/ Naked Under Leather, Part 1: Marianne Faithfull in the 1968 film Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) /
It’s easy to forget Marianne Faithfull has been acting as long as she’s been singing. Obviously her musical career as rock’s quintessential tortured torch singer has dominated the popular imagination, but over the decades she’s had an erratic but interesting sideline as an actress in films, stage and television. She’s worked with art cinema auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard (Made in the USA, 1966) and Kenneth Anger (Lucifer Rising, 1972), and on the other extreme schlock-meister Michael Winner: Marianne Faithfull was the first person to say the word “fuck” in a mainstream studio film (she screams, “Get out of here, you fucking bastard!” to Oliver Reed in the Winner’s 1967 I’ll Never Forget What’sisname). More classily, she’s performed in Chekhov’s Three Sisters onstage (1967) and portrayed Ophelia both onstage and onscreen (1969), and Marie Antoinette’s mother, the Empress of Austria, in Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette (2006). Faithfull has a new film (Belle du Seigneur) due out in 2012.
Perhaps suitably for someone with such a wild child / bad girl /fallen angel image, Faithfull’s filmography seems conceptually bookended by two notorious sexually explicit films maudits: the kitsch soft core sexploitation flick Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and the strange, low-budget indie black sex comedy Irina Palm (2007) in which she plays a respectable suburban grandmother turned Soho sex worker. In most of her film work, Faithfull appears in supporting roles – decades apart, these both represent her two cracks as leading lady.
In the past Faithfull has spoken dismissively about the campy Girl on a Motorcycle (alternate titles: Naked Under Leather in the US and La Motocyclette in France) as an embarrassing disappointment and source of regret. Certainly in her lacerating 1994 autobiography Faithfull, she mentions it only in passing. “I made a couple of terrible films that year” is pretty much all she has to say about both I’ll Never Forget Whatshisname and Girl on a Motorcycle, while noting her gorgeous leading man on the latter (32-year old French heartthrob Alain Delon) made an arrogant, desultory (and unsuccessful) pass at her. (She was still with Mick Jagger at the time).
The trailer for Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)
Happily, Faithfull’s attitude has since mellowed considerably and she’s now able to look back at Girl on a Motorcycle with affection. When I interviewed her in January 2011 for Nude magazine about her latest CD Horses and High Heels, I seized the opportunity to ask her about it. (This didn’t make the final cut of the article). She told me:
“I had no idea it was going to become such a cult movie, that people would still like it so many years after. I didn’t really like it at the time; I thought it was a bit stupid! But I loved (director) Jack Cardiff and I was very grateful to Jack Cardiff for making me look so beautiful. He really did. I mean, the lighting – the whole thing is just gorgeous. So I’m very grateful for that, that one day I’m able to look back at Girl on a Motorbike (sic) and say, Wow! That wasn’t too bad. And also, I think one of the most lovely things about Girl on a Motorbike is, do you know where it’s most popular? In India! I saw it myself, the first time I saw it was in Delhi, in Hindi. And it was absolutely great, but what was really great was how much the Indian audience loved it. And even now on the net there are articles – long, evaluating articles about this film. I’m delighted!”
It’s been years since I’ve seen Girl on a Motorcycle, but for such a trashy and misjudged film it made an indelible impression on me. The first time I ever saw it was circa 1992 when I first moved to London, onscreen at the much-missed, wonderfully dilapidated and grungy art house cinema The Scala, in Kings Cross when it was still a really seedy and dangerous neighbourhood. It was on a typically inspired Scala double bill, paired with Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), another biker-themed exploitation film of the same vintage starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra.
The risible dialogue in Motorcycle is truly dreadful and makes it one of those so-bad-it’s good, unintentionally funny and perversely enjoyable films. I definitely remember a sequence where Faithfull (as frustrated young bride Rebecca, abandoning her callow husband to be with her intellectual French lover Daniel, played by Delon) zooms past a graveyard on her glistening black Harley-Davidson and rhetorically ponders in the voiceover, “Why don’t the dead rebel?” Her worldview, she exclaims, is “Rebellion is the only thing that keeps you alive!”
