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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"Querelle listened the drums and pipes performing for him alone. The offices for the dead. He wrapped himself in prudence, waited for the angel to strike."
DVD ReviewI'm a Fassbinder fan, and there is a definite dearth of his films on DVD. So, imagine my surprise when my editor sent me Fassbinder's final film, Querelle, completely unsolicited on my part. Having never seen it, I was anxious when I first put the DVD in the player. How would it compare to Fassbinder's other work? How would the disc look and sound? I didn't want to see the final film from a master filmmaker in subpar quality. I was relieved and disappointed with the results. The movie is interesting and stimulating, but it's not Fassbinder's best (for image and audio quality see below).
Querelle, about a sailor (Bruce Davis) anchored in Brest, is a surrealistic look at a young man discovering his sexuality. Based on Jean Genet's novel Querelle de Brest, the film deals with various forms of sexuality and love. His brother, Robert (Hanno P–schl), is the lover of the madame of a local brothel, Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). In order to have sex with Lysiane, patrons have to roll dice with her husband, Nono (Gønther Kaufman). If they lose, Nono sodomizes them. At the brothel, Querelle sees a cop and is attracted to him. After killing a sailor, he comes back and purposely loses to Nono, in an effort to accept his homosexuality. Meanwhile, a local construction worker, Gil (Hanno P–schl again) kills one of his coworkers. Querelle helps him escape, and subsequently falls in love with him.
That brief overview doesn't do justice to the various storylines running through the movie. Fassbinder packs a lot into the film, perhaps more than he should. It's undoubtedly an ambitious film, and in many respects it works. The surreal atmosphere works in the film's favor; the scene where Nono sodomizes Querelle is infinitely more artful because of it. And there is a scene where Querelle and Robert have a knife fight in the street that is absolutely stunning. For a director's first experiment with surrealism this is remarkably well done (most experiments by major directors fail miserably), although not without issue. Fassbinder uses sepia tones and deep blues, as well as using an obvious backdrop for the sky, to heighten the atmosphere. And every shot has the touch of a master. I was constantly compelled by the camera work, regardless of the content on the screen. Despite its shortcomings, you can still feel that Querelle is a mature work of art.
There are, however, flaws. Firstly, Fassbinder's reach exceeds his grasp. In trying to make a multi-layered film, Fassbinder adds more plot lines than necessary. Jeanne Moreau's character in particular is only a minor character until the end, when suddenly she becomes one of the most important characters in the story. That sort of thing doesn't work. Secondly, there is a voiceover that gets annoying fast. Now, I have no problems with narration, but in this case the images speak for themselves without need of someone spouting, at times, non-sequitors. And the final problem lies in the acting. Many of the actors, Bruce Davis especially, are flat. Even the normally fantastic Jeanne Moreau seems a bit off here. It's as if Fassbinder told the actors to just read the dialogue, so he could focus on the atmosphere without having to deal with acting issues. Strangely, Hanno P–schl is horrible as Robert, while simultaneously giving the best performance of the picture as Gil.
Ultimately, the final issue is the feeling that Fassbinder is trying too hard to make fine art. When a movie becomes too embroiled with its own self-importance, it becomes lost. Querelle is missing a necessary humor that would lift the film in ways that the cinematography and intelligent symbolism cannot. Also, the best art seems effortless. Our minds know that immense time and energy were spent creating it, but emotionally we feel as if the art appeared on this earth fully formed. Querelle has appeared missing an important component. Unfortunately, Fassbinder died of a drug overdose in June 1982. Had he survived, perhaps he could have progressed his art further to create a distinct and powerful body of work rooted in surrealism and symbolism. Alas, we shall never know.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The transfer on this disc is really off-putting. This film already has an odd look, in many ways like an old Technicolor epic (not surprising considering Fassbinder's origins in the genre). The transfer is dull, dull, dull! I could see the deep colors just waiting to burst out and dazzle us, but it was not to be. Look at the scene where Lysian confronts Querelle in her room. Look at the blue on her face. It's obvious that was meant to be more powerful than it is. Add to this considerable grain and dirt, and you have a very poor transfer indeed. It is, however, anamorphically enhanced.
Image Transfer Grade: D-
Audio Transfer Review: The audio is just as bad as the video. The dialogue sounds cramped and harsh. The whole mix sounds cramped and harsh. The music is barely noticeable (although perhaps that was Fassbinder's intention, in which case, bravo!), and essentially this is an inadequate mix. It's obvious that no care was taken with this disc, and I'm upset.
Audio Transfer Grade: D
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Opposite of Sex and sex, lies, and videotape
Layers Switch: Unknown
Extras Review: We don't even get the original theatrical trailer. Instead we get trailers for The Opposite of Sex and sex, lies, and videotape. These two movies may at first glance appear similar in content to Querelle, since all three movies deal with sex. However, these movies aren't even similar to each other, let alone Querelle.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsA troubling final effort from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Querelle is often fascinating, but shows serious flaws that impede the audience from becoming fully engrossed in it. However, its obvious strengths are such that those who admire Fassbinder, as well as those who appreciate surrealist cinema, will find enough in this to make it worth investigating.
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