Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Seditions and Subversions of "Querelle"

The thought of murder often evokes thoughts of the sea…of sailors…and what 
eventually follows thoughts of the seas and murder is the thought of love and sexuality. 

Querelle by Cocteau 1947

   Or so the opening credits voice-over for R.W. Fassbinder’s Querelle claims. The credits themselves state that the film is about Genet’s “Querelle de Brest” - rather than "an adaption of” or “based on” the book. The novel's anti-hero is both pretty homosexualist and psychopathic killer. Some knowledge of the classic 1947 Existentialist tome may or may not be a hindrance in appoaching the 1982 Expressionist-cum-Surrealist film. Querelle challenges direct access from almost every approach: the narrative is Querelle himself, and that’s underscored by anti-cinema devices like bad dialog, obvious sets, melodrama and the darkest of comedy.

Film school teaches that script is of elementary importance. Consumers of porn know it isn’t. Fassbinder knows how to get ‘em where they think, and in doing so abandons most traditional elements of film-making in favor of images and sound which can steer a viewer in diverse or conflicting directions. The film's sound design incorporates narrations which mock the idea of Great Truths being told. Occasional title inserts from Genet serve as other theater-in-the-round asides. "Clues" are often thrown from long shots, and some scenes back-reference others within the labyrinthine plots. Querelle was gutted prior to release - twenty percent of the film was edited after Fassbinder's death for running-time considerations. Scenes have been rearranged, and secondary characters like Matrose and Mario's stool pigeon / boyfriend Dede are gone. Querelle's earlier murder and robbery of  The Armenian has been excised altogether.

Three and a half decades of being relegated to cult-but-not-camp status haven’t anointed Querelle with any revisionist patina, causing it to be celebrated for something it isn’t. And what it isn’t is a film with a clear story line – the auteur rightly deemed the book as coming up short on story. Nor did he attempt to create one: the convolutions of Querelle’s exposition challenge us to focus on what we get as fact or fantasy. As Dylan’s wordy “Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts” assembled shady characters, ideas and images for an unresolved musical tale with cabaret and crime motifs, Fassbinder does it cinematically. He approaches the source material thus:

“As far as discrepancy between objective plot and subjective fantasy is concerned, “Querelle de Brest” may be the most radical novel in world literature. On the surface, its story, when divorced from Genet’s world of images, is a fairly uninteresting (in fact, third-class) tale about a criminal, and as such is hardly worth our while.  

Only those who are truly identified with their own selves no longer need to fear fear. And only those who are rid of their fear are capable of loving nonjudgmentally. The ultimate goal of all human endeavor: to live one’s own life.” 


 Token Identities


Lieutenant Seblon... Querelle's voyeuristic superior and closeted admirer 
Lysiane...Madame of the Feria Bar bordello, wife of Nono
Robert / Gil....Brother of Querelle, lover of Lysiane / Unwitting patsy to Querelle
Nono....Husband of Lysiane, gatekeeper of the Feria Bar
Vic...Querelle's partner in crime, his murder victim
Mario...Corrupt police officer, Feria fixture
Roger....pretty boy, brother/substitute of Gil's unseen girlfriend

A pox be upon this house and all it stands for: the Feria bordello

   On a massive soundstage sits the set of Brest redux - an Expressionistic  re-imagining of the French port destroyed in World War 2.  For cinematic purposes, the town is more lately dominated by the Feria Bar, replete with enormous phallic statuary. Like a mosque of sorts, there's little doubt about what overshadows the town's trade and sensibility. The theatrically lit and painted port of no fixed temporal identity is not unlike its denizens and visitors, inasmuch as they too are of identities of dubious substance, and of no particular age. All exist as interchangeable people - not limited to, but most notably within sexuality considerations and the inherent vagaries of same.

If a bordello's secondary social purpose is to keep men from straying to queerness, then the Feria (transl. "market", "fair") has certainly lost its way by the time Querelle arrives. It's probably not the place for a slow-starting son to come of manly age in the traditional sense, nor would it be an ideal mobile brothel for an army in need of approved sexual release. The identities of the Feria's top brass have caused its culture to morph from prostitution into something else.
Enter Querelle then, a loner fresh off the recently docked Le Vengeur ("The Avenger"). While negotiating an opium sale to Nono at the Feria, he runs into his brother Robert, currently ensconced as lover of the ageing voluptuary Lysiane. He decides he "wants" Lysiane - especially when he learns that a toss of dice will determine whether or not his ass first goes to Nono. Lysiane lives in a blurred world of confected desirability, womanly wiles and tarot cards. Games of chance it seems determine how love and sexuality become manifest at the Feria, or at least how they are deconstructed.

