Co-author: Paul Taylor (1957-1992)
Where is Love? Describing Querelle
You are here, you always have been and always will be. You know why you are here. The curtain lifts on the port of Brest, a port in name only, an in-camera scene. Its dim waterways have no East or West – just prompt and off-prompt sides, the world’s lighting fixed on a stagey orange-red: an eternal sunset. Here, nothing is arrived at or worked through. There are no departures. The action barely proceeds or moves; in place of a narrative drive, a sex drive, a death drive, there is only a languid, inevitable unfolding.
The good ship Vengeur is bolted to the ocean below. Unmoving, it is the same as the opening of any Scene Two in any musical comedy. Gay sailors scrub the deck, their imaginations drifting to the ladies across the way, beyond the opaque glass of the bar and brothel, La Feria. From here on, it’s all slow dancing, posing, reciting, watching, marking times until one’s place in the story is at hand: fucking or dying, murdering or watching, making a stand or hiding out – all equally blocked in an overall tableau. Each scene is a rephrasing of all the others, each scene is just another surface of the same object: neither liberation nor repression in the port of Brest, neither damnation nor salvation, just the playing out of the finity of the scene. The TV event of Berlin Alexanderplatz (another adaptation) heralded this entropic seriality.
It is obvious after viewing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle that the actors just “walk through” their parts with no expressivity or soul. Yet everything in the film is likewise underwritten, made redundant ... the actors, their roles, even the world itself: nature is rendered as cliché (the forest, the port, the sky) – dazzling surfaces concealing lightless depths, each a tombstone staking a claim on a lived reality. Querelle is, contrivedly and appropriately enough, the perfect film of a ventriloquist’s dummy, a somnambulist, a soon-to-be-dead man. One can find the film (as many have already testified) moving, arousing, beautiful, engaging – but it’s a studiously vacuous and kitschy kind of emotional effect that it works hard to produce, a pure glittering aesthetic long finished with any consideration of an ethic or politic.
Nothing matters, nothing needs to be expressed in Querelle, no liberation or discovery. The investigation of the murder, for example, is half-hearted (Fassbinder found this policier aspect of Jean Genet’s source novel Querelle de Brest weak, and retained its weakness). Fassbinder here is bricoleur of metaphors – ornamenting artifice, practising a betrayal, stylishly disguising dissent; he is definitely a fag-end of postmodernism. Beyond all concern, he delivers us Bertolt Brecht without the brutal distantiation, Genet without the provocative transgression, existentialism without the angst, sexual politics without any discernible polemical point. After a long, entropic modernist history, Fassbinder can only make the necessary citations, gestures without gravity in a circle that is perfectly delimited and controlled: RWF at the helm of a neo-classicism; he, too, worked hard at his posing.
Instead of an economy of effect, what now results is a waste, an excess, an endless semblance of repeating, a bridging, an opulent entertainment devised to keep boredom at bay. So there’s nothing to be taken “seriously” in Querelle, no message, not tortured subjectivity somewhere behind the film to constitute a point of expression and interpretation. It might well be a series of jokes delivered straight-faced, with no good intention whatsoever involved, other than the neo-classical ambition, “to describe”. Querelle is just the last chant for a slow dance – it turns like a perfect crystal, then it implodes, short-circuiting any hope of its “progressive reading”.
Nouvelle Vague cinema legend Jeanne Moreau (dripping with historical associations: Marguerite Duras, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Joseph Losey) sings, parrot fashion, the famous Oscar Wilde-Alfred Hitchcock line (as scored here by Peer Raben), “Each man kills the thing he loves”. Written by Wilde in gaol, the line releases the chain of associations that are the film’s ultimate substance – the stacking of metaphors atop one another. Lysiane (Moreau) reads the Tarot cards, which foretell the flat, functional characters who enter, one by one.
