“Why is Fassbinder allowed this aesthetic duplicity in the melodramas but not in Querelle?”
When the titular hero of Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest allows himself to be fucked for the first time by Nono, the owner of the near-legendary brothel La Feria, he intends it as a sort of self-punishment, a metaphorical death that will allow him to be purged of guilt for his recent murder of a friend and fellow opium smuggler. Throughout passages preceding the event, Nono is referred to as “the executioner” and Querelle as “the murderer.” Despite Querelle’s fears of being “transformed” into a “fairy,” though, he holds onto “the comforting certainty that the execution would wash him clean of the murder” (70). Instead, he is alarmed to find himself reacting somewhat differently.
The murderer suddenly felt ill at ease. Hardly able to formulate the reason for it: ‘Is that what it’s like, being a real fairy?’ he thought. […] Querelle ejaculated onto the velvet. A little higher up on the cover he softly buried his head with its strangely disordered black curls, untied and lifeless like the grass on an upturned clump of turf. (75-76)
Instead of feeling destroyed or reborn or cleansed, instead of feeling simply disgusted or turned on (though it is clear that there is some pleasure in this for Genet’s criminal), Querelle’s primary reaction is confusion and disorientation.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinematic adaptation of Querelle embraces and reflects this sense of disorientation in a variety of ways, some of them perhaps unintentional. In this article I argue that “disorientation” indeed functions as the primary aesthetic mode in which the film operates, permeating visual style, narrative strategy, sound editing, audience response, and even critical reaction to Fassbinder’s final film.
In his 1983 review of the film, Vincent Canby of The New York Times laments Querelle‘s status as Fassbinder’s swan song, calling it a “detour that leads to a dead end” and an unfortunate “coda” to the career of “the most important European filmmaker of his generation.” Judging Querelle to be an ambitious failure, he calls it “one of the riskiest films Fassbinder ever made” but claims that almost none of the risks yielded aesthetic dividends. Interestingly, one of his most forceful complaints about the film is that he finds it
not only humorless but also uncharacteristically witless. The actors aren’t called upon to act but to keep a straight face, which may sometimes be difficult for the audience. Mr. Davis, Mr. Nero and Miss Moreau do what they can, but they behave like people abandoned in a foreign country without money or passports.
Canby is not alone in reading the film as pretentious and unintentionally humorous. Critic after critic claims, for example, that Lysiane’s theme song (with Lyrics borrowed from Oscar Wilde) “Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves” is, as Canby puts it, “unintentionally hilarious.”
Still other critics read the film version of Querelle as overtly campy, intentionally mocking the overwrought existential poetry of Genet’s novel. This lack of consensus as to whether Fassbinder was cluelessly mis-anticipating the audience or cynically winking at them and the material is indicative of the confused response to the film in general. The incoherence of these reactions is exacerbated when one takes into account Fassbinder’s use of similar devices in the context of other films.
Lola and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven both include cabaret performances of songs that are kitschy and might elicit giggles from the audience even while they serve to further their respective films’ dense emotional narratives. Why is Fassbinder allowed this aesthetic duplicity in the melodramas but not in Querelle? That the former films are explorations of the generic conventions of melodrama is probably a part of the answer. The filmmaker gets away with simultaneously embracing and commenting on melodramatic devices because the audience is familiar enough with melodrama’s generic conventions to be both in on the joke and moved by the plight of the characters.
Fassbinder’s melodramas, heavily indebted to Douglas Sirk, are widely considered his finest work. Throughout his early career, in both film and theatre, he boldly experimented with a variety of genres — ranging from neo-noir gangster films (The American Soldier), to Westerns (Whity), to science fiction (World on a Wire). In each genre, he employed a combination of sincerity and irony. It’s possible that Fassbinder was attempting a similar double-vision in his approach to Genet, simultaneously embracing the lush angst of the source material and recontextualizing it within a post-Brechtian, post-modern sensibility. He doesn’t provide nearly as much of an anchor for the audience here, though, as he does in the melodramas or in the earlier genre pieces. Querelle is a film not just recontextualized but radically decontextualized in terms of time, geography, and genre itself.
