Image Credit: ‘Querelle,’ The Criterion Channel

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” 

This week, we continue our column’s Pride Month series—where we highlight a movie representing a different letter of the LGBTQ+ acronym—with “G” and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s homoerotic thriller Querelle.

Queer culture and identity could easily be likened to its own nationality. We have our own flag, a shared history with its annual holidays, figures we consider icons and heroes, several national anthems, and a vast collection of symbols, phrases, and images as complex as any language.

One of the pillars of gay culture is our ability to immediately identify and connect with specific elements that speak to or about us across mediums. This is especially true when it comes to the entertainment we love, which tends to be very fertile ground to showcase the things that bind us together.

Sure, his looks very different under our various identities: lesbian identity and culture looks very different from gay identity, which looks very different from trans identity, and so on. But if you’re familiar with its codes; if you’re able to identify the images and tropes that reflect our history and the themes that fascinate us, it feels like you’re speaking a whole new language. 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 film Querelle is a film that, yes, is textually about a man grappling with his homosexual desires—and the desires of seemingly every other man around him. But, most fascinatingly, it’s a film with aesthetics and sensibilities are deeply embedded in a rich history of queer (specifically gay male) imagery, shared cultural understandings, cultural context, and a whole lot of phallic symbols.

The Set-Up

Querelle follows a Belgian sailor named Georges Querelle (Brad Davis) who arrives with his crew to the small french town of Brest. There, he visits his brother at a local brothel and is convinced to help the owner with an illegal opium trade.

Querelle, a thief and murderer on the run himself, ends up killing one of the accomplices, and gets entangled in a game of power, desire, and lust with local criminals and workers, all while being desired from afar by his superior, Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero).

On a narrative level, the film feels very much like a traditional noir, featuring sketchy characters with unclear intentions hiding in the shadows, crimes of passion and furtive love affairs. Its hero is trying to pass unnoticed while at the same time being the center of attention of every room he walks in. He is simultaneously the criminal that everyone is after and the femme fatale that everyone wants to have.

Ahoy, Sailor!

Image Credit: ‘Querelle,’ The Criterion Channel

It’s a world where sexuality and desire are used as bargain chips and currency: the owner of the brothel will not allow other men to sleep with his wife unless they beat him in a game of dice, and if they lose, they must have sex with him first.

Querelle’s sexuality is constantly being questioned and he refuses to define it, stating he simply does what brings him pleasure. He uses his sexual appeal to his advantage in encounters with the police and as self-defense. And his superior’s obsession with him is eventually what provides him with a false alibi for the murder he committed.

However, even though themes of gay desire, repression, and yearning are very explicit throughout, Fassbinder elevates the film by filling every inch of the screen with aesthetic and thematic cues that recall elements of gay male culture over the years. 

High-End Erotica

Image Credit: ‘Querelle,’ The Criterion Channel

Fassbinder is no stranger to making movies with heavy queer topics. Previous films of him like Ali: Fear Eats The Soul and The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant deal with very relevant issues of community isolation and repressed desire, and he dealt directly with the toxicity of queer friendships in Fox And His Friends. But Querelle is by far his most explicit and erotically charged film. And also his last—he died shortly after its release at 37 from a drug overdose. 

He stated that the imagery and overall aesthetic of the film was directly inspired by the art of Tom of Finland. And Querelle does feel like an illustration come to life, with its overly muscular men in uniforms, pronounced bulges about to burst out, leather caps and jackets, biceps and pectorals gleaming with sweat, hunched figures leaning against alleyways, and furtive glances filled with lust.

The erotic spark of the film comes directly from the visual language that Fassbinder creates out of decades of our history: the decades of traditional masculine roles (sailors, policemen, construction workers) being entangled and transformed into objects of desire by gay men. The visual cues and body language of late-night cruising. The power balance of sexual positions, and the weight of masculine and effeminate looks in men.

A Gay Language All Our Own

Image Credit: ‘Querelle,’ The Criterion Channel

Querelle is as much an arthouse film as it is an underground queer zine come to life, or even an adult film— particularly with its stunted, monotone dialogue delivery. It’s a collage of bodies and protrusions and phallic columns that feels equally at place in a museum or in the stall of a dive bar.

Fassbinder not only borrows from our vast well of sexual culture, but also from the pieces of media that we gravitate towards. His career is full of well-documented homages to the masters of melodrama, particularly to the 1950s women’s pictures of Douglas Sirk, and Querelle is no exception.

Fassbinder bathes his sailors and runaway criminals in vibrant colors and shadows the way Sirk did with his repressed housewives, with their emotions about to burst off the frame at any second. He sets the entire film in a town made to look like a soundstage, like an old movie with painted backdrops and cardboard buildings. A world as artificial or fabricated as the encounters and identities these men are creating for themselves.

Querelle works better as an experiment in form than as a piece of straightforward entertainment. This is not a movie one just puts on to decompress. But it is a testament to how gay culture has amassed so much common understanding among itself, with references upon references, that an entire movie has been made using only its language.

Querelle is currently streaming via The Criterion Channel, Max, Tubi, and Watch TCM.

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