Poor Faithfull actually has to do a lot of ersatz hippie / revolutionary 1960s philosophising in the interminable voiceover, over seemingly endless footage of her astride her bike zipping across lush European countryside. (The footage of her “driving” is clearly fake – it’s been pointed out Faithfull never turns the motorcycle’s handlebars). Zipping herself into her sensational ultra-fetish-y fleece-lined, skin-tight black leather cat suit, she muses, “It’s like skin. I’m like an animal.” Later, when Rebecca and Daniel are finally reunited, she lies across his lap and instructs him, “Peel me ...” As he begins to unzip her cat suit, a stony-faced Delon purrs in his thick French accent, “Your body is like a beautiful violin in a velvet case.” Later, lovingly contemplating Faithfull’s bare feet, he solemnly intones, “Your toes are like little tombstones ...” (I suspect Delon – who would go on to work with all the major European art cinema directors in his distinguished career – has wiped Girl on a Motorcycle from both his résumé and his memory).
To be fair, though, Motorcycle has its fluffy redemptive charms. For better or for worse, it’s a real period piece: the clothes, music, decor and whole ethos are pure 1960s pop art -- the film is catnip for aficionado of kitsch. The psychedelic sex scenes remain eye-popping. Jack Cardiff is far better known (and skilled) as a cinematographer than a director and while the film’s acting is stilted and the pace fatally sluggish, he ensures the film looks spectacular – especially the adoring close-ups scrutinising Faithfull’s exquisite face. Perhaps the best you can say about Girl on a Motorcycle finally is it documents the 21-year old Faithfull at the height of her 1960s beauty: throughout she suggests an English rose version of Brigitte Bardot. (Delon looks pretty devastating, too). The image of Faithfull in her sleek, clinging cat suit, with her mane of tousled blonde hair remains – alongside Bardot singing "Harley-Davidson" in her 1968 TV special in mini skirt and thigh boots, Jane Fonda as Barbarella and the album covers of the go-go booted Nancy Sinatra – one of the definitive archetypes of the 1960s sex kitten.
/ Naked Under Leather, Part 2: Faithfull photographed in Paris by Helmut Newton circa 1978-1979, around the time of her post-punk comeback album Broken English /
/ Naked Under Leather, Part 3: Faithfull photographed by Helmut Newton again, in 1999 /
/ Naked Under Leather, Part 4: The 64-year old Faithfull in 2011. Promotional shot for her new CD Horses and High Heels /
Fun couple: Elvis Presley and flame-haired burlesque icon, Tempest Storm in the 1950s. (According to her, they were lovers until Colonel Parker broke it up). Tempest is 83 now and still performs occasionally. She made an appearance at the Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekender this year. I snatched a photo of her at the car show. See it here.
Wow. Just ... wow. This night at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was the nadir of my DJ’ing career to date – I was completely overwhelmed by technical glitches.
It started well enough. Performance artist Claire Benjamin (in the persona of her character Obsessia Compulsia D’Sorda) did a great, strange, edgy piece. The burlesque performer for the evening was emergent Australian starlet Ava Iscariot, who’s performed at Dr Sketchy before. The song for her number was by Marilyn Manson. I tested her CD by playing a snatch of it early on, and it worked just fine. You’d think I would have learned from the debacle with Chocolat's CD the last time I DJ'd at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern!
