I Keep Thinking It’s Called Squirrel

Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)

I think I’ve seen this before.

(There’s a spoiler in the final paragraph.)

I think it was one of my LoveFilm selections, before they decided that it was better you decide what to watch rather than send you a random title from your preferences. It looks familiar and yet I have a hole in my memory where it should sit.

Perhaps I’ve read Todd Haynes’s Poison back into it?

So, this is a curious orange-tinged Technicolor, studio-bound adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest and Fassbinder’s final film. As seems to be the case throughout several of Genet’s books, sexuality and crime, especially thievery, are linked – almost as if Michel Foucault had him in mind when he defines the “creation” of homosexuality as an identity is like the distinction between stealing and being a thief.

A boat load of hunky sailors, including Querelle (Brad Davis) arrives at Brest, right outside a bar/café/bordello run by Madame Lysian (Jeanne Moreau) and seeming home to her lover and Querelle’s brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl), her husband Nono (Günther Kaufmann) and a Tom of Finland style cop Mario (Burkhard Driest). All of this is overseen by the ship’s captain, Seblon (Francis Nero), who fancies Querelle.

Querelle would like to have sex with Lysian, but to do so must win at dice with Nono – he loses and is fucked by Nono, which doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Meanwhile, Querelle has various crimes planned, one of which leads to his stabbing another sailor, a crime that will be pinned on someone else. Although the scapegoat has killed someone.

There’s an air of irreality about it all, as if the film is the captain’s fantasy, as well as a fantasy of homoeroticism. The sex seems pretty one-sided, certainly never loving or tender, as if each couple is fighting or rather one of them is beating the other up. And the fights, in contrast, seem more like sex scenes, as the combatants seem to hug, cuddle and caress each other as much as engage in fisticuffs. Lysian drones on, at various points, with a Kurt Weill-style cabaret song that steals a line from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“Each man kills the thing he loves. Each man kills the thing he loves. Each man kills the thing he loves.”

(What does each man do?)

And Fassbinder repeats the technique from Welt am Draht of surrounding his actors with mirrors, so that one or both of the characters talking are reflections of themselves. Perhaps he does this in all his films. In that film, I felt that it was a kind of panopticon – another Foucault touch – and of course the captain seems to be watching all the characters, as do Mario, Nono and various other cops. The murderer, meanwhile, hides in what looks like a prison, albeit one that other characters enter and leave at will. For Foucault, of course, ships and prisons are heterotopias – discursive spaces adrift from the main world that cannot be a utopia. And presumably the bordello is one, too.

* spoiler *

The ending seems to disrupt much of what we’ve seen before – what is witnessed alters what is real, the double is the original, the brother is … perhaps not.

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