“This sense of unrootedness and disorientation may stem largely from an aesthetic dissonance between Fassbinder and Genet [whose novel Querelle de Brest was adapted by Fassbinder], both in terms of agenda and the times in which they were working. Genet’s novels allow the reader no ironic distance (though they employ irony in its various forms); even when they are explicitly self-referential they are intended to envelop the reader, to overwhelm him/her with perverse beauty and extravagant wordplay. In Genet’s Querelle [...], homosexuality is equated with crime and perversion not so much, as Fassbinder scholar Wallace Watson claims, because Genet was ‘homophobic’, but because Genet was writing within a tradition of transgressive literature in which depravity and degradation are presented as potentially transcendent, even utopian [...]. As such, even while it’s important to acknowledge the political underpinnings of much of his writing, Genet’s novels were very much about transgression and homosexuality.
By contrast, Fassbinder’s ‘gay’ films that predate his Querelle are never about homosexuality; they merely focus on gay characters. These characters are no more or less moral, no more or less perverse, than their heterosexual counterparts in the same or other films. When his characters seek transcendence or wax utopian, he nearly always maintains an ironic distance and signals well in advance of actual events that their attempts to transcend are doomed by their own near-sightedness, or inarticulateness, or selfishness. Similarly, his films seldom reward the violence of his characters. He does not present physical violence as ecstatic: while his characters sometimes find a kind of ecstasy in their own masochism, they neither transcend the limits of their personalities nor succeed in transforming themselves. For Fassbinder, these self-destructive desires are entrapping, not liberating. Perhaps most significantly, Fassbinder’s plays and films share a consistent distrust of anything that smacks of utopianism, which he seems to equate again and again with fascism.”
Throughout the film the figure of Querelle remains unaltered. He does not seem to suffer from the pressure of events, nor does he bow down to the demands of social life: in the brothel, at the police station, on the boat, facing his superior, he always appears in a pair of cloth trousers, his torso in a tight vest that sets off his muscles. Feline and sure of himself, Querelle’s poses glorify his body. Querelle carries his body erect, statue‐like, never slouching or bending, no matter what the circumstances. This permanent refusal to bow to the demands of the system is a sign of an identity that escapes any normalization. But once again in Fassbinder, the cost of resistance to outside determination – the cost of otherness – is solitude. In fact, Querelle is a being entirely apart; he is on the margins of a community whose rules he rejects. Murder and betrayal underpin his identity and guarantee his total separation from the group and its codes.
Querelle produces a queer male community that appears to be organized around sameness yet is not, its group irreducible to a single identity. Scarcely characters, or even gay characters, these male figures seem to embody tensions and charges that move in a number of different directions at once, directions not adequately covered by categories of sex. (According to Genet’s biographer, Edmund White, Querelle de Brest was ‘a violent story of homosexual love among heterosexual men.’) Fassbinder, who consistently minimized the importance of identity politics even while dramatically staging the obstacles experienced by people of those very identities, averred of Querelle: ‘It is not a film about murder and homosexuality. It’s a film about someone trying, with all the means that are possible in society, to find his identity.’”
Each man kills the thing he loves…
Some do it with a bitter look
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss
The brave man with a sword.
Each man kills the thing he loves…
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the bands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold.
Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ which is set to music in Querelle
More than just being adept at artful provocations of the right and left (sometimes simultaneously), the particular transgressive nature of [Jean] Genet’s writing – inverting identities, or featuring those that get stuck halfway – shaped Fassbinder’s work just as much as Sirk’s use of space.
- 1Frank Episale, “Genet Meets Fassbinder: Sexual Disorientation(s) in Querelle,” Bright Lights Film Journal, August 2006.
- 2Claire Kaiser, “Exposed Bodies; Evacuated Identities,” in: Brigitte Peucker (ed.), A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Oxford: Wiley & Blackwell, 2012), 108.
- 3Caryl Flinn, “Declined Invitations. Repetition in Fassbinder’s Queer ’Monomusical’,” in: Brigitte Peucker (ed.), A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Oxford: Wiley & Blackwell, 2012), 325-326.
- 4Violet Lucca, “Fassbinder Diary #3: Querelle,” Film Comment, 3 December 2014.