Claire Benjamin in character as Obsessia Compulsia D’Sorda, filmed in performance at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2009
Anyway, Ava’s track was ready and I pressed play when it was her cue. I stepped away from the decks to watch her perform. It was all going smoothly. Her track was 4-minutes long: about two minutes and 11 seconds into it, the CD abruptly stopped playing! Needless to say, as soon as anything audio-related goes wrong, every head in the venue swivels to stare at me! Poor Ava stopped dead in her tracks: she was standing with her back to the audience, about to unlace her corset and was looking at me wondering what the hell was happening. I was frantically jabbing “Play” and nothing was happening. The ever-unflappable emcee Dusty Limits swung into action and quickly brought Claire Benjamin back onto the stage to pose while I tried to work out what the hell was wrong with Ava’s CD. I tried to stick on another song to at least provide music while Clare was posing (the sound of silence and the audience murmuring was freaking me out! The multi-talented Claire played the musical saw, Dietrich-style, while she posed, by the way), but this time I couldn’t get anything to come out of the other CD deck either – and when I pressed the “Open” button, the CD drawer wouldn’t open!
By now sweat beads were popping out of my head and I was getting frenzied. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern manager came over: we established that Ava’s CD was simply faulty (I played it again through my headphones and it consistently stopped at the same point), and that the reason I couldn’t coax any music out of the decks or even open the CD drawers was because a fuse had blown! What are the odds of both these things happening at once? Could only happen to me! (And by the way: the night was being filmed, and apparently a Time Out journalist was in attendance).
Once the blown fuse was fixed, I was able to get back on track, although the rest of the night was a jittery blur. (My nerves were shot. I self-medicated with beer; had one mutha of a hangover the next day at work). Mercifully a friend of Ava’s had the song she needed on his iPod. We hooked up his iPod to the decks so Ava was able to come back out at the end of the night and do her (excellent) routine properly. Phew!
Now let’s never speak of this night again...
Follow the Leader - Wiley Terry Bacon Fat - Andre Williams Baby, I'm Doin' It - Annisteen Allen Mambo Baby - Ruth Brown She Wants to Mambo - Johnny Thunders and Patti Paladin Mambo Miam Miam - Serge Gainsbourg Unchain My Heart - Florence Joelle I Was Born to Cry - Dion Fever - The Delmonas My Baby Does the Hanky Panky - Rita Chao & The Quests Here Comes the Bug - The Rumblers One More Beer - The Earls of Suave Revelion - The Revels Leave Married Women Alone - Jimmy Cavallo Little Girl - John and Jackie It - The Regal-Aires Save It - Mel Robbins Bikini with No Top on the Top - Mamie van Doren and June Wilkinson The Flirt - Shirley and Lee Maybe Baby - Esquerita The Sneak - Jimmy Oliver Heartbreakin' Special - Duke Larson Jungle Walk - The Dyna-Sores Bop Pills - Macy "Skip" Skipper Shombalor - Sheriff and The Revels Cheesecake - The Nite Sounds Drive-In - The Jaguars C'est si Bon - April Stevens Some Small Chance - Serge Gainsbourg (Strip-tease soundtrack) Kiss Me - Dolores Gray Shangri-La - Spike Jones New Band Beat Party - Ritchie & The Squires Java Partout - Juliette Greco Caravan - John Buzon Trio Yogi - Bill Black Combo Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer) - Nina Simone Work with It - Que Martin Dragon Walk - The Noblemen Snow Surfin' Matador - Jan Davis 8 Ball - The Hustlers Love for Sale - Eartha Kitt The Lonely Hours - Sarah Vaughan Crawlin' - The Untouchables Somewhere Over the Rainbow - Gene Vincent Bossa Nova Baby - Elvis Presley Jim Dandy - Ann-Margret Beat Girl - John Barry (Beat Girl soundtrack) Ne Me Laisse Pas L'Aimer - Brigitte Bardot Tall Cool One - The Wailers Womp Womp - Freddie & The Heartaches Your Love is Mine - Ike and Tina Turner The Bee - The Sentinels The Coo - Wayne Cochran I Walk like Jayne Mansfield - The 5,6,7,8s
I couldn’t get it together to blog this in time, but I still felt it was worth noting that yesterday (18 July 2011) marked the 22nd anniversary of the death of my all-time favourite singer, the ever-inscrutable Nico. (Had she lived, she’d be 73 now). Not that I ever need an excuse to pay tribute to the late, great Nico: rock’s ultimate diva of despair with the blood-freezing vampire priestess voice, the heroin-ravaged former chanteuse of the Velvet Underground, and the Marlene Dietrich of punk.
