Following his Teddy Award-winning Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes), based on the play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder which premiered at the Berlinale in 2000, prolific queer filmmaker François Ozon revisits the mighty Fassbinder with a reworking of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant). Ozon’s Peter von Kant, which opened this year’s Berlinale, is a pretty faithful German to French language adaptation, but with some significant and impactful changes.
The original’s three queer female central characters—successful fashion designer Petra, her long-suffering assistant Marlene, and Petra’s aspiring model girlfriend Karin—are replaced by queer men. There’s filmmaker Peter (Denis Ménochet), his long-suffering assistant Karl (Stefan Crepon), and Peter’s aspiring actor boyfriend Amir Ben Salem (Khalil Gharbia). Keeping the same character names and gender are Peter’s daughter Gabriele (Aminthe Audiard), who has been sent away to a Swiss boarding school but makes an appearance in the third act, and Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani), who left her acting career in Germany with Peter for Hollywood, and who introduces Amir to the filmmaker knowing it will help the young man to become a star. While Fassbinder muse and frequent collaborator Hanna Schygulla, who played Karin in Petra von Kant, takes on the role of Peter’s mother Rosemarie in Ozon’s film, bringing more warmth and tenderness to the maternal relationship.
By making the protagonist an auteur filmmaker, Ozon immediately links the character with Fassbinder himself, drawing out the autobiographical elements that were likely always present in the original work. Ménochet physically resembles Fassbinder too, while Peter’s adoration for Amir Ben Salem echoes the real life relationship Fassbinder had with the actor El Hedi ben Salem. Perfectly cast, every performance is finely calibrated and beautifully orchestrated by Ozon building in a way that reflects the theatrical heritage of the piece.
Khalil Gharbia brings an alluring ambiguity and a sense of uninhibited physicality and sexuality to the mercurial Amir, while Ozon adds more layers to the character in a gripping, erotically charged scene where Peter screen tests and becomes further enraptured with young man. As he tells a tragic personal tale, we’re left uncertain whether it’s the truth or part of his “audition”, or perhaps both. Isabelle Adjani is thrilling to watch as the conceited yet insecure film star, and there’s plenty of humour as the tension builds between Peter and Sidonie, while the rich, complicated history between the two is palpable. Ménochet is magnetic throughout and Peter’s explosive, unhinged monologue in the third act is terrific; dangerous, brutal, and very funny. But it’s Stefan Crepon as the intriguing Karl who steals the show as the ever-present but often-ignored and disrespected Karl, expressing so much without saying a word while those around him rarely stop talking.
Set in 1972—the year that Petra von Kant premiered at the Berlinale—as with Fassbinder’s film, all of the action takes place within the confines of Peter’s lavish Cologne apartment with beautifully detailed period production design by Katia Wyszkop. Manuel Dacosse rises to the challenge set by legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus of keeping things visually varied and compelling despite the single location. Here, Dacosse does have a little more physical space to work with than Ballhaus had, as well as some exterior shots, and a brief car scene. Costume designer Pascaline Chavanne—who has been collaborating with Ozon since 1999’s Criminal Lovers (Les amants criminels)—delivers exquisite work, with Sidonie’s stunning textured silver and black dress a particular standout.
Enticingly, Ozon infuses every aspect of the film with references both to Petra von Kant and Fassbinder’s oeuvre and life more generally. Wyszkop for instance includes nods to Petra with a shag carpet in Peter’s bedroom as well as two mannequins, while Chavanne’s white suit for Peter recalls what Fassbinder’s character wore in Beware of a Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte), and perhaps his white jacket in Fox and His Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit). We even hear some of Margit Carstensen’s dialogue as Petra as her voice haunts the end credits, while the poignant song Jeder Tötet, Was Er Liebt (Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves)—with lyrics taken from Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol—which was memorably used in perhaps the queerest of Fassbinder’s films Querelle, is liberally present throughout Peter von Kant in a way that accusingly, and sympathetically, points directly to the filmmaker.
Crucially, despite his clear adoration for it, Ozon is unintimidated by Petra von Kant‘s status as a classic as he sets about revisiting and reframing it, resulting a film that’s both an intricate homage to Fassbinder’s body of work as well as an unflinching exploration of the man himself. Reverential and investigative in equal measure, and a fascinating watch that’s a feast for the eyes.
By James Kleinmann
Opens Friday, September 2nd 2022 at IFC Center in New York and Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles, with special screenings at American Cinematheque Theatres, Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and nationwide.