Querelle Blu-ray Review

3.5 Stars Rainer Werner Fassbinder's flawed final film
Querelle blu-ray Review

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle is an ambitious if flawed and ultimately disappointing exploration of a conflicted psyche.

Querelle (1982)
Released: 08 Sep 1982
Rated: R
Runtime: 108 min
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Genre: Drama
Cast: Brad Davis, Franco Nero, Jeanne Moreau
Writer(s): Jean Genet, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Burkhard Driest
Plot: A handsome sailor is drawn into a vortex of sibling rivalry, murder, and explosive sexuality.
IMDB rating: 6.6
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Criterion
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: R
Run Time: 1 Hr. 48 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: clear keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 06/11/2024
MSRP: $39.99

The Production: 3/5

German filmmaking wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film Querelle is a physical and psychological fever dream, an exploration of a man’s burgeoning realization of his true sexual orientation set among the whores, reprobates, thieves, and murderers of a small French seaport. It’s unlike most of the filmmaker’s previous forty-two films produced over an astonishingly brief thirteen-year period: shot in widescreen on a stylized studio set with arty lighting, a languid pace, and a haunting atonal choir providing aural feedback on the sex and violence in the forefront of the action and dealing front and center with homosexual matters which in his other movies had been subtextual if addressed at all. Querelle is an odd duck: both blatant and subdued in its imagery (it was shot in 1982, after all), and its unnatural structure and mostly interior performances won’t be for all, even most, tastes. But it makes an interesting coda to Fassbinder’s other cinematic achievements.

Arriving in the French port city of Brest, sailor Querelle (Brad Davis) has five kilos of opium to smuggle in, and after fellow seabee Vic (Dieter Schidor) distracts the dock police while Querelle sneaks onshore with his contraband, he kills Vic to have the money all for himself. Coincidentally, Brest is where his brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl) lives, currently the lover of brothel owner Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Lysiane’s husband Nono (Günther Kaufmann) runs the brothel’s bar and plays a curious dice game which allows him to have his way with the men who lose it. When Querelle loses (on purpose), he’s penetrated anally for the first time opening up a flood of emotions with which he now must deal. He knows his physical beauty makes him an object of desire for both men and women including his own ship’s Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), a local cop (Burkhard Driest), a mason (also played by Hanno Pöschl), and Lysiane herself who wants desperately to compare the genitals of the two brothers. Querelle’s journey toward his own sexual liberation is a strange and labyrinthine one.

Writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder has adapted Jean Genet’s 1947 erotic thriller Querelle de Brest into a rather herky-jerky screenplay, stylizing everything (sets, costumes, lighting, camerawork, performances, music) into an art film where emotions are generally subdued and yet characters modulate from zombie-like inertia to melodramatically charged and over-the-top exuberance. Subplots (the smuggled opium, a couple of murders, many characters who decry homosexual behavior while exhibiting it themselves) bubble up and then roll off into nothingness. Oscar Wilde’s famous line “Each man kills the thing he loves” set to a tune warbled a couple of times by Jeanne Moreau seems to be the movie’s main focus: Querelle’s wrestling with his initial declaration of “I’m not a fairy” which inevitably proves not to be true as he fights his inner demons and rolls on anyone who makes him confront his feelings. Rolf Zehetbauer’s soundstage unit set has lots of expansive nooks and crannies apart from the central locale of the Hotel Feria Bar, Brest’s most notorious brothel, and Xaver Schwarzenberger’s moodily canary cinematography captures all of the action, even occasionally showing some 360-degree camerawork during a sequence of police questioning.

Brad Davis has the physical attributes to carry off the leading role: he’s been poured into his skin-tight costumes leaving nothing to the imagination, but he’s been directed to mostly give flat, deadened line readings not allowing his conflicted feelings wrestling with his initial disgust and shame and later interest and fascination with his newly discovered sexual urges to be displayed through his acting. Franco Nero performs similarly as the closeted Lieutenant Seblon though his performance is mostly spoken into a tape recorder and exists as mostly a bystander in the other action until near the end of the piece. Jeanne Moreau isn’t the sex bomb she had been a few decades earlier, but that was perhaps the point of Fassbinder’s casting of her: demonstrating deteriorating outward beauty while displaying inward sexual urges remaining potent and needful. Hanno Pöschl does what he can with his two roles: Querelle’s brother Robert who has a love-hate relationship with his sibling and as the mason Gil who feels a kinship with Querelle realizing they’re both murderers. Gil’s clashing feelings for his fiancé’s brother Roger also get only superficial treatment in the script, but Laurent Malet is picture perfect as the youth who appears to have been carved out of marble. (One wonders if Fassbinder flirted with the idea of Malet as the title character: he’s much more ethereally beautiful though admittedly far less hunky than Brad Davis.)

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s Technovision 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The image is spotlessly clean throughout, but the golden-hued cinematography has a dreamy, soft texture that prevents it from being razor sharp. It’s the deliberate look the director and his cinematographer were looking for, but it’s very different from many similar widescreen films of its era. The only subtitles are quotes in white the director inserts at the ends of scenes to buttonhole emotional responses to what has just occurred. The movie has been divided into 17 chapters.

Reviewer’s Note: the review copy of Querelle which I received began stuttering in chapter ten using a very old Panasonic Blu-ray player. There was no problem playing the disc in a newer Sony UHD Blu-ray player.

Audio: 4.5/5

The LPCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix effortlessly combines the dialogue (the film was produced in English), Peer Raben’s odd background score, and various sound effects into a unified whole. There are no age-related artifacts to mar the sound quality of the track though the mix seems to lack much low end.

Special Features: 3.5/5

Rainer Werner Fassbinder—Last Works (1:00:00, HD): Wolf Gremm’s 1982 behind-the-scenes documentary on two of the last projects undertaken by German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder: his last acting role in Kamikaze ’89 and his last directorial effort Querelle.

Fassbinder in 5 (22:41, HD): film historian Michael Koresky’s video essay on the evolution of Rainer Fassbinder’s visual style as seen in five of his most famous directed films: Love Is Colder Than Death, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, In a Year of 13 Moons, and Querelle.

Theatrical Trailer (1:54, HD): a French language trailer for Querelle.

Enclosed Pamphlet: contains cast and crew lists, information on the transfer, some color stills, and film professor and critic Nathan Lee’s illuminative essay on the filmmaker and his various movie projects.

Overall: 3.5/5

Rainer Warner Fassbinder’s Querelle is an ambitious if flawed and ultimately disappointing exploration of a conflicted psyche. It’s a singular vision and obviously what the director wanted to display on-screen, but compared to such previous career high points as The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and In the Year of 13 Moons, Querelle seems a wayward project needing a different and perhaps more emotional approach.

Matt has been reviewing films and television professionally since 1974 and has been a member of Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2007, his reviews now numbering close to three thousand. During those years, he has also been a junior and senior high school English teacher earning numerous entries into Who’s Who Among America’s Educators and spent many years treading the community theater boards as an actor in everything from Agatha Christie mysteries to Stephen Sondheim musicals.

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