I feel really privileged that over the years I’ve managed to meet most of my idols, but I’ll always be gutted I never got the chance to meet Nico. Whenever I encounter people who knew her, I always pump them for details and inevitably they always have interesting stories about her. She was a fascinating and completely unconventional woman. Yes, her life was dominated by heroin addiction but she reminds me of that line from the Morrissey song “Piccadilly Palare” where he sings “We threw all life’s instructions away.” For better or for worse, if anyone can claim to have done just that, it was Nico. She lived a decadent, rootless, genuinely bohemian life in the tradition of 19th century poets like Rimbaud – and paid the consequences. And no matter how screwed up her life, she could still pull herself together and (like Chet Baker, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf) make powerful music.
I'll Be Your Mirror
When I interviewed that other chain-smoking baritone babe-voiced heroin ravaged chanteuse Marianne Faithfull in January 2011 I seized the opportunity to ask her about Nico (the two women have so many parallels in their lives. Faithfull clearly identifies with Nico, and even wrote a song about her in 2002). She told me:
“Well, I’m so lucky in my life and I know it, that my life worked out so well. And I felt a lot of compassion for Nico, that she had such a hard time. Obviously a lot of that was to do with drugs, too. If you take a difficult life anyway and then add that, it’ll get much worse. I just felt it was very tragic story and I felt a lot of love for Nico. I think she tried really hard. She did make a couple of great records – I love The Marble Index (1969). I value her a lot, and I don’t think she was really valued in her lifetime.”
(Read my full interview with Marianne Faithfull on the Nude website here)
John Waters reflects on his single encounter with Nico in my blog here.
Nico with Andy Warhol
Nico accompanying herself on harmonium
The best way to remember Nico is simply to listen to her suicidally bleak but achingly beautiful music. So here are some clips of the angel-of-death vocal stylings of Nico that I think represent her creative peak: call them her "Gravest Hits" if you like.
"Janitor of Lunacy", circa early 1970s
Nico interviewed on French TV in 1972 (unfortunately, no English subtitles). Stunning performances of "Janitor of Lunacy" and "You Forget to Answer"
Performing "Gengis Khan" on French TV (1978)
If you can, track down the documentary Nico Icon (1995) by Susanne Ofteringer or the sadly long out of print 1993 book Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon by Richard Witts, the definitive Nico biography to date.
And so was she! (My escort for the evening was Swedish Therese. I took this photo of her at The Virginia Creepers club a few years back).
Cockabilly is London’s only gay rockabilly club night. It was its organisers Mal Nicholson and Paul Dragoni that really gave me the confidence to pursue DJ’ing when they first launched their monthly Cockabilly night in 2008 and graciously let me make some tentative guest appearances. (So now you know who to blame for unleashing me on the world).
The Early Days: Leee Black Childers and I at Cockabilly in 2008 when it was still at The Moustache Bar in Dalston
Mal and Paul themselves describe Cockabilly as "a rockabilly disco with homosexual tendencies, aimed at juvenile delinquents, homo reprobates, high school drop-outs and everything in between." Over the years Cockabilly has alternated between various venues (like the Moustache Bar and Dalston Superstore in Dalston and The Haggerston in Hackney). In summer 2011 it was re-launched at Shoreditch’s louche George & Dragon: the epicentre of East End bohemia and surely Cockabilly’s natural habitat and spiritual home. (Cockabilly’s patron saint is John Waters. Part of the George & Dragon’s shabby chic/kitsch decor is a gilt-framed poster of Divine in Pink Flamingos, garlanded with twinkling Christmas lights. ‘Nuff said).
