Gay, According to Genet


Queer cinema owes everything to a pair of dead French fags.

Jean Cocteau bequeathed a vibrant neoclassicism to generations of homo sophisticates. You can feel his touch in the symbolist psychodramas of Gregory Markopoulos, the précieux theatrics of Derek Jarman, the animist enigmas of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Jean Genet, his compatriot in the pink pantheon, is the patron saint of outlaw aesthetics. A revolutionary romantic, the poet of rough trade and rhapsodic annihilation, Genet incubates a transgressive, hallucinatory tradition: Pasolini, Fassbinder, João Pedro Rodrigues.

Their aesthetic territories overlap. Kenneth Anger synthesized both styles in the creation of his own. Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant are equally indebted. Still, the mental spunk of les deux Jeans differs in consistency. Cocteau is cultivated, equanimous, a dandy in the most accomplished sense. His mind delineates contours, reconfigures archetypes. Genet is an artist of overload, rapture, baroque lyricism. He is at ease in prison, in Palestine, arm in arm with Huey Newton. One believes in the transformative power of magic, the other in transcendental murder.

Only one of them would fondly remember, “when I pulled out my cock it was covered in shit.” So says Nono (Günther Kaufmann) of buttsex with Querelle (Brad Davis), the sailor hero in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s galvanic adaptation of Genet’s masterpiece. Querelle (1982) is the heady highlight of BAMcinématek’s weeklong glance, “Jean Genet on Film.” This highly focused survey skips the opportunity to investigate Genet’s impact on cinema in favor of a more literal approach, emphasizing official credits over subterranean influence.

Thus Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle (1966), from a script by Genet and Marguerite Duras, is dutifully included—and memorably nuts, with Jeanne Moreau as a provincial weirdo who terrorizes her village out of misplaced lust for a lumberjack (Ettore Manni). Christopher Miles’s adaptation of The Maids (1974) puts Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, and Vivien Merchant through their sadomasochistic paces to serviceable if undistinguished effect.

Un Chant d’Amour (1950) is de rigueur. Like Anger’s
(1947), Genet’s sole directorial effort is an onanistic fantasy derived from Cocteau. A mediocre feat of experimental technique, it’s an unequivocal landmark in terms of gay representation. Wagging boners and dancing with themselves, a clutch of swarthy inmates daydream of release into pastoral idylls and softcore entanglements. Genet finds a masterly motif—one of the great images of invert art—in a wisp of cigarette smoke shared through a length of reed connecting cellmates otherwise sequestered by stone.

Inspired by the novels of Genet and the semiotics department at Brown, Todd Haynes’s Poison(1991) put the new in New Queer Cinema. A deconstruction of genre, identity politics, yada yada yada, this tripartite riff on “Hero,” “Horror,” and “Homo” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the wrath of Jesse Helms, who felt the National Endowment for the Arts ought not fund the low-budget lyricism of highbrow deviants.

More brains than balls, Poison pales in contrast to the flamboyant virility of Fassbinder’s Querelle. No one’s come closer to Genet’s lush phantasmagoria. Fassbinder invents a complex, voluptuous expressionism to honor text like this: “Thus might a young boy whose soul is evident in his eyes, but who has been metamorphosed into an alligator, even if he were not fully conscious of his horrendous head and jaws, consider his scaly body, his solemn, gigantic tail, with which he strikes the water or the beach or brushes against that of other monsters, and which extends him with the same touching, heartrending, and indestructible majesty as the train of a robe, adorned with lace, with crests, with battles, with a thousand crimes, worn by a Child Empress, extends her.”

Fassbinder confronts such radioactive lyricism head-on, banishing all pretense to objective realism. The setting is Brest, France, a seedy port of call. Rolf Zehetbauer, the production designer of Cabaret, constructs a hermetic sex theater: massive stone phalli rising from ramparts; honeycombed cafés, dense with crystal, fractured to mirrored infinity; plaster hillsides with blatantly fake trees; furtive nooks and enormous toy ships. On a painted sky, a paper disk for the sun, the light source (from somewhere) suffusing all in a heavy autumnal glow harmonized (from yet another mysterious source) with tints of sapphire.

Jealous lovers triangulate. Querelle’s brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl) is enamored of Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), wife of Nono and proprietress of La Féria, a brothel thick with sailors, dwarves, transvestites, musicians. Robert is mysteriously doubled in the criminal Gil (Pöschl again), object of Querelle’s adoration. Roger (Laurent Malet) shares his infatuation for Gil, and Gil is horny for Roger’s sister—unless this is the pretext for sexing up his young companion. Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero) lurks in alleyways strewn with obscenity and sperm, lusting after Querelle.

Fassbinder simultaneously evokes and annotates the novel. The opening credits announce a film “about” Querelle. “It is not a film about murder and homosexuality,” he opined. “It’s a film about someone trying, with all the means that are possible in society, to find his identity.” Fair enough, even if Querelle‘s externalization of a specifically gay psychosexual landscape would go unrivaled for texture and detail until the arrival of Rodrigues’s O Fantasma (2000). Fassbinder completed Querelle, then died. His final act as an artist was to immortalize Genet on film with greater force than Genet himself.