This sense of unrootedness and disorientation may stem largely from an aesthetic dissonance between Fassbinder and Genet, both in terms of agenda and the times in which they were working. Genet’s novels allow the reader no ironic distance (though they employ irony in its various forms); even when they are explicitly self-referential they are intended to envelop the reader, to overwhelm him/her with perverse beauty and extravagant wordplay. In Genet’s Querelle (as in Funeral Rites and Our Lady of the Flowers, among others), homosexuality is equated with crime and perversion not so much, as Fassbinder scholar Wallace Watson claims, because Genet was “homophobic” (256) but because Genet was writing within a tradition of transgressive literature in which depravity and degradation are presented as potentially transcendent, even utopian (a tradition later taken up by William Burroughs, Dennis Cooper, etc.). As such, even while it’s important to acknowledge the political underpinnings of much of his writing, Genet’s novels were very much about transgression and homosexuality.
By contrast, Fassbinder’s “gay” films that predate his Querelle are never about homosexuality; they merely focus on gay characters. These characters are no more or less moral, no more or less perverse, than their heterosexual counterparts in the same or other films. When his characters seek transcendence or wax utopian, he nearly always maintains an ironic distance and signals well in advance of actual events that their attempts to transcend are doomed by their own near-sightedness, or inarticulateness, or selfishness. Similarly, his films seldom reward the violence of his characters. He does not present physical violence as ecstatic: while his characters sometimes find a kind of ecstasy in their own masochism, they neither transcend the limits of their personalities nor succeed in transforming themselves. For Fassbinder, these self-destructive desires are entrapping, not liberating. Perhaps most significantly, Fassbinder’s plays and films share a consistent distrust of anything that smacks of utopianism, which he seems to equate again and again with fascism.
Fassbinder was clearly aware of these tensions and sought to explore them in his adaptation of Querelle. As Watson writes, “The film seems to have been for Fassbinder an occasion of exploring imaginatively — and critically — those aggressive aspects of homoerotic sexuality that apparently both fascinated and troubled him” (260). Watson goes on to discuss an interview in Anarchy of the Imagination in which Fassbinder
talked at length of his ambivalence about the possibly fascistic aspects of Genet’s Querelle de Brest and of his guarded fascination with sadomasochism. He pointed out the difficulty he had had in determining the ‘fine line’ separating the ‘corny’ from the ‘fascistoid’ in adapting the novel and in making clear that the apparent ‘glorification of violence’ in the novel applies only to the particular society with which Genet was dealing. (260)
This interview demonstrates Fassbinder’s clear understanding of the difficulties he faced in adapting Querelle in a way that might reconcile, or at least address, his misgivings about power relationships and identity politics as presented in Genet’s novel. It also signals his awareness of the specific cultural and temporal circumstances under which Genet was writing and sheds light on the disorienting sense of timelessness that permeates the film.
How, then, would Fassbinder choose to represent his own conflicting responses to Genet’s text? He provides the first clue to his approach in the film’s opening credits, which famously announce that Fassbinder’s Querelle is “a film about Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest.” The unusual wording here is crucial, of course; the film is not “based on” or “adapted from” or “inspired by” Genet’s novel: it is “about” the novel. It is Fassbinder’s reaction to, exploration of, and treatise on both the beautiful and the problematic aspects of the book.
This distance from the text is signaled almost immediately by the blatant artificiality of the setting. Rolf Zehetbaur’s highly theatrical and self-contained set design is gloriously false, and is bathed in the surrealistic glow of a perpetual sunset that signals a kind of timelessness. The “setting” is nominally Brest, but the set design bears little resemblance to that small port town in Brittany, France (or, for that matter, to the Brest of Belarus.) Fassbinder’s Brest is, instead, an exotic and absurdly eroticized architectural pastiche, an implicitly mythological locale that serves primarily to represent the fantasy of the visiting sailors, who talk in hushed tones of Brest’s legendary brothel La Feria, and of the depravity and debauchery that await them there.
Edmund White, in his invaluable biography of Genet, points out that the setting of Brest had particular significance for the author, and that the specificity with which he paints aspects of the city’s architecture and history are intended to resonate on a variety of levels.
Brest recalls Genet’s fascination, dating back to early adolescence, with ports. Many of his memories of Toulon, a naval center, were transferred to Brest, where he had been in prison and which he undoubtedly selected […] for its historic associations. Since Brest had been destroyed by bombardment during the war, it could be a subject for instant nostalgia. (290)
Pre-war nostalgia isn’t what Fassbinder is going for, though. His Brest is no longer a French city, but a city of absolute Otherness, a kind of postmodern Circe’s Island. (Only here, Circe is Lysiane, and all the men she’s turned into pigs are losing interest in her and instead spending their time seducing one another.)