It’s been ages since I guest DJ’d at Cockabilly, so I jumped at the chance when Mal and Paul invited me to at the July Cockabilly (plus it was dreamy to make my George & Dragon debut). The whole night was a blast and I really regret not having brought my camera to document it (I came so close to bringing my camera, but at the last minute I decided humping my DJ bag was enough – doh!). The crowd was really buzzing and it turned out to be quite star-studded: George & Dragon regular Princess Julia was there, and The Gossip’s Beth Ditto turned up and danced her ass off. In the flesh, she's much tinier and more beautiful than you might expect, with an incredible alabaster complexion. With her teased black beehive hairdo, Ditto looked like someone out of a John Waters film – which is meant as a compliment.
Grainy shot of me on the night taken by Mal with his phone. I don't know what I would have done without my DJ'ing assisant
My modus operandi at Dr Sketchy is to create a sleazy cabaret / burlesque / titty shakin' vibe. It was a nice change to go for something a bit more abrasive and punkier and to play some full-throttle rockabilly, too. Anyway, this was my quick, tight, lager-fuelled 45-minute Cockabilly set:
Heartbreakin' Special - Duke Larson Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen Khrushchev Twist - Melvin Gayle All You Gotta Do - Tracy Pendarvis I Love the Life I Live - Esquerita Ain't That Lovin' You Baby - The Earls of Suave Breathless - X Salamander - Mamie van Doren Little Lil - Mel Dorsey Juvenile Delinquent - Ronnie Allen Cooler Weather (Is A-Comin') - Eddie Weldon Skull and Crossbones - Sparkle Moore Tornado - Dale Hawkins C'mon Everybody - Sid Vicious Save It - Mel Robbins Beat Party - Ritchie & The Squires One Hand Loose - Charlie Feathers Comin' Home, Baby - The Delmonas I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield - The 5,6,7,8s Little Things Mean a Lot - Jayne Mansfield The Fire of Love - Jody Reynolds
In honour of Cockabilly, Kenneth Anger's sublime 1965 film Kustom Kar Kommandos. The Paris Sisters cooing "Dream Lover" will give you instant erect nipples.
“The idea of murder often evokes the idea of sea and seafarers ...” opens Querelle of Brest, French literary bad boy Jean Genet's notorious novel (written in 1947, published in 1953). It’s also the opening line of Querelle (1982), the great German filmmaker Rainer Werner’s Fassbinder’s last film. He died of a drug overdose (which may have been suicide) aged just 37 before it premiered. (The film is dedicated to his Moroccan lover El Hedi Ben Salem, who had just recently committed suicide. Salem appeared in several Fassbinder films; he’s unforgettable in 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). In theory, Fassbinder’s hallucinatory adaptation of Genet’s book should have been a perfect meeting of minds. Genet (dubbed “the poet of evil of our times” by Cyril Connolly) and Fassbinder would appear to be kindred spirits (both are certainly heroes of mine): both were scathingly brilliant and uncompromising anarchistic outlaw gay artists in their respective fields. Who better to translate Genet’s lurid, scatological, profane and homoerotic poetry to the screen than Fassbinder? In fact the resulting film aroused controversy and disappointment, was not a critical success and still has a problematic reputation.
Saint Genet at the height of his powers
Set in the port of Brest (or “the fetid, stinking port of Brest” as its described on the back of my paperback), the plot focuses on Angel of the Apocalypse, the titular young sailor Georges Querelle (Brad Davis), a totally amoral anti-hero with a sideline in murder, theft and opium smuggling. (He can be interpreted as Genet's ideal man). Querelle is so physically beautiful he’s irresistible to both men and women: pretty much every character he encounters becomes fatally attracted to him. Beneath his aloof and patrician militaristic exterior, Querelle’s superior Lieutenant Sablon (Franco Nero) secretly pines for him in his diary entries. When he goes to investigate the local brothel La Feria (described by a fellow sailor to Querelle as “the raunchiest whorehouse in the world”), Querelle becomes embroiled in the sex games of its owners, kinky married couple Nono (Fassbinder regular and ex-lover Günther Kaufmann) and Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau) – and is re-united with his lookalike brother Robert (who’s having an affair with Lysiane). Querelle winds up having a complex sexual relationship with both Nono and Lysiane, a corrupt cop called Mario (Burkhard Driest), and Gil, a Polish laborer and murderer-on-the-lam. To complicate things, the characters of Gil and Robert are both played by the same actor (Hanno Pöschl). Confused yet? In fact the plot is far more complicated than this summary suggests. There are several subplots involving double-crossing, betrayals, anal sex and murders. Maybe read a more detailed precis here.
