Monday, June 12, 2017

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Querelle

killing one softly with love
by Douglas Messerli


Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Burkhard Driest (screenplay, based on the novel by Jean Genet), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Querelle / 1982

Totally by coincidence, I watched Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last film, Querelle, on the 33rd anniversary of his 1982 death by a drug overdose. I had been putting off the viewing this film for a very long time, since, although I had never seen the entire film, I had previewed long clips, and wasn’t particularly pleased with what I saw. Yet, all the other Fassbinder films I had seen since were absolutely wonderful in my estimation. Like The New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, given the passages I’d observed, I was ready to declare his final work as a “mess,” a “detour” in the work of an important European filmmaker. Canby, a great admirer of Fassbinder films in general, found this work as a “humorless” and “witless” production.
I guess I needed to see 25 other films before I could tackle the difficulties of this last work, released after Fassbinder’s death. Even in this most recent viewing, I recalled what I didn’t like about the portions I had previously viewed. Nobody in this film of exaggerated melodrama even pretends to be “acting,” their lines delivered as if the figures were performing a campy production on a high school stage, with sets designed by local cartoonists and lit by a host of gay “queens” of the old school, who one can almost hear shouting out to lighting crew: “rose red, deep-sea blue, meadowlark yellow, lemongrass green!” The costumes, as some critics complained, seem to have been stolen from the wardrobe of mediocre comic operettas of the 1930s. The plot meanders back and forth through the original Genet work, Querelle de Brest, as if the director had leafed through its pages, cut them out of the binding, and threw them into the air before readapting them to film. The work’s two songs, composed by the highly gifted Peer Raben, composer of many of Fassbinder’s scores, both won Razzie Awards for the worst songs of the year. Of particular disinterest is the corny rendition, sung by Jeanne Moreau, of the Oscar Wilde lyrics from “The Ballad of  Reading Goal,” ''Each man kills the thing he loves ... dahdee-dah-dee-dah.''

      The questions the film version calls up are so numerous that one might actually produce a small pamphlet listing them. “Why do the two brothers of this work, Querelle (Brad Davis) and Robert (Hanno Pöschl) so simultaneously hate and love one another? Why does Querelle suddenly determine to kill his accomplice in a cocaine deal, and yet, at the last moment, lick the blood from his breast? Why does Querelle purposely loose his dice toss with Lysiane’s (Jeanne Moreau) husband, Nono (Günther Kaufmann), allowing himself to be fucked by him? And, given the situation, what do Lysiane and Nono see in one another, particularly given the fact that Nono is apparently gay, and Lysiane heterosexual? And why, given Querelle’s apparent love of gay sex, is he even attracted to Lysiane?

      Given a script that seems to have slipped out of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater’s repertory, does any of this matter? Despite Canby’s serious-minded huffing, Fassbinder has actually created a quite comical send up of Genet’s hothouse sex story, creating a kind of gay fantasia in which everybody is desperate to fuck, suck, fight, rob, and kill one another. There is not a single figure in this work who isn’t hounded by sexual obsession, and the sweaty pretty boys of Fassbinder’s work are perfectly aware of their power, posing against the film’s absurd phallic pillars like models from Pierre & Gilles photographic paintings.* 

      Fassbinder, it is clear, has little interest in this film in plot or even a coherent story, but is simply interested in creating a theatrically charged stage to portray the passions of gay and bisexual love. No one else need apply. Even Lysiane seems to be a kind of drag queen, while at the other end, the closeted Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero) pours his heart out to a tape recorder, fantasizing himself in Querelle’s arms, a dream which, right out of fairy tales, eventually comes true.

     Expanding on the films of Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and even Genet himself, Fassbinder bid farewell to realism in this film, and moved instead to hyper-theatrical world that attempted to speak to the gay sensibility, not to its reality. In a sense, one can see the roots of this film in his earliest works such as Love Is Colder Than Death and The American Soldier where violence is portrayed in terms that are closer to kabuki and reveal the sensual dance of two males in each other’s arms. But by 1982, for Fassbinder, the dance had perhaps less to do with actual passion than with the comic routines of Chaplin and Keaton; love and death, always closely intertwined in Fassbinder’s vision, had become non-emotional issues—almost formal gestures—at which one could simply laugh, something that, to steal the lyrics of the Fox/Gimbel song sung by Roberta Flack, “kills one softly with love.”

*Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard are French gay artists who since 1976 have created numerous works of photography and painting that represent purposely kitsch and exaggeratedly romantic portraits of gay and heterosexual figures.

Los Angeles, June 12, 2017

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