Both milieu and subculture conspire similarly with the individual in search of identity, and in the case of homosexuality, identity often is experienced as mirrored male bodies defined by dicks and asses and the what-nots of will-to-power. Querelle however is no genital fetishist: within his apparently disoriented sexuality he seeks a way to prevail without having to ritualistically compete with other men on time-honored terms. But not by assuming “fairy” characteristics (like affected softness and non-violence) will he seek identity: grabbing at crumbs from the table of "real men" isn't his style. Querelle’s world according to Fassbinder isn’t one of misogyny or fascism – it’s one in which femaleness and femininity are ineffective and superfluous...regardless of who attempts it.

Querelle will take upon himself what the Feria is failing to accomplish: the task of how to best purpose a hard dick towards one's own best interests. Too much a narcissist to think with his own -  or to assign magical powers to the dicks of others - the foundations of Querelle's sexuality lie far beyond the simple tawdriness of most men's fears and fantasies.

Subverting the Rough Trade Mystique


Querelle 1982

  The protagonist Georges Querelle, of no fixed past and no fixed morality (beyond being a sailor and a criminal) is presented for consideration. As exhibited by Fassbinder in the form of Brad Davis, he’s a ripe Tom of Finland cartoon come to life as a gay archetype: short-legged and working class and presenting as dubiously a butch kinda way. Revealed as sexually submissive although murderous, the seafaring trash is enough to signal any homosexualist that there’s a rocky road ahead in terms of identifying with, or desiring Querelle. Within our own sensibilities, we’re not even sure that the boy-man can be pegged as gay or non-gay. And he’s not young enough in close-up to earn sympathies one way or the other, despite his claims to be a neophyte when it comes to bending over.

The murder of Vic has transpired for no good reason. While he's stripping down to wash, Querelle involves him in a hypothetical exchange about what men Vic would have sex with, culminating with Querelle himself on offer. Vic’s rejection costs him his life, and Querelle's sexuality becomes entwined with betrayal and killing. As penance for the murder of his partner in crime, Querelle returns to the Feria to purposely lose a toss of the dice. But the punishment is a most Catholic one: he unexpectedly climaxes quickly while being sodomized, and instead of expected pain he experiences pleasure and no sense of humiliation whatsoever.

Death - the wages of not sinning with Querelle

    While  Querelle inhabits no fixed era, Fassbinder is prepared to go balls-deep into rough homosexuality in a way that Genet couldn’t fully explore post-World War 2. Genet’s set pieces of homosexuality within Existentialism  might still tag him today as a literary enfant terrible, but the rough trade “bisexuals” who fuck, slice throats and betray without remorse weren’t unique to Genet’s tastes and times. Life, love and survival still often play out on the edge of a knife, symbolically and otherwise. 

Self-proclaimed “power bottoms” have much to learn from Querelle, inasmuch as doing it effectively possibly requires varying degrees of contemptuous psychopathy as well as a simple need to be loved and protected. By his own calculation, passive anal homosexuality requires no love at all, but actively fucking requires a little…for a short time at least. He therefore presses his body into service as an object upon which to turn the tables of power in his favor, with sexual gratification as a mere bonus rather than a Muse-like calling or a compulsion. The homosexual queerness of Querelle is of the entrenched European kind, and is repeatedly defined as acts between men: not binary Anglo-American gay couplings of tops and bottoms.

Beyond Contempt and Ejaculation


Becoming a policeman's friend

   Having come to the conclusion that being fucked by a man of influence is neither suffering religious penance nor emasculating, Querelle refines his male ability to literally and figuratively disarm a man with a hard-on, courtesy of Mario. The cop typically worships his own equipment, and predictably seeks to out-perform Nono, but Querelle's happy to play both sides to the center while getting off and crossing that final frontier: kissing another man.

A good student of men, Querelle is then sufficiently armed to undertake revenge on his brother Robert's weaknesses via the interchangeable character of Gil (both played by the same actor, differentiated by a fake mustache). Gil, the dim-witted and short-tempered drunk, has killed Theo - the alpha-male of the masonry crew - for "humiliating" him. Wanted, and on the run, Gil acts out his lusty attraction to the passive girl-substitute Roger. That dance will be apprehended and countered by Querelle’s assertively manly kisses and declarations of love…albeit stopping short of fucking Gil, despite roughly grabbing at his ass. He will instead extract a promise of love from the horny and vulnerable Gil, but betray him in order to pin Vic’s murder on him. Nono and Mario are unwitting participants in Querelle's treachery, unaware that in fucking Querelle they've let their guards down more than they realize.

