When it was released in 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Querelle was met with rapt attention, for good reason. It was to be the last feature of the openly gay, wildly inventive member of the New German Cinema movement who had died only a few months prior from a drug overdose. Fassbinder, whose virtuosic output tallied some 40 films over a 16-year period, had become a darling of avant-garde cinema, known for his highly stylized approach, with films such as Satan’s Brew, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Veronika Voss, among others.
Fassbinder couldn’t have chosen a more provocative subject for his last film. An adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel, Querelle of Brest, the story revolves around the seedy dealings and sexual forays of its titular character, whom Genet himself described as “the angel of the apocalypse.” With utterly frank depictions of gay sex, murder, and petty crime, it is the story of a French sailor who, as Vincent Canby wrote in his 1983 New York Times review of the movie, “finds salvation in the utter degradation by which he denies the real world to create a world of his own.” For Fassbinder, however, Querelle was “not a film about murder and sexuality.” As he noted in a 1982 interview for the German cinema publication, Filmfaust, Querelle is “a film about someone trying, with all the means that are possible in this society, to find his identity."
Critics were bitterly divided over the film. Vincent Canby in his Times review called it a “mess,” while Genet’s biographer, author Edmund White, described the film "visually as artificial and menacing as Genet's prose.” For his part, Genet, who was alive at the time, did not see the film, quoted as saying in White’s biography he did not frequent the cinema as "You can't smoke at the movies." Whatever criticism there is, it can be said Fassbinder’s Querelle has left a lasting impact upon popular culture, particularly in the world of fashion. Jean-paul Gaultier, known for his signature pin-striped sailor shirts, cites the film as influential to him, noting in a 2010 interview that, “My nautical stripes were...influenced by Querelle de Brest, Jean Genet, and Fassbinder.”
For sure, Querelle, to a modern audience might appear at turns anachronistic, even overwrought, its subject matter—particularly homosexuality—no longer freighted with taboo as it was when first released. But to view such a film, with jaded contemporary eyes is to overlook the daring, unconventional brilliance of Fassbinder and to miss out on a tale that is the apotheosis of profligacy become redemption.