Shore Leave: Querelle (1982)

June 27, 2017


Rainer Werner Fassbinder passed away on the morning of June 10, 1982, three weeks into the editing of his final feature Querelle. The New York Times reported that, “a video-cassette machine that he had been using was still running at 5 A.M., Munich time, when Miss Lorenz [Julie Lorenz, his roommate and editor] discovered his body.” He died of an overdose of sleeping pills and cocaine – he had long been pushing his body to extremes while shooting some 45 features in 15 years. Querelle is not a summation or a final statement, as Fassbinder was constantly shifting, poking and exploring his stylistic palette. New paths emerged within every film, and Querelle is just another fork in the road before his heart gave out, but it is a feverishly beautiful one. Querelle is a free adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle of Brest, about a dope-dealing seaman involved in a murder while on shore leave, while grappling with his repressed and newly emerging homosexual desires. Frankly erotic and garishly artificial, shot on horizonless soundstages and bathed in orange and blue filtered light, it is both ridiculous and sublime.

Fassbinder said that Genet’s novel transforms a “third-class tale about a criminal” into an “astonishing mythology.” And so while Fassbinder follows the the general movement of Genet’s plot, the declamatory performance style and minimalist sets draw attention away from the story and towards the iconography. These are Tom of Finland sailors, perpetually oiled up and shirtless, buffing anything near at hand, while hilariously phallic towers thrust upward around the docs of the port town of Brest. The highlight of Rolf Zehetbaur’s set design though, is the bordello, a dense Art Nouveau space of mirrors/curtains/Greek pornographic paintings. Fassbinder collaborator Harry Baer described the sets as “an artistically presented dream-fabric-reality,” comparing it to Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930).  It is in this slick atmosphere that Querelle (Brad Davis) floats into town, a sailor on a boat led by Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), who harbors a secret crush for his employee. Querelle uses his job as a convenient way to smuggle dope to the local brothel, the Hotel Feria Bar, where he discovers his brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl) has been sleeping with the Feria’s owner Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Lysiane’s bartender husband Nono (Günther Kaufmann) doesn’t mind because he’s more interested in bedding young sailors. With each new patron of the bar he bets on a roll of the dice. If they lose he gets to have sex with them, if they win they can choose the prostitute of their choice.

After Querelle completes a drug sale, he cold-bloodedly murders his accomplice underneath a papier-mache moon. An investigation erupts and Querelle is a suspect, so he begins to deflect blame onto another criminal – Gil (also Hanno Pöschl, but sans moustache) – who killed a co-worker for accusing him of being gay. Querelle confusedly falls in love with Gil, who looks exactly like his brother Robert. Querelle claims, “I never loved a boy before. You’re the first one.” But Querelle is opaque, even to himself, and is only now allowing himself to indulge in his true lusts. His first homosexual experience was intentionally losing the dice game to Nono, who introduces him to the way in which sex can be used as a power game, and Querelle accepts it with masochistic pleasure. Querelle, whose whole life is some kind of con, quickly learns that seduction is its own tool, and learns how to play both sadist and masochist in order to advance his own interests. As Steven Shaviro notes in The Cinematic Body, “Fassbinder shows obvious contempt not only for…a ‘politically correct’ – which is to say, idealized and sanitized – depiction of sexuality. He refuses to provide ‘positive images’ of either straight or gay sex. On the contrary, he willfully aestheticizes the most troubling moments of his narrative, those when male sexuality is explicitly associated with power and domination, with violence, and with death.”


Querelle and Robert have a love-hate relationship that leans towards the latter, peaking during a spectacular fight sequence in which Fassbinder circles inside the bar in 360 degree pans as the two embark on their endless chase. With Gil, Querelle finds a Robert doppelganger, one he can love without reservation (the fact that he is a murderer, in Querelle’s eyes, only makes him more desirable). But when Querelle told Gil that he had never loved a boy before, that was another of his lies – he loves, and still loves, his brother. After convincing Gil to rob Lieutenant Seblon for escape money, Querelle forces him into a disguise. In a Vertigo-esque costume change, Gil dresses up as Robert, complete with fake moustache. This works on a double level, as it allows Querelle to seamlessly divert his emotions for Robert into Gil, as well as frame Robert for the robbery – for Gil looks more like Robert than himself. The Lieutenant will later identify Robert as the man who mugged him, leaving his fate unclear, as he is last seen drowning his sorrows with Lysiane, wishing that Querelle never existed.

It is an idea that would appeal to most of his friends, all of whom he betrays or backstabs to some extent or another. Only Lieutenant Seblon, who is unaware that Querelle ordered the heist of his suitcase, remains loyal to the end. Seblon records his thoughts on a tape recorder, a voice-over by other means, and fills it with thoughts and reflections on his overwhelming infatuation, one that is nearly debilitating in its intensity. In his presence his authority evaporates, becoming subject to Querelle’s ever-strengthening will to power.

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