Fassbinder doesn’t stop with decontextualizing place, however; he adds to the spatial disorientation a temporal disorientation. Not only, as mentioned above, does Fassbinder use surreal lighting design and a painted sunset to undermine any sense of the passage of time, he aggressively works to subvert the impression of any particular period. The costumes seem to reference mostly the 1930s or 1940s, but there are jarring anachronistic elements, including the constant use of switchblades which conjures images of the 1950s (and, in one scene, West Side Story specifically) and most notably an arcade console video game and a hand-held tape-recorder. Having denied us the comfort of an identifiable time and place, then, Fassbinder has denied us a stable vantage point from which to read his treatment of iconic homoerotic images like sailors in white cotton and cops in leather vests.
These images must be viewed very differently depending upon their temporal context. In 1946, when Genet wrote Querelle de Brest, such hypermasculine images had not yet been rendered iconic by Tom of Finland (who would publish for the first time 10 years later) and by men’s “fitness” magazines of the 1950s. Genet’s Querelle brought Melville’s Billy Budd out of the closet in a genuinely subversive way, and exposed the coded homoeroticism of the all-male naval vessel inhabited by men and boys in tight white pants to a wider, largely heterosexual, audience.
By 1982, when Fassbinder filmed his Querelle, Tom of Finland had been honored with at least two major gallery retrospectives. Susan Sontag had published “Notes on Camp.” The Stonewall riots had come and gone. “YMCA” had already been appropriated by wedding DJ’s. In 1982, Querelle and Mario would remind more people of Alex and Glenn from the Village People than of surreptitiously distributed, erotically coded photographs of the 1940s and 1950s.
Fassbinder, of course, could not help but be aware of both facets of these iconic homoerotic signifiers. Typically, he refuses to choose between them, crafting instead a landscape wherein the camp aesthetic of 1982 and the earnestly layered existentialism of Genet’s 1946 can coexist. It’s worth noting again that this is similar to Fassbinder’s affectionately ambiguous relationship to Sirkian melodrama, and again pointing out that in the melodramas he always provides an identifiable time, place, and formal context in which the audience can ground their reading of the films.
Fassbinder’s awareness and manipulation of icons extends to extradiegetic and intertextual implications of his casting decisions as well. Brad Davis had recently entered the public imagination via his starring turn in Alan Parker’s 1978 Midnight Express, in which he played Billy Hayes, convicted of smuggling drugs out of Turkey and sent to a Turkish prison where he was semi-unwillingly forced to engage in sexual acts with prison guards. (Drug deals, gay sex, sexual awakening through degradation: It’s not difficult to draw parallels between Billy Hayes and Querelle.) Jeanne Moreau finds herself caught between not Jules and Jim, but Querelle and Querelle, and discovers herself to be little more than a conduit via which the brothers can enact their fantasies of one another. Django himself, Franco Nero rides out of the Spaghetti Westerns that made him famous and reveals the sensitive (and feminine) soul of his masculine adventurer.
The identification of these actors with specific roles and periods also exacerbates Querelle‘s permeating sense of temporal and spatial displacement. Actors from America, Germany, France, and Belgium (whose cinematic histories also conjure images of Turkey, Italy, and Mexico) gather on a soundstage to film, mostly in English, a German adaptation of a French novel. These kinds of international coproductions had largely fallen out of vogue by 1982, but Fassbinder’s decision to proceed in this manner (despite producer Dieter Schidor’s original plan to shoot in black-and-white with amateur actors), and to dub the film back into German for his preferred theatrical version, reveal his desire to render the film, in yet another way, disorienting.
The dubbing of the voices, in whichever language one ultimately watches the film, is a part of a complex approach to sound familiar to Fassbinder audiences by this point. If, as Rutgers professor Alan Williams asserts, sound recording in film “conveys a latent spatio-psychological subjectivity” (64) and is thus as much a “language” of cinema as is image recording, Fassbinder’s use of sound in Querelle must be viewed as another medium via which he uses expressionistic and alienating techniques to disorient his audience. Gil serenades Roger over the noise of the aforementioned video game. Voice-over and dialogue sometimes become difficult to distinguish from one another. The orchestral music shifts in tone, as Watson describes it, “from ominous to lyrical” (261). Similar techniques can be seen in Fassbinder’s other films, most notably In a Year with Thirteen Moons, in which the dialogue is often mixed as if it were voice-over, drawing attention to passages in which the characters serve as narrators.