Prelude to a betrayal / kissed without a fuck

It’s as if a part of his brother / self has been vanquished, and the mirror is cracking away piece by piece and becoming null and void. The most notable nullification being the film’s nominal queen bee Lysiane, of whom we are told developed a taste for "muscle" rather late in life. She "takes lovers" in the old-fashioned sense, with perfunctory nods to what some believe passes for love. Predictably, Querelle - as Robert's replacement - won’t be anybody’s servicing stud despite his impressive dick (“Buy some rubber”), and nor will he be guilted into demonstrating affection for somebody who’s essentially just a faggot-as-woman, or vice-versa. Dick-worship is an alien concept to Querelle, and his contempt for those who practice it actually advantages his psyche's grasp on creating order.

Aboard "Le Venguer" some semblance of ordered manhood does exist, under the watchful and perverted eyes of Lieutenant Seblon - seemingly a silly gay man whose pornographic rescue fantasies have got the better of him. The token "gentleman" inspires in Querelle a need to be noticed in the most positive light, and as a desirable sex object. Querelle dismisses him as "an old queen" to fellow sailors, while privately convinced he's in charge of that arcane mating ritual of deviance, known best to young men seeking advancement by flaunting their homoerotic appeal.  Querelle however won't be giving himself over to Seblon on his own terms or anything like it: Seblon knows he's the wanted killer who will kill again, and he's no match for Seblon's cool and twisted sadism anyhow. Order is created for Querelle when Seblon deflects all suspicion of murder away from him.

Cornered, and miscalculating.

This seemingly ominous act of love sets a new paradigm. It doesn't however motivate Querelle to contemptuously despise a potential blackmailer-for-love. He probably instead intuits that he needs help in saving himself from himself: his killing and sexuality is related to uncontrolled psychopathic risk-taking rather than considered risk-aversion. In Seblon he can see fertile ground for his religio-sexual identity to be more fully developed and with protection...more suffering, more pleasures, more Stations of The Cross for devotionals. He's certainly predator enough to know that a better love than a dick in his backside for just a few minutes will be needed to save his threatened being. Seblon has after all found Querelle's filthy coal-covered body to be beautiful in that degraded state. A filthy soul to match is no deal-breaker for their now-fated engagement...indeed Seblon's thoughts have turned to papal rituals like the washing and kissing of his paramour's feet.

The Homo as Seditionist

    So what about non-gay perceptions of this personage, this piece of ass? The director shares his most arch assaults on the delusions of manhood around fairly. There’s after all no real gay / non-gay divide when it comes all men’s tendency to not necessarily like that which we desire. Or to recognize the inherent pitfalls of neglecting to question desire itself as something of value, something to be acted upon regardless. While Querelle refuses to examine what penetrative male-to-male sex might mean (and that undertaking in itself can yield up any and every man’s delusions), penetrating and being penetrated do represent two sides of the semi-religious coinage of manhood as experienced.

Fassbinder accesses that hallucinatory personal space non-gay men often inhabit: homosexuality as a bizarre incarnation of a mensroom wall come to life, in a drunken blur of ghastly color, disengaged voices and helpless abandon. But Fassbinder is offering the non-gay no refuge from his own dirty mind, and instead throws every menacing homo stereotype his way...just to make sure his own worst fears aren’t forgotten. Georges Querelle however is far removed from an Everyman who’s confronted by situations which cause him to “yield”: he’s living his own life as a free man, while kissing like Judas. As Querelle has no self-created morality to justify what he does and who he is, he becomes the mirror of manhood arguably stripped to its flesh and fantasy basics, flaccid and otherwise.

As with most homosexual aspects of love, Fassbinder also invites us look at gay self-loathing with a darker and more rigorous questioning. It's always about love and fear, or more correctly, love or fear. In going to the heart of same-sex attraction while maintaining fluidity of identity, the film addresses our fears that we may indeed be the treachery we most fear…thrown back in our same-sex faces. Or conversely, our ability (or inability) to surrender to love as imperative.

The boy can't help it: Seblon apparently can.

