Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Paul Davis, Franco Nero, Gunther Kaufmann
Synopsis: This loose adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest follows Georges Querelle, a drug smuggling sailor with dangerous tendencies spending time in the port city of Brest, abound with sexually adventurous locals (and fellow shipmates) and a notorious brothel where games of chance are wagered with both money and acts of carnality.
Critique: Querelle is an odd but simultaneously compelling entry from one of cinema’s most unique figures. Fassbinder left a herculean legacy that is as varied as it is immediately recognizable. Both his work and life are made up of contradictions and recurring themes. He was an aesthete given to flights of artifice and melodramatic pastiche embracing classic Hollywood machinations simultaneously given to genre deconstructions, incisive political commentary, sexually frank characterizations and Brechtian flourishes. Maintaining a critical eye toward Germany from the Weimar era to his (then present day) postwar period, he angered both the left and conservative right. Despite predating the queer cinema movement, his depictions of gay and trans characters (sometimes realized by Fassbinder himself) have been labeled as both pioneering and offensive. All of these contradictions and alignments are the roiling pulse of the moody and occasionally surreal Querelle, a stagey and homoerotic fable that feels distantly reminiscent of Greek proportions, cloaked in Genet’s source material.
Fassbinder’s last feature gets the full capacity of his aesthetic range and, in his tradition, pushes the sex to a relative extreme, replete with porny dialogue and kinky accouterments. The port city of Brest is populated with brawny, muscular men sporting leather, tight-fitting tank tops and sailor/biker hats, not to mention the phallic architecture, namely the penis shaped parapets. Brest feels like it has the heightened atmosphere of Jacques Demy’s Nantes but Fassbinder swaps out the pastel-hued sense of naivete for a more ruggedly aggressive sexual atmosphere. Querelle was the subject of critical rebuke. However, it’s been appropriately reappraised in recent years. Being the last feature of Fassbinder’s career and marking an ascension in tone and style, who knows what the maverick director would have accomplished in its wake?
Why It Belongs in the Collection: While Fassbinder’s Whity, In a Year of 13 Moons, Pioneers in Ingolstadt and Martha, seem to be stuck to Fantoma Entertainment, it feels like most of Fassbinder’s other titles are due for a Criterion spine number. The Criterion Collection is recognized for releasing films from known international auteurs such as Fassbinder. They also bear the reputation of giving a second life to maligned features from such filmmakers. Plus, Querelle is getting more traction thanks to the defunct Filmstruck and now The Criterion Channel.