Querelle’s “failure” is perhaps not surprising. But in fairness to Fassbinder, its “failure” is rooted in his faithfulness to Genet’s vision. In the book, Genet withholds conventional literary / novelistic pleasures. (As the novel speeds towards its abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion, Genet interjects to opine, “This book has already occupied too many pages and is beginning to become a bore.” What other author would do that?). True to the sensibility of his source material, in the film Fassbinder denies conventional filmic pleasures like plausibility, coherence, psychological realism, character motivation and a linear plot that’s resolved tidily at the end. The characters are almost entirely unsympathetic and their motivations are opaque. (Well, their motivations are mostly lust-driven). Instead he offers a total rejection of naturalism and realism. The whole highly-stylised film was filmed on a soundstage without a single exterior scene or glimpses of nature or natural light. The effect is distancing, even alienating. When everything is artifice, it creates a sense of airlessness and claustrophobia.
Querelle also frequently feels theatrical rather than cinematic – like watching a filmed play. The novel Querelle of Brest has a sexy and violent reputation. While the film is permeated with an atmosphere of sleaze, there is actually minimal nudity and the sex scenes are surprisingly chaste (when Nono sodomises Querelle, we mostly only see close-ups of their sweaty faces). The sporadic eruptions of violence are choreographed to look ridiculously fake (the knife fight between Querelle and Robert, for example, is almost balletic and looks like something out of Westside Story). Even when someone is stabbed with a flick-knife or gouged with a broken bottle, it feels bloodless and coolly detached.
Still, Fassbinder’s vision is alluring and seductive: the film looks like one of Pierre et Gilles sailor photos or a Tom of Finland drawing come to life. (In fact, according to Wikipedia, Fassbinder was primarily inspired by the pre-Tom of Finland artwork of George Quaintance, one of whose specialties was campy, kitsch homoerotic drawings of idealized sailors. I’d never heard of him before, but he certainly is intriguing).
Pierre et Gilles photos of sailors
"Shore Leave" by George Quaintance. Looks like a fun party!
The film's poster was designed by Andy Warhol
Nice ass: In the 1950s there was a limited edition of Querelle of Brest featuring erotic illustrations by Jean Cocteau. Presumably this drawing represents Querelle himself. Google these: they are a bit too explicit to post here and they're definitely worth seeing
The art direction is outrageous: Brest is depicted as a lurid, neon-lit, highly-sexualised playground, an entirely self-contained universe. In particular note the obscene phallic brick "cock and balls" tower that juts out of the high fortressed wall of Brest in front of the brothel. The most immediately noticeable aspect of Querelle’s look is the permanent glowing amber / orange light that everything and everyone is constantly bathed in. It’s a netherworld of perpetual autumnal sunset, la vie en orange. (There’s a weird moment when Querelle greets Lieutenant Seblon with “Good morning” and it appears to be night-time).
Franco Nero as the tortured Lieutenant Seblon
Fassbinder also messes with the audience’s expectations by creating a disorienting sense of timelessness: the film belongs to no particular era. Genet’s novel was written in the late 1940s and Edmund White (author of Genet: A Biography, surely the definitive Genet biography) estimates the action takes place at some point before the outbreak of World War II. The actors mostly wear retro 1940s era clothes and coiffures, but Fassbinder scrambles things by introducing 1980s-era touches, like a video game in La Feria and Seblon dictating his diary entries into a portable mini tape recorder.