Various aspects of Querelle‘s visuals also echo techniques used in previous Fassbinder films, though they are used to quite different effect here. The highly stylized and quite bizarre lighting is reminiscent of techniques Fassbinder first employed in Lola, while obsessive framing shots and disorienting scene transitions recall any number of earlier films. In full effect is the director’s fetishistic use of frames within frames and of shots partially obstructed by panes of glass, mirrors and architectural details. In The Cinematic Body, Steven Shaviro writes of the disorienting impact this kind of visual obfuscation has upon the gaze of both character and spectator:
The gaze loses itself in an abyss of mirrors and stagnant fixations, drawn ever more deeply into its own abnegation and abjection, without hope or desire of return. The play of multiple looks leads neither to a suturing identification nor to the simple denial of identification, but rather to the cold, hyperbolic frenzy of duplication and fragmentation. (171)
In some ways, this level of disorientation, this clouding of spectatorial identity, is more in line with Genet’s text than at first seems apparent. Edmund White tries to sum up the novelist’s approach to character and identity as follows:
Genet’s fiction […] is far from conventionally novelistic since it makes us stop and rethink all our preconceptions. […] For Genet the self is just a knot in a rope of flowing water or a coat-rack that can be rigged out with varying gestures. This emptiness of the self led Genet to posit the notion that all people are interchangeable, for if we have no distinguishing marks, if we are only mannequins waiting to be outfitted, then we are all capable of becoming one another. (341-342)
Elsewhere, and more directly concerning Querelle, he writes
One of the ways in which Genet makes sure his messages will remain ambiguous is through the construction on plots that undermine his stories. He frequently fails to give us the conclusion of a scene, or gives it to us when we no longer want to know about it—or he skips the obligatory scene. […] He may practice a method of assemblage, but he wants to avoid jerky stylistic breaks between sections since such ruptures could dispel the hypnotic power of his seductive voice. The films based on his books don’t work, since they point up the ruptures by failing to find a visual equivalent to Genet’s eloquence. The only exception is Fassbinder’s Querelle, which is visually as artificial and menacing as Genet’s prose. (340)
Thus, while Fassbinder relentlessly disorients us in part as a response to his conflicted feelings about Genet’s Querelle, this ambivalence also serves to render the film the most faithful adaptation of Genet set to film thus far (though the field of competition is, admittedly, far from crowded). Genet’s highly stylized and morally ambivalent prose is reflected, albeit circuitously and from a distance, in Fassbinder’s highly stylized and morally ambivalent film. It may even be that this circuity is what Fassbinder really meant by labeling his film as “about Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest.” Perhaps he meant “about” not only to mean “concerning” Querelle but also “around”Querelle.
Not surprisingly, then, Fassbinder finds justification for the relentless disorientation of the audience not only in his relationship to the original text, but in the sense of disorientation inherent in the text itself. Genet’s tendency to shift from narrator to narrator without warning, sometimes moving from third person to first person within the space of a sentence, reflects a restless subjectivity that is mirrored in a number of Fassbinder’s choices. Despite the difficulty some characters have in telling them apart, for example, Querelle brothers are not cast to look alike because they don’t believe they look alike. By contrast, Querelle’s brother Robert and his fellow sailor (and murderer) Gil are both played by the same actor because they are the two men with whom Querelle is in love. The hallucinatory sense of timelessness discussed above pervades a narrative built in part around an opium deal. Further reflecting both the shifting narrative strategies of Genet’s novel and Fassbinder’s conflicted relationship with it it, the defining gaze of both subject and object is repeatedly frustrated by the passive obfuscation of mirrors and etched glass even while our murderer/protagonist seeks an executioner/sodomizer to baptize him in blood, in shit, in semen, that he may be unburdened not so much of his guilt as of his fear of being caught.
Canby, Vincent. “Fassbinder’s Last.” New York Times 29 April 1983
Genet, Jean. Querelle. 1946. Trans Anselm Hollo. New York: Grove Press, 1974.
Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 1993.
Watson, Wallace Steadman. Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Private and Public Art. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
White, Edmund. Genet: A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Williams, Alan. “Is Sound Recording Like a Language?” Yale French Studies 60. 51-66. New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 1980.