Uncomfortable (but also somewhat obvious) to acknowledge is the stranglehold beauty has within gay communities. A certain archetype pervades gay culture, gay media, gayness itself. There are variables and variations, but the most consumed version rarely diverges from the established presets. Beauty—elusive in its aesthetic aspirations, intellectual rigor and erotic promise—can wrap itself around our heads, leaving us literally without breath. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was maybe destroyed by beauty, or the search for it. It was certainly a preoccupation of his, as it was for Italian director Luchino Visconti. What would be more damning? For both queer directors to confront what they want, what might be most abstractly perilous to them? Or to construct entire films, a swan song and a red flag respectively, in the form of the delirious machismo hallucination Querelle and hushed existential nightmare of Death in Venice as ways to deal with what would most likely ruin them, and perhaps paradoxically, ruin gayness for them?
It is difficult to tell who is most desperate in Querelle, Fassbinder’s final film, based on Jean Genet’s novella Querelle de Brest, whose hypnotic and nonsensical plot follows a murderous thief and the object of everyone’s desire, Querelle (Brad Davis), his arrival in Brest, and the separate murders he and another worker commit on a boat. Of the desperate, there is the sailor Querelle, of the ship Le Vengeur, which docks in the city of Brest. There are the men around him: Nono (Günther Kaufmann), the owner of the bar/brothel in Brest who fucks Querelle after winning a game of dice against him, and whose wife, Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), is the bar’s lounge singer; Gil (Hanno Pöschl), a construction worker who murders another man; Roger (Laurent Malet), a man on the ship in love with Gil; Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), also in love with Querelle, and prone to ruminating on his desire for the strapping sea-hunk; and Querelle’s brother, Robert (also played by Pöschl), with whom Querelle has an intense love/hate relationship. One is never quite sure if an embrace between the two men, who appear as complements to one another in temperament (Querelle is volatile where Robert is fairly low key) and appearance (Querelle wears his working-class identity in a tank top that falls on his nipple line, while Robert presents as bourgeois and respectable in a suit), will end in a brutal brawl or something way more taboo.
Querelle’s desperation comes from an unspoken sense of claustrophobia: It would be easy to embrace annihilation on a small boat, with nowhere to really go but inside himself. The murder he commits feels more like a performance, artificial and unconvincing as an argument regarding his masculinity. The flatly affected performances of the cast imply a strain to divorce themselves from any type of vulnerability, as well as a wink and nod to acting in gay porn. (I suspect that Yorgos Lanthimos may have seen this.) Perhaps, on this boat, dimensionality and vulnerability threaten the very existence of beauty, chiseled and teasing and armored.
In Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection), obsession with love, or an idea of it, too plagues ailing composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), who, in Italy, spies young Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), a perfect approximation of beauty in von Aschenbach’s eyes. Tadzio charms the adults around him, but von Ausenbach’s got Tadzio under his skin. All the while, the world may be crumbling around him, a mysterious disease forcing everyone in Venice to flee, but von Aschenbach can’t bear to part from the physical manifestation of his intellectual preoccupations with beauty, youth, art and perfection. If no other person listens to one of his pieces, he will at least be the final audience member to what Venus promised.
The most important audience member in all of this, in discerning beauty—being taunted and toyed by it—is us. What beauty is, what it can be, is frequently presented in queer cinema in a rather de facto manner. Watching Call Me By Your Name, one should automatically find the slender, milky-skinned and Cherubic face of Timothee Chalamet a version of the Platonic ideal, or, if not him, then his opposite, Armie Hammer. Even the title cards make a promise to explore the implications of queer beauty, including the remains of statues relevant to Elio’s father’s academic work. But it is a promise broken. In films with less self-awareness about the politics of male beauty and desire, from Love, Simon to I Killed My Mother to GBF, there is a presumption that we will find whom the film deems beautiful to also be beautiful, fitting a particular criteria that need not be explicitly stated. Which is not to say that any of those films are bad per se, but that they are decidedly uninterested in challenging or at leas, poking holes in the dream of someone, something beautiful.
In Querelle and Death in Venice are two ideals and two extremes of mythologized beauty, both resulting in essentially the same consequences. Fassbinder’s film posits the epitome of queer male beauty as aggressive and violent, a persona that poses in lurid lighting, images reminiscent of something out of a James Bidgood or Tom of Finland piece. Ironically, Querelle’s beguiling musculature is costumery. It isn’t just Brad Davis’s chest of hair that makes him beautiful, but the way sweat shines on his face; he is unfathomably masculine and yet his expression is able to play doubt to fulfill a fantasy. Visconti asserts beauty as androgynous, prepossessed, to exist temporally in opposition to all that surrounds it. Andrésen’s golden locks and coquettish glances exude innocence and the promise that time can stop, or maybe even that the beauty of one’s past can be captured again. Both films suppose that to be beautiful and to desire that same beauty is painful, arresting, capable of bringing someone, including the beautiful themselves, down to their knees. Querelle and Death in Venice argue that beauty, the obsession with it and quest for it, only leads to self-destruction.
The warning signs are all around von Aschenbach, as Venice is washed in unbearably odorous disinfectant, turning the lime-colored streets into a pale, puke-like white-ish green. Even when the city is on fire, he continues to trail Tadzio and his family. And while the murders on the boat Le Vengeur, one committed by Querelle himself, call into question who has power and who owes whom, Querelle’s plan for escape only comes at the end, and at the cost of many people’s pride. The films present purgatorial scenarios, enmeshed in self-loathing, Querelle particularly keen on allegorizing the epistemology of the closet, while both films, notably Death in Venice, illustrate a relationship between a certain kind of beauty and fascism. The films’ directors have been intrigued by these relationships before, with Fassbinder exploring them in Fox and His Friends and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Visconti in his epic Ludwig and The Damned. For Fassbinder and Visconti, beauty, power, transaction, whiteness and death are inextricable.
While Fassbinder and Visconti do adhere to a fairly normative archetype of what beauty looks like to gay and queer men—young, slim, white, able-bodied figures blur the line between what we want and what we want to be—they are voracious and melancholic in their claim that such a fixation on this kind of beauty is ultimately devastating. The most cynical reading of the two films takes its indictments even further and suggests that many (white) gay men all share the same kind of death wish: to obtain beauty, to be beautiful, or to be destroyed by it. In Querelle, Moreau, dressed in a black lacy nightgown, casually sings, as if it is a given, “Each man kills the thing he loves.” Maybe it goes both ways.