The film even sounds odd: strange choral music by Peer Raben, who composed the music for virtually all Fassbinder’s films, is loud and intrusive on the soundtrack, sometimes jarring with what’s being shown onscreen. Querelle is filmed in English, which was certainly rare for Fassbinder (all his masterpieces are made in German). A European co-production, the international cast speak in the full gamut of every potential accent: Davis’s flat American, Moreau’s throaty French, Franco Nero’s Italian, and almost everyone else’s German. The minor characters are appallingly dubbed. (Apparently Fassbinder’s favourite version has everyone dubbed into German, with English subtitles). Actors have to speak out loud what in the book were internal monologues. They translate horribly into spoken dialogue: Genet’s lengthy Existential meditations about the nature of evil, the allure of crime and murder and the sexual attraction between men were never meant to be spoken out loud (in Genet’s novels, there are long stretches without any dialogue at all. When characters do speak, what they say often reads like terse hard-boiled 1930s gangster slang. Interestingly, the only time Genet directed a film himself – the lyrical and erotic Un Chant d’Amour (1950) – it was a silent film). Everyone in Querelle seems to snarl their lines. (The acting style appears to be deliberately flat and unemotional). With dialogue this stilted, it’s hard to judge between “good” acting and “bad” acting (for example, what to make of Brad Davis's blank, stony-faced performance as Querelle? He’s frequently upstaged by his own -- admittededly impressive -- furry, baby-oiled pecs).
Fassbinder makes some interesting amendments. I don’t recall the image of Lysiane as a fortune teller consulting tarot cards from the book, but it’s a nice touch, evoking Marlene Dietrich as Tania the bordello madam in Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil (1958). In the book brothers Querelle and Robert are meant to be identical, which confuses and torments Lysiane. Onscreen actors Brad Davis and Hanno Poschl don’t look remotely alike. But having Poschl play the dual role of Robert and Gil (the fellow murderer Querelle falls in love with) suggests that Lysiane is right and Querelle is in fact sexually attracted to his brother.
Querelle watches as Lysiane and Robert dance. Who's he jealous of?
Strangely, Fassbinder also seems to cast actors who are uniformly older than how Genet describes the characters in the book. (Querelle himself is meant to be permanently smiling, with an angelic appearance that belies how corrupt he really is. Tough as nails Brad Davis looks like a thug who's been around the block a few times and is clearly already corrupted from the start). This is especially true of Mario the police officer: Genet rhapsodises at length about how handsome he is, whereas (all due regards to Burkhard Driest) the actor who he plays him looks like a grizzled and dessicated S&M leather daddy in Village People drag.
Querelle, Mario and Nono gathered at the bar of La Feria
Jeanne Moreau strives to breathe dignity and humanity into Lysiane. She certainly has some truly thankless dialogue (“You know, I’ve dreamt about your prick a lot lately,” she says with a straight face to Querelle). There’s something abject and masochistic about the deluded Lysiane, in love with younger men who would rather be with each other. Genet was not known for writing strong female characters (they certainly weren’t his priority), but Fassbinder is known as a truly great director of actresses. It’s easy to see why Moreau – one of the high empresses of European art cinema, a muse for many of the great art house auteurs – would have leapt at the chance to work with Fassbinder, but she draws the short straw here.
Swathed in a wardrobe of black sequins and feathers, Moreau seems to be channelling Marlene Dietrich. In Fassbinder’s interpretation, Lysiane isn’t just a whorehouse madam: she’s a French-accented Dietrich-style cabaret chanteuse, too. Moreau has to huskily warble her way through a much-loathed song that’s meant to comment on the action, with lyrics that paraphrase the line “Each man kills what he loves best” from Oscar Wilde’s 1898 poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. “Each man kills the thing he loves ....” she sings ad nauseum, until it becomes grating and unintentionally funny.
