Querelle, a handsome sailor, visits a port town to explore his sexuality. There he commits a murder, betrays his friends and has lots of sex. Writer/Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was experimenting with style. The pornographic story is performed by deadpan actors on an artificial set. The ideas here would inspire the work of Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes and Steve McLean’s recent Postcards from London. After a promising start the film grows gloomy and dull. It can be a rough sit but the art direction creates images that stay in the mind.
Want to learn more? Then read my spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Sex and Violence
Scene 1: The Bar
LIEUTENANT SEBLON: I lust for Querelle, a murderous bisexual sailor, but I haven’t the courage to tell him. Instead I’ll narrate his story.
LYSIANE (Glamorous bar owner): Robert, the tarot cards say your brother is in danger.
ROBERT (Querelle’s uptight brother): Who cares? I hate my brother.
QUERELLE: (Enters) Come and get me boys.
ROBERT: I hate you Querelle! (Punches him).
NONO (LYSIANE’s brutish husband): Got any opium for sale?
QUERELLE: Maybe. Objectivity is the companion of total power.
LT. SEBLON: Querelle’s deep.
Scene 2: The Ship
QUERELLE: I need some opium. And a kiss.
DRUG DEALING SAILOR: I’ll sell you drugs but I’m no queer.
(DRUG DEALING SAILOR strips to a thong to bathe. QUERELLE kills the DRUG DEALING SAILOR).
LT. SEBLON: Querelle’s so cool!
Scene 3: The Bar
NONO: Roll the dice. Win and you can bang my wife. Lose and I bang you. No homo.
QUERELLE: (Loses on purpose). Oops. Guess we gotta bang.
(QUERELLE and NONO have sex)
LYSIANE: (sings) “Each man kills the thing he loves. / That’s the thesis of this film./ Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell./ Da da da, da da da da.”
ROBERT: I hear you’re queer now. I still hate you Querelle!
(They dance fight, ala West Side Story. A HOT COP breaks up the fight. QUERELLE has sex with the HOT COP.)
HOT COP: No homo.
Act Two: Betrayal
Scene 4: An Alley
GIL’S BOSS: I’m going to sexually harass you.
GIL (A construction worker): Nope. (GIL kills his BOSS)
QUERELLE: I’ve never met a killer like me before. I’ll help you escape if you rob the queeny Lieutenant.
(GIL robs LT. SEBLON)
QUERELLE: Gil, you look like my brother.
GIL: We’re played by the same actor.
QUERELLE: Hot. (They make out). I love you. I never loved a boy before. Use this ticket for the 4pm train.
GIL: Okay. I love you too. (Leaves).
QUERELLE: Hey Police. The guy who killed the Boss and the Drug Dealing Sailor is on the 4pm train.
LT. SEBLON: And in betraying a friend Querelle made a pact with the Devil.
Act Three: Salvation
Scene 5: The Bar
QUERELLE: My brother loves you. And I hate my brother. So, let’s bang.
LYSIANE: You’d clearly rather bang your brother. (Sings) “Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves. / Querelle betrayed the man he loves, / Who happens to look like his brother. / Boop boop be doop.”
Scene 6: The Street
HOT COP: Did you kill the Drug Dealing Sailor?
GIL: (Lies) Yes.
HOT COP: Did Querelle and Gil rob you?
LT. SEBLON: (Lies) No.
QUERELLE: I’M DRUNK AND SAD! (QUERELLE starts a fight. LT. SEBLON rescues him.)
LT. SEBLON: Come with me Querelle. I’ll make sure you don’t go to prison.
QUERELLE: Yes daddy. You’re the only one who still cares about me. I’m yours. (They embrace.)
LT. SEBLON: And Querelle and the Lieutenant lived happily ever after! The End.
QUERELLE: The film isn’t over.
LT. SEBLON: Dang it.
Scene 7: The Bar
LYSIANE: I love you Querelle.
QUERELLE: Don’t. I banged your husband.
LYSIANE: You fairy! You just wish you could bang your brother.
QUERELLE: I don’t care about my brother. I’m me!
LYSIANE: Hey Robert! The tarot cards say you don’t have a brother! HAHAHA!
ROBERT and QUERELLE: What the hell does that mean?
“Every decent director has only one subject, and finally only makes the same film over and over again. My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them. It never ends. It’s a permanent theme. Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple’s relationship one partner destroys the other.” ~ Writer/Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Querelle was critically panned and ended actor Brad Davis’s fledgling Hollywood career. Franco Nero (Lt. Seblon) and Jeanne Moreau (Lysiane) were already established stars and continued to find work. Fassbinder had strayed from Jean Genet’s novel to tell his own story. Critics have interpreted his screenplay as:
- A critique of masculinity. Everyone’s violently repressing their desires.
- A Christian fable. Querelle as Cain and Judas. Seblon as a merciful angel.
- A psychological study. The characters represent different sides of one conflicted personality.
- Fassbinder processing his personal struggles with addiction and abuse.
- Campy porn. The men are costumed like Tom of Finland pin ups. But the actual sex is discrete and joyless. You’ll see more of Brad Davis in Midnight Express.
- An ambitious flop.
- A misunderstood masterpiece.
Fassbinder died before Querelle was released. He was 37 years old and had directed 44 films. The British Film Institute warns that Querelle is “not a great gateway film.” They recommend The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Fox and his Friends as a starting point. Though the film making is more accessible, the fates of the queer characters are even bleaker.
I didn’t enjoy Querelle but I’m still thinking about it. Have you seen it? Would you like to? You can read other reviews of LGBT media here.
Up next: Take a trip back to 1965 for one of Canada’s first gay movies, Winter Kept Us Warm.