Sex Scenes: On Gay Sailors' Desire in a World of Sunset and Dawn
Reiner Werner Fassbinder's 'Querelle' (1982) revels in nautical-adjacent pleasure.
Photo via IMDb.
Querelle (1982) is a movie that revels in gay aesthetic. There are Tom of Finland-inspired sets, gay sailors, a bejeweled gay cop, and a brothel known as “the raunchiest whorehouse in the world”, where the the sailors have to first play dice with a burly brothel owner, named Nono: if they win they have their pick of the girls, if Nono wins, he gets to fuck the sailor. “And I’m pretty sure some of the guys like losing,” quips one sailor in the opening scene.
Querelle is the last movie directed by German queer director Reiner Werner Fassbinder, distributed posthumously in 1982, a few months after Fassbinder died at the age of 37 of a cocaine and barbiturates overdose, the substances that he used to fuel his prolific worklife. The movie is based on a novel by Jean Genet, patron saint of thieves and homosexuals. It follows the vicissitudes of a beautiful all-American sailor named Querelle (Brad Davies) who arrives in the harbor town of Brest, where his brother Robert (Hanno Poschl) has been living as a kept man with Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau) the wife of the notorious brothel owner Nono, (Günther Kaufmann, who was once Fassbinder’s real life boyfriend).
Querelle has brought a cargo of heroin that he hopes to sell on the black market through his brother’s connections at the brothel but intrigued by the rumors of the brothel, he decides to also throw dice with Nono. The game turns out to be a mask, right at the crucial moment of throwing the dice, Nono turns around, giving the sailor a chance to cheat, an alibi behind which to hide their gay desire.
Querelle purposefully changes his dice to lose, and as he’s unbuttoning his pants he protests, saying “be careful it seems like it’s going to hurt.” Shot in soft focus the sex scene has a characteristic steaminess as the shiny sweating skin of the bodies is shown in an extreme close up. Nono’s movement is slow and deliberate: Querelle bands over, and Nono lowers his pants, slowly lets spit drip to Querelle’s ass, moves his hand to Querelle’s nipple before slowly entering him. We see the face of Querelle contort in the agonizing confusion of pain and pleasure. “It doesn’t hurt,” he finally says. “I’ll have to give you that, you know your job.”
Afterward, Nono standing at the bar, tells Querelle’s brother what just happened, “your brother is a hot little number...there was shit on my dick if you want to know”. When Robert leaves angrily, he brags to his friend, the cop, in a daze: “I just fucked Robert’s brother” he says, his hand grazing across a nipple over his tank top.
The cinematography of Querelle is a departure from many of the earlier works of Fassbinder: it’s decadent and baroque, shot entirely on set in a studio in lurid colors, mimicking the high-brow flowery style of Genet. Sartre in his Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr describes Genet’s complex literary style as a miracle, considering that Genet was an orphan who grew up as a petty criminal between orphanages and penitentiaries. Genet, because of his sexuality and life of crime, found self-comprehension outside of society. He lived in a world where camaraderie with other men was both violent and sweet, and free from the expectations of society, what defined Genet was this capacity for violence while making a balance act of femininity in wanting to be desired by men.
Fassbinder too had been founding himself in those days increasingly isolated from society, spitefully trying to provoke anyone who had positively supported his work. With his former films Fox and Friends and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (both with central gay characters) he had alienated his lgbt audience who, at the time, were concerned about their “negative” portrayal on screen, and with movies like the Third Generation (about a terrorist organization) he tested sympathy he had from the left. Like Genet, Fassbinder was looking for a way to define himself that would have freed him of the categories and expectations of bourgeois society.
In the opening scene of Querelle, a voice-over says calmly: “The thought of murder often evokes thoughts of the sea and of sailors. What naturally follows thoughts of the sea and murder is the thought of love or sexuality.”
“Actions for Genet have repercussions on the sacred or absolute level,” writes Dorothy Altman in Jean Genet and George Querelle: A Quest for Identity. After having sex with Nono, Querelle exits the “normal world” through murder, the seemingly rash and senseless murder of another sailor, Querelle seems to kill him on a whim, after the two banter, slightly flirting, talking about gay sex. The narrator, quoting Genet, says that violence opens a path to a world of irrepressible emotions. Murder puts Querelle face to face with the eternal and the divine.
Throughout the film, the wife of the brothel owner sings a strange cabaret song, the only lyrics being: “each man kills the thing he loves, each man kills the thing he loves… la de da, la da de da.” Fassbinder shoots the movie in a studio in a permanent golden light accompanied by soft blue shadows. The soundtrack is often composed simply by a choir of voices singing a vague religious hymn in crescendo.
In Querelle’s world it is always either sunset or dawn, the time of twilight and of the gods, a sacred eternity. The time in which one starts a brawl without thinking of the consequences, the punishment that will come tomorrow, only thinking of the illicit pleasure stirring in the moment.
For Genet, desire is like a divine voice that calls the outlaw towards his crime, a voice that is irresistible and incomprehensible, in the same way that God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac. Desire is an authority without law and without rules, promising us in the words of Genet “that heaven of heavens where beauty unites with beauty.”
Querelle is screening at the Quad Cinema this Saturday, June 22.