Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's final film was the bizarre, abrasive and often unbearably silly Querelle, an unsettling final note in a brief but prolific career defined by the director's near-total disregard for conventions. An adaptation of a novel by Jean Genet, this is Fassbinder's most off-putting film, his most purposefully Brechtian in the distance it creates between the audience and the narrative. In fact, Fassbinder erects a nearly unbridgeable gap between the viewer and the material, a bottomless gulf into which all attempts at understanding or approaching this essentially unlikeable film must fall. The film's staging is exaggeratedly theatrical and campy, its action taking place on stagey sets with bright orange backgrounds and homoerotic architecture, in a port city whose walls are buttressed with phallic statuary. It is a gay dreamworld, a brightly colored fantasy in which women are almost entirely absent and muscular sailors, policemen and laborers stalk each other, seeking violence and sex in this city's streets and brothels. Fassbinder does everything he can to keep his audience at arm's length: the grotesque high camp of the mise en scène; the uninflected performances of the multilingual cast, excacerbated by rough, echoey dubbing; the awkwardness of the dialogue, with characters delivering stilted monologues on their inner states in weighty, tortured language. It's all contrived to create a thoroughly unpleasant, disturbing experience: despite the bright colors and ridiculous imagery, the tendency to dress up men in uniform like ersatz Village People, the movie is just no fun at all.
In keeping with this emphasis on Brechtian surfaces, the film's narrative is presented with a flat, affectless quality that levels off the various strands of the story, eliminating the drama and emotion otherwise inherent in it. Querelle (Brad Davis) is one of several sailors who arrives in a raucous port city when his ship put into the harbor. The real story of the film, beneath all its various threads and diversions and impenetrable scenes, is the initiation of Querelle into homosexual desire, first with the hulking brothel owner Nono (Günther Kaufmann), then with the macho, leather-clad cop Mario (Burkhard Driest), and finally with the first man who he feels genuine love and affection for, the workman Gil (Hanno Pöschl). Throughout it all, however, the subtext of Querelle's developing sexuality is his relationship with his brother Robert (also played, tellingly, by Pöschl), with whom he shares a fierce, violent rivalry and affection. When the two men greet each other at the beginning of the film, they embrace and begin simultaneously punching each other in the stomach, a gesture of love and hatred intertwined. Querelle's attraction to Gil thus stems from two sources. The first is the men's shared criminality, since both have committed murders: Gil killed a friend who would not stop taunting and ridiculing him for his homosexuality, while Querelle killed, for unexplained reasons, a fellow sailor. Querelle allows Gil to take on the responsibility for the latter crime as well, but he feels bound to the man because they have both shed blood. More obviously, however, they are bound together by brotherly affection: Querelle transforms Gil into Robert by pasting a mustache across his upper lip, a disguise that erases the only distinction between his brother and the man he loves.
This is, to say the least, some heavyhanded symbolism; Fassbinder is painting with very broad strokes here. This is undoubtedly his most naked and unfettered portrayal of gay desire, but it seems to be a vision borne more out of despair than love or satisfaction. It's a film, basically, about the impossibility of love, a film whose message could be summed up by the dirge-like pop tune sung by brothel mistress Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau, the film's sole female presence): "each man kills the thing he loves." This is a phrase that could easily provide a summation for much of Fassbinder's oeuvre, so often centering around the destructiveness and violence of love, the painfully unfulfilled needs that we all feel. There is usually in Fassbinder's films, even in those that deal explicitly with gay desire (Fox and His Friends, In a Year With 13 Moons, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant), a sense that the issues he's dealing with are universal, that gay desire and straight desire are united in the painful feelings and complicated betrayals they involve. Fassbinder's characters suffer and yearn and struggle not because they are gay or straight, but because they're human, dealing with the emotional torment that Fassbinder saw as fundamental to existence.
Querelle, to some extent, is the only Fassbinder film that is entirely gay, where straight desire and straight experience can find no foothold, no ground for comparison. Even a great actress like Jeanne Moreau seems wasted, her role as a woman to be ignored and cast aside, a pawn for the men. And yet the gay imagery that Fassbinder chooses to employ here is caricatured, almost stereotyped, all leather and homoerotic sailor boys going around everywhere barechested, bathed in the glistening, pastel lights that Fassbinder strobes across them. The campy stylization results in some stunning and potent images — the choreographed, balletic knife fights that look like something out of a surrealistic West Side Story; the intensity of the sex scene between Nono and Querelle, filmed in sweaty closeups — but the overall effect is incoherent. It's all unavoidably silly and campy in the worst way, continually distracting from whatever Fassbinder's trying to say with this film.
It's obvious that this is a deeply personal film for the director, coping with great loss at the end of his life, but it is impenetrable to the viewer: Querelle presents an inward-looking dreamworld whose meaning and mystery are hidden behind an opaque, glittering surface. The film is never less than beautiful to look at. Fassbinder's mastery of color was intact, and the film is awash in candy-colored lights that create complex areas of interlocking color within each frame. Visually, the film is most reminiscent of the director's sublime Lola, made just a year earlier, or to the nightmarish two-hour epilogue of his epic TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz.
But whereas in Fassbinder's earlier films his mannered stylistic touches often concretized the emotional subtexts of his characters and stories, expressing in light and color the inner essence of his tragic heroes, the style in Querelle seems to be expressing only itself. Of the actors, only Davis expresses anything beyond a deadpan blankness, letting brief flashes of personality escape in the hint of a mischievous grin. Everyone else seems deadened, barely even awake, and their zombified stares and sleepwalking mannerisms make the film's glossy surface seem like so much superficial flash, signifying nothing deeper. Fassbinder is continually subverting any possibility of emotional engagement, peppering the film with intertitles quoting from various sources, commenting obliquely on the story. Moreover, the voiceover, which recites from Genet's source novel, is — at least in the English version — so disinterested and stilted that the narrator hardly seems to realize what he's even saying.
As Fassbinder's final work before his death, Querelle is an interesting dilemma for admirers of the great director: a seemingly impenetrable film that Fassbinder apparently intended to be his final statement to the world. It is, of course, appropriate that Fassbinder last communique should be such a confounding, destabilizing work, one that challenges even the modes of expression established by his most difficult previous films. Fassbinder's final film is one of his least characteristic, and possibly his least successful as well. It's a flawed, messy, but nevertheless sporadically intriguing work, a glossy gay fantasia that Fassbinder offered up as the final image torn from the depths of his tortured mind.