To call Querelle, Fassbinder's final film (finished before his death but released posthumously), "strange" is a bit of an understatement. Andy Warhol visited the set, and attended one of the early festival screenings, supposedly told the filmmaker that he found the movie to be "strange" - although it's unclear whether or not he watched the film through to its conclusion. There are photographs of posters Warhol made for the film's initial release here, if you're curious. These posters, although they don't come from any of the images in the finished film, pick up on what I'm discussing in the essay I'm currently writing: the image depicted emphasizes the mouth and the ear in a film that pushes speech into the background in favor of the more urgent focus on looking and being looked at.
The film's images are aestheticized to a point that occasionally nears stasis, posed and composed tableaux that are, to paraphrase Shaviro, almost wholly irreal yet possessing a compelling weight. Their artificiality owes much to Sirk (particularly in its lighting, but Sirk's stylistic influence hangs over all of Querelle's visual style), and it's useful to remember a quote of Sirk's that Fassbinder picked up on and liked to repeat: "camera angles are my thoughts, and lighting my philosophy." (And Fassbinder has a lot to say about Sirk's lighting and interiors.) The act of looking is foregrounded even more in this film than elsewhere in Fassbinder, with characters lurking in nearly every scene whose only purpose is to be ostentatiously watching, and they're usually watching the sailor Querelle, whether or not he's doing anything interesting.
But the images are, in terms of conventional narrative construction, inscrutable. In transposing Genet's story to film, Fassbinder decontextualizes much of the action, refusing to explicitly reveal the motivations behind his characters' actions, leaving it up to the viewers to "read" the images. The film provides a variety of (partial) readings on the soundtrack through various diegetic and non-diegetic commentaries (which I've discussed, briefly, in earlier posts), but not only do these fail to explain the images in full, they often seem to be incorrect. Sometimes, as with Lysiane's tarot readings, the voice has the power to control the action on some level. The verbal professions of masculinity and denials of homosexuality are essential elements of the sexual performance found in the film, a ritual seemingly necessary for sex to actually take place. But it's rare that the voice is actually demonstrably correct - the traditional position of the narrator is one in which the voice seems to be controlling the flow of images, but in Querelle the narrator, along with the other voices, isn't concerned with what is shown but what is seen. That is, these voices tell the viewer what he should be reading in the image, but that information is often contradictory, unintuitive, or unelaborated by what we see (i.e. a narrator making pronouncements about the inner state of an expressionless character).
The depiction of watching places the viewer on the same level as the several characters whose main function is to observe, and I think that both these characters and the viewer identify with the object of their look, which here is almost invariably the sailor Querelle. (Does the narrator, never located within the diegesis, do the same? Is that the explanation for some of the more surprising interpretations he offers?) I think, furthermore, that this act of attempting to impose a narrative on the images is shared by these different voices with the viewer.
But, with an image that is so artificial, so "irreal," what exactly are these voices attempting to describe?