There are some things I never expect to fully understand. Sometimes it’s because these things seem so dry and dull that they let off any sort of arousal for the senses. Of course, there are also times where I wish nothing more to have understanding for the exact opposite reasons. The curiosity makes a strange bed for these situations in both cases. Querelle is such a film, where the curiosity of the sheer oddness is what keeps us afloat.
The final film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of a very unique, but not uncommon, texture. The sailor Querelle (Brad Davis) is a man who’s lost within the sea of himself, just trying to find a piece of solid ground. When the boat he’s working on docks in a small town called Brest, Querelle begins to visit an odd whorehouse that opens up his homosexuality. Slowly, Querelle begins to change, and the world around him becomes a place of disjointed feelings, absolute pleasure, and psychotic impulses.
To say that this film is “different” would be a powerful understatement. Querelle is a film that stands alone as a piece of romance, anti-romance, drama, comedy, satire, gay — any of these genres. Most notably, Querelle is a piece of experimental art. I have never seen a film done like this before, and I will be bold enough to state that we probably won’t see another like this. But how could we? Querelle is a lyrical journey of a confused human psyche that only becomes more confusing. Yet, this is the nature of the beast that brews in our protagonist.
The first thing we notice about Querelle is that it is like a canvas painting. Backgrounds are always an orange or yellow, and characters are often painted in a turquoise. The look is relaxing and much like a perpetual sunset. Its effect is never forgotten and can never be ignored. A constant mood is set with this. It’s almost dream-like, yet it’s not the darkness that is found there. Instead, an angry or dark feeling is generally expressed with a violent action or violent word. Murder and fighting are far from uncommon amongst the pages that are printed for Querelle, but with the chaos that ensues around Querelle, it’s hard to imagine a world around him without such qualities.
Easily, the most interesting part of the film, next to its set and shot design, is the story — or lack thereof. Querelle has no distinct plot. Fassbinder started with a single brush stroke and gave us his art once he was through with it. Querelle goes where it wants to go when it feels like it, and when it doesn’t want to be somewhere, it ends that scene and moves on. This form is brilliant for its flow, because it works like the mind of a human. Emotions flow back and forth within Querelle, and, to quote Wes Eisold, he has “a love-hate relationship with love and hate.” Querelle’s impulses and rough nature are both his virtues and downfalls. What he gains in self-education is also a blow to his integrity.
Querelle is a brilliant piece that deserves to have the word “classic” stamped onto it. It does have its flaws; when the film finally comes to a close, we don’t really know what to make of the end product. All of the final “revelations” are arguably revelations within themselves. For all we know, it’s just madness. If you’re in the mood for something experimental, definitely check out Querelle. For Fassbinder, it was one helluva bang to go out on.