Monday, October 16, 2006

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Fassbinder, 1972)

When we first see Petra von Kant, she is lying in bed. Indeed, almost the entire film takes place within the walls of her bedroom. Petra, we are told, is a fashion designer of some renown although we never see any evidence of her work ethic. All of her labor it seems is carried out by her servant, Marlene. One of the film’s more curious characters, Marlene does not speak, although Fassbinder makes it clear in the way he foregrounds her in certain situations that she has great affection for her mistress – possibly even sexual attraction. In consoling her cousin, Petra reveals how her last marriage ended miserably, partially due to disagreements in regards to who was responsible for leading the relationship and partially due to Petra growing distaste for “the way men stink.” When young model Karin (played by Hanna Schygulla) enters the picture, Petra makes a pass in the form of an offer of employment. This, in turn, leads to a relationship, of which we only see the beginning and ending.

Fassbinder’s film starts out very slowly as we receive a great deal of information by that most tiresome of expository devices: listening to one end of a telephone call. Gradually though, as new characters are introduced, the film begins to pick up steam with the most satisfying scene being Petra’s complete meltdown in front of a small group of party guests. In passing moments, with its strong female characters and lengthy conversations, Fassbinder’s film resembles something that might have been made by Bergman if the Swede had camp sensibilities. I particularly enjoyed the ending with Petra’s final desperate attempt at connection and the amusing response that follows. I suppose my complaint with the film is that it feels simultaneously incomplete and too lengthy --incomplete because the meat of Petra and Karin’s relationship is left unseen, too lengthy because Fassbinder’s conversations are long on exposition rather than insight. What makes the journey worthwhile is the same thing that is a strength in every Fassbinder film I have seen, a cast of actors that are given an opportunity to flourish within the director’s universe, neatly executing his wicked games of seduction and deceit.



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