Querelle Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Man in Every Port

In director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982; adapted from a book by Jean Genet), a Belgian sailor, Querelle (Brad Davis), has illicit, gay encounters in the French port town of Brest. 

Buy Querelle (Criterion Collection) Blu-ray

His brother Robert (Gunther Kaufmann), with whom he has a love/hate relationship, is the Maître D’ at a brothel. Entranced with Querelle is Robert’s lover, Madame Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Her husband, the bartender Nono (Gunther Kaufmann), sodomizes Querelle when the latter loses a bet. Pontificating to nothing and no-one about his fixation with Querelle is his captain, Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero, for goodness’s sake). Somewhere along the way, Querelle gets mixed up in murder—and pins the death on a lusty lush, the builder Gil (Hanno Poschl), who also swoons over Querelle and looks like his brother.    

So, here’s the deal. This movie is unabashedly gay. I cheer its boldness. In theory, I’d have wolfed it down with a two-fisted salute. Xaver Schwarzenberger’s lurid, fiery wide-screen cinematography… intrigues. The overt, dreamlike (and stage-bound) chintz of the sets (complete with phallic spires) has a strange and memorable effect. Fassbinder is after a soupy, Scorpio Rising (1964)-like veneer of queer fantasia. He uses imagery right out of a Tom of Finland sketch. I’m not sure he designed it to titillate. Even so, it needs more peen.  

Despite being a Fassbinder fan, I’m bored by Querelle’s bold but cold approach. The movie is a long two hours. We just don’t care about the characters. The dialogue is beyond stilted. At its worst, it reeks of bad porn poetry—a sour (self-conscious?) riff on obtuse porn conversation. None of it goes anywhere. I dozed quite a bit. I wish Fassbinder had been less cerebral about the material.

Still, if you’re a Fassbinder completist, Querelle might be worth a look. Only 37 years old (and with, among other accomplishments, 40 films and three TV series to his name), Fassbinder died after shooting wrapped (before he could supervise the edit). He went out with zero fucks. If a super-gay, German art-house flick made by a talented and prolific director sounds like your cup of meat, have at it.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition boasts a restored, high-definition digital master approved by Schwarzenberger, with uncompressed monaural audio. This set has a new interview with critic Michael Koresky on Fassbinder’s style. There’s also a 1982 documentary, Rainer Werner Fassbinder—Lost Works, as well as Querelle’s original trailer. Lastly, the small booklet that comes with the Blu-ray has an erudite essay on the film by critic Nathan Lee. He makes an impressive argument in favor of it—and strives too mightily.    

Jack Cormack

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