films such as Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972), Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1974), and Querelle addressed issues including exploitation, dominance, class, and gender expression, “that have been given little treatment in gay film or, when looked at, follow politically correct lines or the forms of dominant male fantasy.”11 Fassbinder’s gay films still seem radical in certain ways even today (over 20 years after LaValley’s observation) because these issues remain underexplored in queer cinema.

Another tension in the film is created by the way it simultaneously works within and against both arthouse styles and gay pornography, challenging genre boundaries and audience sensibilities. Fassbinder fans will recognise his auteurist use of frames within frames; the frequent disruptions of the gaze created through mirrors, glass, or door/window frames; and vertical bisection of the frame with various objects. These reframings—along with the staginess and prominence of the set within the frame—create a containment that bleeds out through the haze of colour, soft focus and unobstructed close-ups in the sex scenes. The sex scenes provide an anchor in the film, suturing the viewer through skillful editing (by Juliane Lorenz) and standing in contrast to other scenes in which we gaze upon stilted sailors engaging in ritualistic violence, erotic looks, and choreographed movement.

One of the most striking aspects of Querelle, which holds it in visual memory, is its colour—a warm orange glow suffuses the film and raises its temperature. In Lola (1981), Fassbinder used garish pinks and greens in a similarly stylized lighting design. Douglas Sirk’s films are possibly the inspiration for the unnatural lighting and shadows that cut across faces in Querelle, as Fassbinder admired these techniques in Sirk’s melodramas.12

Richard Misek argues that Querelle presents an ideological challenge to the hegemony of white light in film, naming it the “most sustained rejection of white light” in analogue cinema.13 Misek explains that white light onscreen is not a neutral process of representation: white light became (and remains) the dominant and supposedly ‘natural’ colour temperature. Analogous to the way queer literature and film challenge heteronormativity’s representational power in constructing certain morals, behaviours, and relationships as normal, natural, and invisible, Fassbinder ‘queers’ the invisible ideology of white light. The human eye tends not to perceive colour temperatures unless they mix,14 so the use of bright blue and green that sets off the orange glow is another layer of aesthetic and technical innovation that underscores Fassbinder’s many betrayals.

Querelle was the final film of over forty features in Fassbinder’s remarkable directorial career, but is often regarded as somewhat of an anomalous and disappointing finale. However, an understanding and re-valuing of Fassbinder’s betrayals of Genet’s novel, audience sensibilities, Gay Liberation politics, genre boundaries and film conventions (particularly white light) can lead to an appreciation of its cultural and aesthetic value and restore our faith in Fassbinder’s concluding contribution to cinema.

 

Querelle (1982 German Federal Republic/France 106 min)

Prod Co: Planet-Film, Albatros-Produktion, Gaumont, in association with Sam Waynberg Prod: Dieter Schidor Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Scr: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, from Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest Phot: Xaver Schwarzenberger Ed: Juliane Lorenz and Franz Walsch (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) Prod Des: Rolf Zehetbauer Cos: Barbara Baum Mus: Peer Raben

Cast: Brad Davis, Franco Nero, Jeanne Moreau, Laurent Malet, Hanno Pöschl, Günther Kaufmann, Burkhard Driest, Dieter Schidor, Harry Baer

 

Endnotes

  1. Monika Treut, “Man to Man,” Sight & Sound 4:5 (May 1994): p. 69.
  2. Frank Episale, “Genet Meets Fassbinder: Sexual Disorientation(s) in Querelle,” Bright Lights Film Journal (August 2006), http://brightlightsfilm.com/genet-meets-fassbinder-sexual-disorientations-querelle/
  3. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Querelle: The Film Book, Dieter Schidor and Michael McLernon, eds. (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1982), p.11
  4. Frank Episale, “Genet Meets Fassbinder: Sexual Disorientation(s) in Querelle,” Bright Lights Film Journal (August 2006), http://brightlightsfilm.com/genet-meets-fassbinder-sexual-disorientations-querelle/
  5. Harry Baer quoted in Wallace Steadman Watson, Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Private and Public Art (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), p. 259.
  6. Thanks to Dion Kagan for his feedback on this article and our fruitful discussions about New Queer Cinema.
  7. Todd Haynes, in particular, displays the influence of Fassbinder and his lineage (Douglas Sirk and Jean Genet) in his first feature, Poison (1991).
  8. James Roy MacBean, “Between Kitsch & Fascism: Notes on Fassbinder, Pasolini, (Homo)Sexual Politics, the Exotic, the Erotic & other Consuming Passions,” Cinéaste 13:4 (1984), p. 13.
  9. For example, see Monika Treut, “Man to Man,” Sight & Sound 4:5 (May 1994): p. 69; Al LaValley, “The Gay Liberation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Male Subjectivity, Male Bodies, Male Lovers,” New German Critique 63, Special Issue on Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Autumn 1994), pp.108-137.
  10. Ibid., p. 137.
  11. Ibid., p. 137.
  12. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Six Films by Douglas Sirk” in Douglas Sirk, Laura Mulvey and Jon Halliday, eds. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival ’72 in association with the National Film Theatre and John Player and Sons, 1972), p. 101.
  13. Richard Misek, “The Invisible Ideology of White Light,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 8:2 (June 2010), p. 140.
  14. Ibid., p. 126.

About The Author

Claire Henry recently completed a PhD in Film Studies at Anglia Ruskin University (Cambridge, UK) on the politics, ethics, and affects of the contemporary rape-revenge genre, and now teaches film theory and production at the University of Melbourne, Australia.