Friday, January 11, 2013

The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinber, 1972)

   I don't think I've ever seen a film like this before. No, actually, I haven't. It includes an all-female cast (6 women to be exact, of which one remains silent throughout the duration of the film), is set entirely inside one of the women's apartment and does not follow a conventional plot. Any would-be-conventional plot that occurred before/during/after the film is only mentioned in conversation, inside the luxuriously furnished apartment. All these things work together to make The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant an oddly great film. Now, I am excited to discover the rest of Fassbinder's filmography.

The aforementioned unconventional plot follows a fashion designer, Petra von Kant, who is assisted by the silent Marlene in her designs. Petra is visited by her cousin Sidonie, whereupon the two women discuss the dissolution of Petra's last marriage and the inner-workings of relationships. Sidonie brings along with her a friend by the name of Karin. Petra is immediately smitten by Karin and invites her back to her apartment the next day under the pretense that Karin will be working for her as a model. Karin arrives as instructed and the two women discuss their childhoods and their motivations. Petra offers to take Karin under her wings. In the next scene, set a few months later, Petra confronts Karin about her infidelity and her disloyalty. Karin leaves Petra to join her husband, leaving the previously-hardened Petra to beg for her love. A few months later, Petra is visited by her daughter, Sidonie and her mother on her birthday. She lashes out at them and breaks down over Karin's abandonment. Petra's mother is shocked to find that her daughter is in love with a woman. The last scene has Petra receiving a call from Karin. Afterwards, Petra approaches her assistant Marlene and apologizes for her past behavior towards her. Marlene finally cracks a smile, kisses Petra's hand and leaves Petra.
The silent Marlene
   Fassbinder's camera movements are so intriguing. He sometimes puts some of his subjects out of focus or closes in on mannequins while a conversation is underway. The way the camera moves around the lush apartment almost seems as if Fassbinder, like a child, is discovering the world of Petra von Kant for the first time. The camera is an additional character in the film, sometimes diverting its attention to objects instead of the people talking, all the while remaining silent like Marlene. It gives a sense of realness to the film since this often occurs in real-life conversations. Besides the gorgeous visuals, the discussions between the characters are quite profound, such as when Petra states that relationships fail because people try to be happy together instead of trying to be happy individually. It also shows how Petra is full of contradictions when she turns around and vilifies Karin. The material, based on a play written by Fassbinder himself, could have easily come across as pretentious and melodramatic. But Fassbinder handles it in such an understated way that the film does not come across as trying hard to force its message down one's throat.
I also love the characters, my favorites being the three major players Petra, Karin and most definitely Marlene. I have a thing for silent characters since they're usually the ones who have the most to say. Marlene, for example, is so interesting. Every time Petra spoke about her relationship with her ex-husband, the camera would highlight Marlene in the background, snooping in with a stunned face. And throughout the film, she is mistreated by Petra yet stays with her throughout the ordeal. Yet, when in the end Petra offers her repentance, Marlene packs her bags and leaves. Many have compared this to a sadomasochistic relationship. When Petra is no longer her sadistic self towards Marlene, homegirl high-tails out of there, perhaps to find another place where she can fulfill her masochistic tendencies. Lovely.

Ludovico Rating:

4/5. I would definitely watch this again.

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