The movie Querelle most radically departs from the novel in its denouement. Seblon's attraction to Querelle has taken a sharp and sure turn towards reciprocation. Seblon again interrupts Querelle from his path of self-destruction, in the form of preventing a further stabbing which will be witnessed by many. Perhaps the truth does come out at such times: Querelle throws himself melodramatically at Seblon, in a state of declared ruination. His transcendence won't be a more pedestrian theme of redemption through man-to-man love however: his love, submission, absolution and atonement urge a Pieta-like tableau, with himself as both dead Jesus and a sexual organ across the thighs of Seblon who must now take charge of his charge. And take charge he does, with silent dignity and purpose, while Nono in the distance observes the ceremonial loss of his own mannish identity to another. In reality it was only the by-product of assumptions he'd made about his sexual prowess being able to undercut Querelle's natural male agency.

A capitulation to love, or something like it.
    Seblon returns to the Feria with Querelle in tow for final blows to Robert, Mario, Lysiane and Nono - all now defeated personae non gratae in Querelle's new reality. A reality in which he's significantly elevated himself from used piece of ass to "boyfriend": a word he spits at Lysiane to remind her that she will never have - or be - anything so youthfully respectable. Relieved of smoke, mirrors and soft-focus lensing, Lysiane's last stand is that of a sad and spiteful old drag queen who vainly attempts to save grace with a retreat to the tarot deck, and a denial that Querelle had ever existed.

By virtue of deception and Seblon's false witness, the crimes of Querelle's orchestration have evaporated, or perhaps been washed away in a religious sense. As has the likelihood of any thoughts regarding his own substantial transgressions - self-purification through martyrdom being its own reward, and now experienced by Querelle as inner harmony. As he rushes to dutifully hold the bordello door open for Seblon's exit before following in his wake, he doesn't pause to savor the wreckage he has wrought upon the pitiful Feria players. Crimes have been solved, and Le Vengeur is now free to sail for ports unknown. The good ship will embark with changed identities aboard, and a redrawn hierarchy: Seblon now a "young man" in charge of his boat and  his "boy"... no ordinary sailor boy, but presumably the maritime embodiment of a recently risen Christ.

One is left to wonder what fate (or Querelle) will determine for them both.

Beyond the Elements of Film and Critique

   To underscore the fact that Querelle wasn't Genet's "Querelle de Brest", R.W. Fassbinder published his own book of essays and the script of his complete 2.5 hour cut of the movie, which has never been seen. Included are 120 on-set color stills by Roger Fritz.

How we engage – or don’t engage – with a memorable film can go beyond the experience of watching the film. Publicity and the ephemera of selling a film (posters, ads, the soundtrack recording) have a second life. If a film becomes classic, ephemeral images, music and stills go to “knowing” the film. Neither a classic nor even having a memorable first life,  Querelle experienced  a series of attempts to create audience engagement. Given the subject matter, “Querelle” was always going to be a hard sell. Rejected work commissioned by Fassbinder from Jurgen Draeger and an  effort by Andy Warhol saw the film marketed with other diverse looks: Germany’s posters were of a jewel thief and screamed the lurid “A Pact With The Devil!”, while it was spelt out to Italians as a Pompeian image of dick and balls outside a bordello. For the U.S. it was just a loner in a long coat, while the (banned) French posters took considerable artistic liberty, with little weapons becoming Big Weapons.

Querelle Zyklus - Jurgen Draeger


France: From original still to "truth" in advertising

The highly-listenable soundtrack / score by Peer Raben is long gone as a standalone recording, and Fassbinder allegedly loathed it and didn't use it in the film.  The three main themes are observational and compelling, and with lyrics lifted from Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” become “Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves” and “Men Are At Peace”, as sung by Lysiane / Jeanne Moreau in studio recordings. Gunter Kaufmann’s jaunty “Young And Joyful Bandit” reminds us that perceptions are everything when we choose to pursue.

The film’s 1982 arc from Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol across Genet and the Christ Passion is no longer apparent since considerable perception revisionism has taken place. The zyklus which Fassbinder intended was never realized: that gay / Queer touch point is not how current and future engagements emerge. The film itself however hasn’t been immune from that other form of revisionism: superficial academic film analysis tainted by gender studies. Needless to say, any film whose relentless motifs are violence and hard dick doesn’t fare well from that perspective, or that of suburban LGBTQI neuroticism for that matter. And a shallow Queer analysis (coming out bravely whatever the cost) doesn’t quite hit the critical mark. Querelle at its best is what is experienced, and it wickedly pushes our buttons as roman a clef.

At the time of writing, the likelihood of a fully restored director's cut of Querelle seems remote, although the footage exists. Perhaps the future life of “Querelle” will be contextualized from a pseudo-Modernist perspective…as a series of YouTubes beholden to nothing more or less than considerations as Being or Nothingness.

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