Like on the beat, the characters choose among half a dozen or so roles – murderer/victim, prostitute/trick, exhibitionist/voyeur ... offering themselves up for surveillance, an image to be read the same as the myriad of other images which engulf them: graffiti, Tarot cards, pinball machines, pornography, art books. After Wilde’s The Decay of Lying, this world follows the image; it is a bottomless pit of reproductions in which behind every picture is erected another. The images themselves can be shuffled and substituted for each other: beat, brothel, prison, cemetery execution chamber, backstage, on stage, film studio, city ... There is no master metaphor, meanings run on laterally, wandering.
Where metaphors are constructed over absences, mirrors become all-important, and Georges Querelle is a consummate narcissist. He seeks his reflection at every turn, in all men – his brother, his lieutenant, the police, the other murderer, the Madame’s husband ... displacing and overcoming all moral crises in the field of homosexual relations.
In the atopia of narcissism, women have a singularly important place, as the screens through which men’s love is filtered. They facilitate exchanges in the dominant order, are pictured in books and photographs, handled as evidence and used as immaterial ransom in games of seduction. Despite their centrality to the heterosexual love which is inferred but never delivered, women are paradoxically marginal. They live their subjectivity as victims and mediators in a world of husbands and brothers.
Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968) is paradigmatic of this atopic setting where woman-as-victim is posed as the imaginary catalyst for power struggles among men. Not coincidentally compacted within the metaphor of death-chamber/prison/theatre, Oshima’s character “R” is forced to re-enact with his warders the crucial moments of his life, in order that he regain his memory – thus expediting his execution as a guilty man. His self-realisation or assumption of self occurs at the same moment as his acceptance of guilt – thus allegorising the passage of the Judeo-Christian subject into language and culture, like the myth of the Fall. Querelle, instead, narcissistically stalls his self-recognition and hence the closure of guilt, thereby extending the ambience of stasis which the film forges as its subject.
We are returned to a situation of hyperreal patriarchy. Fassbinder’s strategy doesn’t seem to want to critique or change this given state of things, but rather just to describe it, to exaggerate it a little, and to let it stand. It is almost as though
we are resigned to the play and exchange of mere images, reified fictions, brute stereotypes – beyond ideological jurisdictions, liberation rhetoric and the militant search for the true.
There is hardly a “gay sensibility’” attributable to Fassbinder functioning as an anti-patriarchal discourse – unless a sensibility can be yoked together from scraps of half a dozen contradictory “essence of homosexuality” stories dropped like clangers in the course of the film. All the most classical, most clichéd explanations of gayness are on parade here – homosexuality is narcissism, homosexuality is misogyny, homosexuality is a seeking-for-the-feminine, homosexuality is domination/submission power games, homosexuality is hyper-virile muscular hedonism, homosexuality is the Nietzschean Superman’s triumph-of-the-will. None of these versions of gay sexuality have any comparative weight in the film; representation is scarcely posed as anything so urgent or tense as a site of struggle where knowledge might be produced. Any such production of knowledge is already a prime target for the film’s deadly sense of parody.
In this description of patriarchy, the classical Judeo-Christian (comparatively privileged) role of women is adumbrated. The film becomes a magnificent sketch of the family, a coming-into-being of familial characters under the gaze of the father or author or doxa, which appears in dazzling giant letters at various times throughout the film.
What makes Querelle different from earlier Fassbinder films, like the already postmodernist masterpiece In a Year of 13 Moons (1978), is that the static, agitated, fragmented, heterogenous narratives are replaced here by a formula that is positively regressive. Fassbinder reverts (as it were) to an intractable tunnel vision of both the authorial text and a pristine narrative form, abandoning “purpose” for the sake of pouring an elegant gloss over the meaninglessness of his characters’ existence. The panning gaze that constructs it all is reified as poetry – a poetry which, in its telling, performs the inevitable postmodernist task of biding time, of pretend acquiescence, of wearing the newness of a return … at least until the end of the tale.
This review originally appeared, in two slightly different versions, in Tension, no. 1, July-August 1983 (Australia) and Z/G, no. 12, Fall 1984 (UK – where Paul managed to have his name credited first). I have combined both versions here.
MORE Fassbinder: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
© Adrian Martin & Paul Taylor June 1983