From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The plot centres on the handsome sailor Georges Querelle (Brad Davis), who is also a thief and serial killer. When his ship, the Vengeur, arrives in Brest, he visits the Feria, a bar and brothel for sailors run by the madam Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), whose lover Robert is Querelle's brother. Querelle has a passionate love/hate relationship with his brother; when they meet at La Feria, they embrace, but also punch one another slowly and repeatedly in the belly. Lysiane's husband Nono (Gunther Kaufmann) tends bar and manages La Feria's underhanded affairs with the assistance of his friend, the corrupt police captain Mario.
Querelle makes a deal to sell opium to Nono, and murders his accomplice Vic. After delivering the drugs, Querelle announces that he wants to sleep with Lysiane. He knows that this means he will have to throw dice with Nono, who, as Lysiane's husband, has the privilege of playing a game of chance with all of her prospective lovers. If Nono loses, the suitor is allowed to proceed with his affair. If the suitor loses, however, he must submit to anal sex with Nono first. "That way, I can say my wife only sleeps with assholes," Nono says. Querelle deliberately loses the game, allowing himself to be sodomized by Nono. When Nono gloats about Querelle's "loss" to Robert, who won his dice game, the brothers end up in a violent fight. Later, Querelle becomes Lysiane's lover, and also has sex with Mario.
Luckily for Querelle, a construction worker called Gil murders his coworker Theo, who had been harassing and sexually assaulting him. Gil is also considered to be the murderer of Vic. Gil hides from the police in an abandoned prison, and Roger, who is in love with Gil, establishes contact between Querelle and Gil in the hopes that Querelle can help Gil flee.
Querelle falls in love with Gil, who closely resembles his brother (they are played by the same actor). Gil returns his affections, but Querelle betrays Gil by tipping off the police. Querelle had cleverly arranged it so that his murder of Vic is also blamed on Gil.
In parallel there is a plot line concerning Querelle's superior, Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), who is in love with Querelle, and constantly tries to prove his manliness to him. Seblon is aware that Querelle murdered Vic, but chooses to protect him. Near the end of the film, Seblon reveals his love and concern to a drunken Querelle, and they kiss and embrace before returning to Le Vengeur.
Fassbinder's adaptation features surreal sets that underscore the dreamlike quality and abstraction of the novel.
Filmed on a moodily lit soundstage, the look of the film was clearly influenced by the paintings of George Quaintance, whose campy paintings of barely dressed sailors and lion-tamers appeared in magazines such as Physique Pictorial. It also seems, with its shots of long, empty, walled cityscapes filmed in acid yellows and oranges, to be inspired by the Surrealist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dalí.
Though Edmund White avers in his biography of Genet that the novel Querelle de Brest must be set prior to the city's bombing in World War II, Fassbinder's Querelle seems to be set in contemporary times. Several modern touches feature prominently in the film, including Seblon's tape recorder, his art books and even an arcade game in a local bar.
The lyrics of the songs Jeanne Moreau sings in the film are taken from Oscar Wilde's poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."
According to the book Criminal Desires, Genet, though aware of the film, declined to have anything to do with its production, claiming that he could no longer remember the novel's contents. He apparently never saw the finished product, allegedly saying he wouldn't go see it because smoking wasn't allowed in movie theaters.
The film was Fassbinder's final work and he considered it his most important movie. He died of a drug overdose shortly after its completion. The documentary The Wizard of Babylon partly chronicles the production of Querelle and includes the last footage taken of Fassbinder before his death.
- Brad Davis as Querelle
- Gunther Kaufmann
- Franco Nero
- Jeanne Moreau
- Laurent Malet
- Roger Bataille
- Hanno Pöschl
Querelle received mixed reviews; critics who praised it called it a "noble experiment", while detractors called it incoherent and disjointed.