Thursday, June 17, 2010

Queer Cinema: Querelle

It's Pride Month, and so I'm stolling down Queer Cinema Lane. Today: Sodomy and sailors!

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's final film is philosophical, poetic, otherworldly, adapted from Jean Genet's novel, with a screenplay by Fassbinder and Kurt Raab, that is as much about a beautiful young sailor on shore leave as it is a meditation on homosexuality and violence.

Querelle (Brad Davis) arrives on the shores of Brest, France, looking to sell a cache of heroin, and maybe hoping to find himself along the way. Too bad who Querelle turns out to be is a despicable little cur. First chance he gets, he slits his partner's throat, and by the end of the film he's framed the man he loves for the crime.

And while Querelle is the films apparent hero, there is nothing at all likable about him. He's a murderer, he betrays all around him, he's manipulative, narcissistic, a liar, and yet he's clever enough, charming enough, and just good looking enough to get away with it all.

What makes this such a compelling film is the way Fassbinder presents the story. It's staged on sets that look like they've come straight from Disneyland: this is a fantasy world, not reality. The dialogue is delivered in a purposefully stilted manner; Davis's performance is such that he is merely reciting his lines, devoid of any emotion.

The story is further augmented by three different forms of narration. There are intermittent title cards throughout, sometimes quoting Genet, sometimes quoting others, like Plutarch. Plus there is an actual narrator furthering the tale, giving voice, literally, to Genet's prose. Thirdly, there is Lieutenant Seblon, Querelle's captain, who moves through the film in his own subplot as a man whose unrequited love consumes him. He constantly philosophizes into his handheld tape recorder, espousing on Querelle's beauty, his dedication to his fellow sailor, his own inability to posses the young sailor.

The film wavers between the vulgar and the sublime. Our narrator tells us "humility can only be born of humiliation, otherwise it is nothing but vanity." And when Nono, barkeep and brothel manager tells of his conquest of Querelle, he notes "when I pulled my cock out it was covered with shit, if you want to know."

Everything about the film creates a sense of detachment: the sets, the dialogue, the performances, and in a way manages to capture the essence of Genet's lyrical novel, a tale that is less about traditional plot conventions, but more the author's philosophy that violence and homosexuality are inextricably linked.

Directed by Rainer Werner Maria Fassbinder • R • 1982 • 108 minutes

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