Murder. Sadomasochism. Homoeroticism. These are the sexterior trappings of Querelle, the novel by Genet and the film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder starring Brad Davis. Querelle is a young sailer whose ship has moored in the harbor of Brest, France. He hears about a certain salon, a night club, where Lysiane, a chanteuse, receives gentlemen customers under the nose of her husband Nono. Nono plays dice with these gentlemen customers, and if they win, they go on to Lysiane. If they loose, they lower their trousers for Nono. Querelle's older brother Robert is now the principal lover of Lysiane. Besides being a prostitute, Lysiane is also a prophetess. She reads the tarot for Robert and says of his younger brother, "the worst possible thing will soon happen to him: he will discover himself."
Fassbinder filmed Querelle in a studio utilizing an elaborate unit set with transparent walls; ramps and walkways lead to playing areas, much like a stage set. There is no attempt to be "realistic." The predominate colors range from white along the yellow-red spectrum through orange to blood red. It is a darker, more menacing color than pink A male choir sings in the background to punctuate scenes, their voices a rising epiphany as Querelle discovers himself.
Fassbinder intercuts the action with quotations from Genet. There is no intellectual experience here--it is meant to be utterly nihilistic, he equates sex, death and self-discovery. Men live to screw, to kill, and to die. These are the only expressions of passion that ultimately matter. There is no meaning other than the meaning of the moment. Men move from passivity to action and back again to passivity. Words mean nothing. Only through action can one truly experience living. Love and marriage, hearth and home, all are illusions. True beauty has the power to kill you.
"Each man kills the thing he loves," is Lysiane's refrain. This line is taken from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde. Genet has brought Wilde's critique of modernity, of manliness, to vivid life. There is one very interesting moment in the film where Querelle, who has experienced only passive sodomy, tries to summon the will to sodomize his friend. He realizes that to be passive, one need only to experience pleasure, with no strings attached, no meaning, nothing other than the act itself. To be active, one must be able to love. Querelle cannot do it. Afterwards, he turns his friend in to the police.
Querelle is like picking through someone else's garbage: disgusting, but fascinating.