La Feria must be one of the most dissolute settings ever captured on celluloid. We get only the most teasing glimpses of Lysiane’s “girls”, but they appear to be mostly trannies. The patrons of the brothel are a freak show collection of drag queens, leather daddies and clones. Ostensibly a heterosexual brothel, most of the clientele appear to be gay. (In the book, a sailor warns Querelle, "La Feria's a queer sort of joint." He's not wrong). La Feria’s vibe is Josef von Sternberg-ian, evoking the debauched fleshpot / casino settings in his films like The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Macao (1952). (Moreau as Lysiane is Dietrich-like, but also suggests Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling, the regally sinister proprietoress of the casino in Shanghai Gesture).
Dragon Lady: Ona Munson, unforgettable as Mother Gin Sling (with Gene Tierney) in Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
But La Feria also functions as a saloon, and the saloon is one of the crucial locales of the Western genre. The image of butch cowboys swaggering through the swinging doors into the saloon presided over by the saloon mistress / love interest and ordering whisky is one of the key tropes of the Western, and it’s a recurrent image in Querelle. Querelle’s setting is a seaport and its main characters sailors (and it's absinthe they're drinking rather than whisky), but maybe Querelle can be read as a quasi Western, in particular in the tradition of the dark, twisted and kinky “psychological” noir Westerns of the 1950s: Johnny Guitar (1954) by Nicholas Ray or especially Fritz Lang's German Expressionist Western Rancho Notorious (1952)(starring a mature Marlene Dietrich, who would've been roughly the same age as Moreau here.) (It's also worth noting Franco Nero's presence as Seblon: he did after all star in Django (1966), making him a Spaghetti Western icon). In queer studies courses, the romantic triangles in Westerns where two men fight over one woman is re-interpreted as veiled homoerotic tension, suggesting perhaps the real erotic frisson is actually between the men. (Indeed that’s been said of Rancho Notorious, where Jose Ferrer and Arthur Kennedy vie for the attentions of Dietrich). In Querelle, Fassbinder rips away that veil.
Arthur Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich and Jose Ferrer in Fritz Lang's 1952 noir Western Rancho Notorious. Gee, do you think Dietrich's waist may have been re-touched?
Fassbinder’s masterstroke is implying Genet’s characters are trapped in hell. The look of the film is frequently described as “dreamlike” or “surreal” – but in truth it’s more like a vision of fiery orange hell. Fassbinder’s Brest is not just a hell hole; it is hell (or maybe purgatory or limbo) and the brothel the inner circle. Characters may enter and leave through its Art Deco frosted glass doors, but their apparent mobility is deceptive. In some sense there is no exit – everyone always returns to the spiderweb-like La Feria. At the conclusion, the film has come full circle: it ends with seemingly the very same shot of sailors toiling onboard the ship that it opened with, except this time it’s overlaid with the sound of the defeated Lysiane’s malevolent / maniacal laughter on the soundtrack (she quite literally gets the last laugh). The novel ends with Seblon finally able to declare his love for Querelle and the two going off together. In the film, this is more ambiguous: our very last glimpse of Querelle sees him alone, through the window of the brothel, suffused in blue neon light. The characters will continue playing their self-destructive (and other people destructive) games, trapped in their rituals, doomed to repeat their roles, captives of the brothel. Seblon will continue endlessly dictating his journals into his tape recorder; Lysiane will endlessly trill her tuneless dirge. It’s a wonderfully bleak and unsettling ending, and characteristic of Fassbinder’s (and Genet's) pessimistic vision.
Querelle is perhaps not the most fitting end to Fassbinder’s career (the towering Veronika Voss (1982) is a better final statement), and if you’ve never seen a Fassbinder film before, it’s not a good representative introduction to his work. Still, as a fascinating experiment, a noble failure and a powerful study of decadence, it’s ripe for reappraisal. Edmund White has praised Fassbinder’s film as “magisterial” (the Village Voice calls it "galvanic") and declared it the best screen adaptation of Genet’s work. Previous directors, he explained, couldn’t manage “to find a visual equivalent to Genet’s eloquence. The only exception is Fassbinder’s Querelle, which is visually as artificial and menacing as Genet’s prose.” Once seen, Querelle is unforgettable. It lingers in the mind like a feverish (wet) dream.